Deciphering Landon Donovan and his Surprising Return to Football

Deciphering Landon Donovan and his Surprising Return to Football

Nicolás Miremont –

It has been nearly a year’s time since Landon Donovan, the US men’s national team’s all-time top scorer, stated he was officially retired from soccer. However, as of today and after a somewhat curious series of events, he is set to defend the shirt of Club León from Liga MX with the hopes of playing an essential for the club role during the 2018 Clausura championship. The six-time MLS Cup champion has signed a one-year contract that makes him a full-time member of the squad until the end of the season, something that ends the speculation about him signing as an ad honorem reinforcement who would only play a handful of games.

Between January 12 and 14, a strange exchange of tweets between the former US star and Club León’s president Jesús Martínez Jr. raised several eyebrows among both Liga MX and Major League Soccer followers as well as the neutral soccer connoisseur. In said tweets, Landon and president Martínez write very confidently about the matter, indicating that the “first ever signing via Twitter” cannot have been as spontaneous as social media pictures, especially because he spent three days in León before the official announcement. Besides, Donovan did not miss the opportunity to send a strong message to Donald Trump’s campaign against Mexican immigration declaring after his signing that he “does not believe in walls” and that he “wants to dress green and win titles in Mexico”.

The hiring of Donovan by Club León is easily one of the least expected ones during this transfer window. Furthermore, even less expected is a US legend signing for a Mexican club – especially considering Donovan’s heated relationship with Mexican football, where some regard him as the ultimate enemy.

Even though this comeback may look quite randomly planned and can approach the way a hipster soccer fan would proceed in a video game like Football Manager in a morbid attempt to simulate things that could never happen in real life, the signing of Donovan for a Mexican club has some logic behind it.

“Why don’t you come as well, Landon?”

Soccer agents are known for having tremendous influence in the modern game. Such is their power that they are even thought to be those who make decisions in the world of soccer according to their interests. It is not strange to see players who are represented by the same agent moving to the same club, a sight which has become banaler than what we would have wanted these days with the likes of Jorge Mendes and company. Consequently, some things can only happen if the right agents make an effort, as is the case of Donovan.

Evidently, this signing could not have happened without the aid of an agent. Casually, Landon Donovan’s agent is the same that represents Giles Barnes, the experienced Jamaican striker with a productive career in the lower English divisions and a recent stint at three MLS clubs. It was the Jamaican striker that Club León acquired in the first place. For one reason or another, the 35-year-old Captain America was also convinced to go, hence unhanging his boots, ready to get yet another taste of football, this time in the state of Guanajuato.

Looking for answers to Donovan’s signing

  • One of the first reasons imaginable when discussing the topic of soccer players who come back from retirement is their desire to kick the ball around or, when it comes to managers, just being around. It is not rocket science: only a few people from those who have spent the majority of their lives making a living out of soccer do enjoy the peace of their homes without training every single day. The rest cannot just sit on a sofa all day long reading their favourite tabloids. Men like Donovan just cannot stay away from the game, because let’s face it: none of us is ever not down for a soccer match. Thus, two weeks into having time to go fishing or playing with their children, they are found wandering around a soccer pitch (or field, if you fancy) with any excuse at hand looking to become either part of a coaching staff, an agent or even trying luck as a manager should they dare. Donovan, casually, took up coaching classes last year.

For a player who has already retired three times and then came back despite having better things to do, it is beginning to look like a hobby for Landon. After all, contrary to the ambition he always showed up on the field, his career decisions transcurred in a more than relaxed rhythm which leads us to believe that his desire to play soccer was always bigger than his intentions of becoming one of the game’s greatest. As stated above, Donovan has better and more profitable things to do: apart from his role as an analyst for Fox Sports he participated in the athlete’s advisory commission that tried to get Los Angeles the right to organise the 2024 summer Olympic games, a bid that was lost to Paris. There is also an investor side to Donovan as well. He is a part of the American group that owns Premier League club Swansea City, is one of the leaders of the project that aims to get San Diego a Major League Soccer franchise and was also rumoured to be in talks with David Beckham’s Miami project some months ago. With so many exciting activities to do, it is clear that soccer is still the essential thing in Landon Donovan’s life. His desire to play and win titles in such a competitive league at his age is remarkable.

