Photo story: Landon Donovan's indoor soccer debut with San Diego Sockers
SAN DIEGO -- The play was vintage Landon Donovan. A right-footed pass took three defenders and the goalkeeper out of the play, allowing a teammate to score at the far post. The crowd roared, his teammates celebrated.
At which point, one could not help but notice the surroundings. The venue was not Dignity Health Sports Park, the renamed home of Donovan's beloved LA Galaxy. Nor was it any of the World Cup venues he has graced over the years. Rather, it was the 62-year-old Pechanga Arena -- formerly the San Diego Sports Arena -- a venue that, to put it kindly, is somewhat lacking in charm.
Moreover, the nature of the game was different. This was not the outdoor version of the sport that the world adores, but rather the 6-on-6 indoor format that has graced American venues off and on for the better part of 40 years.
It was under these circumstances that Donovan emerged from retirement for the third time by suiting up for Major Arena Soccer League's San Diego Sockers, helping the home side to a 6-4 victory over the Tacoma Stars on Friday in front of an announced crowd of 8,492, more than triple the Sockers' average.
The indoor game has something of a tortured history in the U.S. It was the forefront of the sport in the 1980s and even contributed to the temporary demise of the outdoor game, but the intervening years have seen it survive via a veritable alphabet soup of competitions, most of which haven't lasted very long. At 10 years old, though, MASL could be the exception and Donovan's presence is the next step: "This is fuel for the rocket ship," league commissioner Josh Schaub says.
By the end of the night's festivities, the 36-year-old Donovan was feeling his age. His unfamiliarity with the vagaries of the indoor game -- end boards can turn overhit passes into scoring opportunities, while substitutions are done on-the-fly -- was apparent, and he was not as influential as one might have expected.
He had a couple of good early chances that were saved, but by the end, with a couple of fresh turf burns on his legs, he seemed content to provide cover defensively as fatigue set in.
"I got tired in the end, just like mentally," he told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "It's one thing to physically push through it, but mentally you get tired because there's so much going on. Even when you're on the bench there's so much going on that you have to stay tuned to, and I'm not mentally fit in that way. I haven't done this in a year. That piece of it is mentally tiring. I'm sure when I have time to go back and watch, I can learn from it, and it will be easier next time.
"I tried to make an impact in some ways. I tried to do a good job defensively and help out. That's not going to show up on a score sheet, but do things and try to help your team win. That's ingrained in me, that's something I'm proud of. I'd give myself a B on the night, and hopefully we get in the A's soon."
None of this was a surprise to Sockers head coach Phil Salvagio, a longtime veteran of the indoor game. He noted that it took Donovan two weeks before he scored a goal in practice, just two days before Friday's match, before adding that the U.S. soccer legend got his second a few minutes later.
"It's the indoor game," Salvagio said. "You think you're going to get a lot of touches. You know what? You saw a little bit that [Donovan] wasn't in the right spots at times. He's going to get it. He had a couple great opportunities on free kicks and power plays. It will come to him.
"Indoor, it takes a normal player about 40 games to get used to it and really know what is going on. There's a lot of strategy, you're changing in [shifts], how to change, when to change, all that is new. Who to mark up, when to mark up. And it's fast. It's end-to-end. If you make a mistake, the other team has a shot on goal."
The broader question centers on a familiar refrain concerning un-retirements: Why? Donovan does not need the money, although the $250,000 he will make between now and the end of the season in April, which is about five times what the next highest-paid player in the league earns, will not hurt.
Off the pitch, Donovan has certainly been busy. He has done broadcasting work and been involved in a bid to bring an MLS franchise to his new home city of San Diego; disappointment lingers that a ballot initiative to build a new stadium was defeated in favor of a competing stadium proposal.
Six weeks ago, Donovan and wife, Hannah, welcomed their third child, a daughter to go with two sons. So he has not been sitting idle but admits the reasons to play again are varied. Most of all, though, the Sockers asked.
"If this had been anywhere else in the country I would have said no," he said. "If this had been another outdoor stint, I probably would have said no. But I've loved this game growing up, this indoor game and I wanted a chance to try it, so I said, why not? It's a few months, why not?
"But I just felt sad for the soccer community [after Soccer City]. And then I came to realize, we have a great club here, a great franchise here. It's not what people expect when they think of soccer, but this is an entertaining, fun game. It's really fun for fans to come and check out. I think having the ability to stay involved is fun for me. And my family gets to come."
Taking in a Sockers game opens a window into a world not often seen, where grinding to grow the game by doing the jobs of two or three people is the norm. Salvagio is the team's former goalkeeper and owns a gym on the side, and the players are no less devoted, despite a total payroll of under $200,000, not counting Donovan.
On the roster, there is a considerable contingent from Mexico, many of whom will return to their home country at the end of the season, as well as several soccer lifers. Leading scorer Kraig Chiles, who spent a year playing for Chivas USA in 2008, doubles as director of coaching for area club Cardiff Mustangs, whose staff also includes Sockers Brian Farber, Eddie Velez, and Chad Haggerty.
San Diego had the best record in the league without Donovan, but outwardly there is no jealousy about his presence or paycheck, due to his professionalism and ability: "It's been exciting. There's been a boost of morale. A shot of energy across the team and the league in general," Chiles said.
"[Donovan's] just another guy on the team," forward Brian Farber said. "There's nothing crazy. The vibe is we want him to fit in; he's fitting in. Just try to make him feel normal. But at the same we know what this is, who he is and what he is. We're not dumb, we're not blind. We love the fact that he's signed here with us."
In the Sockers locker room before kickoff, Donovan is as engaged as anyone, studying Salvagio's tactical plan on the whiteboard, asking questions and conversing with Chiles and goalkeeper Boris Pardo about the team's approach.
A four-goal flurry in the second period -- including a Donovan-assisted goal on a power play to Brandon Escoto -- stakes the Sockers to a 5-1 halftime lead. A Tacoma comeback in the second half falls short, which means San Diego extends its winning streak to 11 games and remains comfortably on top of the MASL's Pacific Division.
Even if Donovan did not play his best on this night and notwithstanding his undoubted financial rewards, there is something endearing about this particular un-retirement. In most instances, a player returns because he or she missed the bright lights and buzz of playing at the highest level.
While that might have been true for some of Donovan's past comebacks, this one feels different and not just because the indoor game is several levels below where he played earlier in his career. This one feels as if it has more giving than taking and is driven by a desire to grow the game.
"There are so many little pockets of the country that love soccer and don't have the opportunity to have an MLS team, or even a USL team," Donovan said. "Now, with the rise of soccer, there are USL 2 teams, there are PDL teams, NPSL teams, teams that matter in communities. For fans, that's their pro team. It's awesome to be able to give that to this community. It's awesome -- and it's not all because of me -- to put 8,000 people in the stands to give these guys the opportunity to play in front of that. They never get that. All of that I think helps soccer get better."
When asked if he thinks he will continue playing after this year, Donovan laughs.
"Haven't you learned you don't know what the [heck] is going to happen with me?" he says. "We'll see how it goes. I'm excited about it. If I keep feeling good about it, and they want me around, we'll see. It's another cool experience."