The first time Landon Donovan came out of retirement, the response was, “What took you so long?” Now that Donovan is doing it again, the question is just “why?”
Donovan announced late Friday night that he would be signing for Liga MX side Leon at the not-so-tender age of 35, on one level the reason is obvious. For just about every soccer player who ever laced up boots, the itch to get on the field and compete never goes away. The legs and the lungs may not comply but that competitive instinct rarely abates, even for a player like Donovan who has nothing left to prove.
Of course, looking at the entirety of Donovan’s career, that itch to play professional soccer has sometimes seemed more like a rash or even worse, something uncomfortable that he would just as soon not put up with. Mentally, he was done when he retired for the first time following the 2014 season, burned out on a game that had ceased giving him enjoyment. Later he candidly and bravely admitted to suffering from depression. When he did call it quits, the overriding sentiment was that being just 32 at the time, he still had plenty to give so that when he came back, it wasn’t a surprise.
When he retired for the second time following his comeback in 2016, it was less about the head and more about his body not being able to put up with the rigors of professional soccer. One of Donovan’s more underrated strengths throughout his career has been his durability, but a hamstring injury forced Donovan out of the Galaxy’s final playoff game that season. He also looked like a player who had accumulated a fair bit of rust during his nearly two-year retirement.
Circumstances with the Galaxy also played a factor in his second retirement. When manager Bruce Arena — the “Donovan Whisperer” if there ever was one — left the Galaxy for the U.S. men’s national team, it would have meant playing under a new manager on a team headed in a decidedly different direction. There were rumblings last season that Donovan might end up with Real Salt Lake and RSL certainly wanted him, but he ended up saying “no thanks.”
And that seemed like the end. Much like he did following his first foray into retirement, Donovan then settled into a life of family and broadcasting work, as well as working on San Diego’s MLS expansion. He seemed content.
Now Donovan has come back again, and this time it feels different. It also seems to carry with it a lot more downside risk. Granted, it’s not only a new team but also a new league, one that he nearly jumped to back in 2009 when Club America made a strong bid to bring him to Mexico. That can be invigorating, of course: it’s a new kind of adventure for a player who, while reviled south of the border for the way he tormented Mexico’s national team, also commanded immense respect. It also seems likely that Donovan won’t be counted on to be the kind of difference maker he was earlier in his career.
That said, this is still Landon Donovan we’re talking about. Expectations have followed him around from the moment he burst on the U.S. soccer scene as a teenager with the U.S. U-17 national team. At times they’ve been suffocating. They may not weigh as heavy with Leon but they will be there. Given the intense rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico, it seems like opponents will like nothing better than to get a piece of Donovan.
Yet none of that is stopping Donovan, who clearly hasn’t gotten his desire to play out of his system. He likely never will, either.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.