  • The second hypothesis that ought to be considered as well is Club León’s potential gain from a year of Landon Donovan’s services. Behind his signing, there must have been relentless insistence from the Mexican club due to the opportunity it means. Apart from the obvious prestige, the Panza Verde club will be getting with the arrival of the talented American; there is the marketing side. Having an idol like Landon Donovan in the squad is hugely beneficial, especially considering that from the estimated 50 million soccer fans in the United States at least a small portion will mull tuning in to Liga MX broadcasts now and then to follow the steps of the Team USA legend. According to the LA Times, Liga MX is the most viewed soccer league in the US, averaging 1.1 million viewers in a country that is home to 11 million Mexican immigrants, where Liga MX constitutes “a postcard from home for many”. Landon Donovan’s incursion into Mexican territory could play a vital role in increasing the American audience willing to watch the amusing Mexican product.
Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan mix it up in the lockerroom during the Kick In For Houston Charity Soccer Match at BBVA Compass Stadium on December 16, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images for FOX Sports )

Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan mix it up in the lockerroom during the Kick In For Houston Charity Soccer Match at BBVA Compass Stadium on December 16, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images for FOX Sports )

  • Thirdly there is the league. Liga MX will benefit hugely from the arrival of such a famous name. In 2017, the giant TV conglomerate Univision signed a groundbreaking deal with Facebook that will allow its users to watch Liga MX games via the social network’s live streaming platform. This initiative has the goal of attracting a wider portion of the Anglo-Saxon audience by making use of the reach of the successor to television. Most recently and in the same line with this expansion tendency, the focus of clubs in Mexico has shifted to stars of high calibre in the twilight of their careers. Distant seem the days when, for example, Tigres de Monterrey signed André-Pierre Gignac against all the odds in his best moment after his impressive football revival at Marseille under Marcelo Bielsa. Nowadays it is much more frequent to see former stars like Jérémy Ménez or Keisuke Honda who present a brilliant opportunity to open the league to new markets worldwide. As expected, the arrival of these players is taken by some as the transformation of the competition in a retirement league. This globalising strategy is probably meant to turn Liga MX into a more protagonist product around the world, for which Landon Donovan is perfect. The United States is, as previously mentioned, guaranteed clientele for the top Mexican league.

Could there be a political intention behind the comeback?

The United States is the last place where one would expect sports to be influenced by opposite political views. The land of franchises and privatised decision-making certainly does not look like the most permeable to different political movements. However, the year 2017 managed to bend that paradigm with Donald Trump’s first year in the Oval Office. The recent decisions and declarations made by the President have triggered conflicts within most sectors of American society including enterprises like the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Soccer. One of the most controversial examples was Justin Meram’s decision to not leave the US and skip his international duty since he felt his return to Columbus could have been compromised due to Trump’s travel ban on, among others, Iraqi citizens just as him. As expected, the travel ban that even made signings that were almost done impossible was strongly criticised by the MLS Players Union.

In spite of his media work, Landon Donovan has never been known for his involvement in politics. Nevertheless, “I don’t believe in walls” suggests otherwise and even more during the times of crisis the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) in undergoing. This takes us to our fourth hypothetical reason:

  • After the US failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, Sunil Gulati, unopposed president of the USSF since 2006, announced he would not be a candidate in the upcoming elections to be held in February 2018. This has opened a window of opportunity for both retired and active professionals with fresh new ideas like Eric Wynalda and Hope Solo. Therefore, becoming an influential figure in the USSF or its surroundings is not such an unattainable goal for Landon Donovan. The United States now have a chance to rethink their soccer strategy in the long term, something they desperately need if they wish to return to the World Cup in 2022 and more importantly to be a competitive force promised twenty-two years ago when MLS was established. Whoever wins the upcoming elections will play a vital role in securing the triple bid for the 2026 World Cup. Even though Donovan will not be a candidate this time, he has already been backed by influential figures in the world of American soccer. It would be a long shot but it is not impossible and not discussing this as one of the reasons for his return to soccer would be omitting something very probable in the future.

