If you had asked me to sit down and write one hundred unlikely soccer news headlines: ‘Messi to NYCFC’; ‘MLS openly exploring promotion/relegation’; ‘Paul Pogba quits soccer to pursue dream career as pastry chef’; and so on, I’d never have come up with Landon Donovan, MLS’ all-time leading goalscorer (144), all-time leading assist-maker (136), returning to the LA Galaxy.
But, whelp, here we are.
What would compel a man who has everything: a wife and new child, a Southern California beach house, the freakin’ MLS MVP trophy named after him, and nothing left to prove, to come back to soccer? Here are a few wild stabs in the dark for a guy who makes his living exploring arcane and hard-to-understand Talmudic logic for a living.
Theory 1: Landon retired too early and he’s super bored
Maybe that Wells Fargo advertisement when Landon is instructed to “just give the ball to Hat Trick Rick” hits a little closer to home than we think. Perhaps Donovan really is playing rec league soccer. And it’s really not that much fun.
Maybe Landon has explored the freedom and relaxation of retired life, only to discover that... it’s really boring. Maybe he wasn’t into golf, or bridge, or lawn bowling. Perhaps hanging around with Brian Ching and Marco Etcheverry and Conor Casey at the ‘MLS Home for Aged Goal Scorers’ isn’t that much fun.
I’ve just been informed that Conor Casey apparent still plays in MLS. My bad.
Still, maybe it’s really simple: Donovan is bored, he knows that, at 34 years old, he still has another good full year or two left in the tank, and he approached the Galaxy brass and told them he was available. It beats hitting the early bird dinner and watching ‘Matlock’ and ‘Murder She Wrote’ before turning in at 7pm.
Theory 2: Landon Donovan is dying for attention
This is something of a corollary to theory 1, only slightly more pejorative. Donovan isn’t as much ‘bored with retirement’ as he is ‘starved for attention’. Alexi Lalas toured with his band a little after soccer, then moved into club leadership, and now makes his day throwing out incendiary (and sometimes correct) opinions on Fox Sports. David Beckham spends his day reading commercial real estate listings in South Florida, looking for a vacant lot that someone will sell him. Pablo Mastroeni and Ben Olsen moved into coaching.
Landon did a little TV, he got involved in management/ownership at Swansea FC in the Premier League. Nothing he did was really the same kind of ‘impact’ experience as nailing the goal that sends your team through to the next round of the playoffs. Um, I think pretty much nothing is, but I obviously wouldn’t know.
He wouldn’t be the only athlete that couldn’t just step away gracefully. Tim Tebow thinks he can play for the New York Mets. Michael Jordan and Brett Favre retired and un-retired, awkwardly. Athletes do this from time to time.
Donovan wanted to come back because he loves the limelight, and 18 months without his fix is too long. This is not meant to be a slam on the man: it’s human nature for a former athlete to want desperately to get the rush of playing one more time. As an athelte, when you reach the pinnacle of your craft, nobody can stop you. You have reporters and fans lined up ten-deep in front of you after the game. You become addicted to both the adrenaline and the adulation. When it goes away, you look in vain for a methadone-like replacement. When you can’t find it, you go back to the original fix: soccer.
Theory 3: Bruce Arena is desperate
Bruce Arena is a crafty fellow, which is why the LA Galaxy could work out some way to rig the MLS system to essentially get six DP-caliber players (Dos Santos, Keane, Zardes, Gerrard, De Jong, Cole) for the price of three, and three supporting players (Sebastian Lletget, Jelle Van Damme, Robbie Rogers) that some teams might want to lock up as TAM players or even DPs.
So Keane and Zardes’ injuries, and De Jong’s necessary departure due to a wonky contract that was due to trigger a rumored automatic second year as a DP, screw up Bruce’s plans pretty good. Rather than doing the typical late-season peak, a hobbling LA that have taken only 1 win in their last eight games means that LA might be slumping when they usually surge.
With the transfer window closed, Bruce picked up the phone to his old friend.
Is Landon actually a good solution? The reality is, this team was starting Emmanuel Boateng and Alan Gordon this week against Real Salt Lake, both of who are perfectly adequate players, but nowhere near the caliber of Zardes or Keane. Los Angeles had a young talent that might have been a good replacement at forward in Jack McBean, but they lent him to Coventry City in the English 3rd tier a few weeks back. What they need is someone to come on at the 70-minute mark and change the shape and tone of the game. If Landon is at all fit, he can probably do that for eight more games, plus the playoffs.
Then again, with this much of a layoff, he might be a total bust. But other players who looked past their prime (Drogba, Lampard) or no longer relevant as legitimate soccer players (Ashley Cole, Bradley Wright Phillips) have come back to shock the world.
Maybe Landon Donovan has a little magic left. I guess I say: good for him. We soccer fans look forward to seeing you play.
And we Rapids fans look forward to maybe knocking the LA Galaxy, Donovan and all, out of the playoffs in another eight weeks.