Once again, this is only speculation, and his real reasons will probably be made clear by Landon Donovan himself in the coming weeks. The most likely thing is that the man is tired of not playing soccer. Nevertheless, this decision will earn him more influence in soccer in times when mayhem reigns and the leadership is up for grab.

Donovan – Enlarging the legend on the eternal rival’s soil

Having conspired with Landon Donovan’s thoughts and aspirations, it is time to analyse the difficulties he will (very likely) stumble upon during 2018.

The first thing one gets to read after clicking an article about Donovan’s signing is that Club León fans should not expect to see the Donovan that condemned their star-studded nation to a 40-hour flight back home from the Korean venue of Jeonju having lost to the only rival it was not okay losing to. Now at 36, Donovan showed a less pacey version of himself during his last stint at the LA Galaxy in 2016. Considerably further away from goal, Landon now uses his head much more than his legs to play soccer, assisting team-mates and indeed served as a human talisman, a living legend, in the 2016 battle for the MLS Cup. Also, he has not played professional soccer for nearly two years – the last time was in November 2016 during his two-month return after Gyasi Zardes’ injury which left the Galaxy practically without strikers.

Our own Ollie Duxbury guesses Donovan will play a vital role behind the deadly Argentine striker Mauro Boselli. However, he also points out that injuries can be a real threat if the coaching staff do not take good care of Donovan, who we insist has not played in more than a year. Donovan will have to compete not only against a roster formed by quite experienced players but also against his body’s natural limitations. Funny enough, he even replied to one of Club León’s welcome tweets inquiring about oxygen tanks. At least he takes it positively, right?

Landon Donovan last came out of retirement at the end of the 2016 MLS season. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Landon Donovan last came out of retirement at the end of the 2016 MLS season. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

His reception at the club has been overwhelming to the point that there does not seem to be any harsh feelings towards the gringo hangman. He will wear the number 20 on his back and judging by the fans’ reception; it will not be long until he plays his first game as a Verde.

It honestly feels very strange to see Landon Donovan playing in Mexico. The reaction from MLS fans has been quite positive. Contrary to what one would have expected, many American fans will feel happy to see Donovan playing again. A rare breed of player that is unlikely to be found these days. Like Futbolgrad Network’s Rudy Roediger, a US soccer coach and sporting director explains, “Donovan could have been one of the world’s best, but he could not control his homesickness. Instead of staying in Europe where he had a great future, he chose to develop his career in his comfort zone in the US and MLS”.

There is no doubt that Landon Donovan hasn’t got much more to prove at this stage. A champion, a cult hero or an underachiever who chose the sabbatical life. Whether you love him or hate him, we are lucky to have this kind of player back on the field. Here’s to a great year for Captain America.

I would like to thank Ollie Duxbury (@FRfutbolOlly) and Rudy Roediger (@RuudSports) and Jack Grimse (@JackGrimse) for their valuable help. You can find them all on Twitter, and they regularly contribute to the Futbolgrad Network and its various podcasts.

Nicolás Miremont is a student living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a football melancholic, Nico has a very fond memory of the simpler times in the game, resulting in a troubled relationship with the globalisation and capitalisation of the sport. Also a confessed football hipster, his heart is divided between Boca Juniors, the Seattle Sounders, Zenit Saint Petersburg and a few others. While he struggles to decide between pursuing civil engineering or social studies, he intends to publish original content on the more abstract side of Argentine and South American football that of feelings and social impact combining his three passions: football, politics and writing. Follow him on Twitter @Kerzhakovista.