Donovan's return welcome but also reveals lack of breakout stars in MLS
Well, that part's over. In the 83rd minute of the Los Angeles Galaxy's 4-2 destruction of Orlando City SC, a familiar face joined the fray. Landon Donovan, wearing the No. 26 jersey, replaced Raul Mendiola and returned to Major League Soccer. While the comeback, just a week in the making, was little more than an unimpressive cameo -- "I came into a game where both teams were exhausted, and I was the slowest player on the field," Donovan said afterward, an assessment that was both typically understated and accurate -- it was notable simply because the 34-year-old star emerged from his self-imposed retirement.
Any other player putting in that seven-minute shift, which included two completed passes and two uncompleted ones, would have been anonymous. But MLS' all-time leading scorer drew the attention of the crowd and the television cameras, an indication of the moment's magnitude. Almost two years after walking away following the Galaxy's victory in the 2014 MLS Cup, Donovan remains one of American soccer's biggest stars. On Sunday night, he took a few steps back into the game he left. How many more he takes is up for debate. Does the return extend beyond 2016? Should it?
Donovan isn't concerned about tarnishing his legacy. For one thing, he's the most decorated American soccer player in history, a fact that coming back to MLS won't change. For another, he took enough criticism during his career that he's hardened, if not quite immune, to continued heckles. Nothing he does will alter the impressive history he wrote, the dozens of goals he scored for club and country, the trophies he hoisted, the magic moments he made. MLS named its MVP trophy after him, after all.
When thinking about the future, it's vital to consider the past. Donovan left the game because he was mentally exhausted. Never the most outgoing guy, he nevertheless stayed in the spotlight for more than a decade while promoting his sport, his team, his league. It all caught up to him, along with depression issues, and he chose to say goodbye on his own terms despite being still physically able to compete.
Two years later, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena says that the spark that was absent in 2014 has returned. Donovan doesn't have the same athletic ability he did when he burst onto the national scene at the 2002 World Cup, but he probably hasn't lost that much, either. He'll put in the work, get his game-level fitness back, and then who knows? Donovan wouldn't come out of retirement if he didn't have at least one eye on coming back again next year.
If he does play in 2017, MLS would, on balance, benefit. Of course, the league will be the butt of some "retirement league" jokes (again) -- not entirely unfounded -- but those will continue any time an older star signs.
On a financial front, the Galaxy will figure out a way to squeeze Donovan's salary into their budget. (The team always finds solutions to cap issues.) Watching Donovan, who somehow remained underrated as a passer despite holding the MLS and U.S assist record, link with stars like Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes or whomever else the Galaxy sign up for an entire season would be excellent. Could supporters of other teams cry foul? Of course, and perhaps deservedly so. But it also wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for MLS to have an aesthetically pleasing, high-scoring and truly dominant team for a year.
And whether the squad would be as good on the field as they were on paper is an open question, too. Assuming he returns at a reasonably high level, the positives of Donovan making this comeback longer than three months dramatically outweigh the negatives.
It does, however, say something concerning about MLS and American players in general. Nearly two years after he played his last game, Donovan remains the biggest U.S. star. We keep hoping the younger generation, including Zardes, whose foot injury created the void Donovan filled, will step up, but they haven't yet. It's frustrating for fans, for pundits, for men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. (No, Donovan won't return to the Stars and Stripes. Let's quash that conversation immediately.)
While there are some positive signs -- Bobby Wood, DeAndre Yedlin and Aron Johannsson scored over the weekend, while Christian Pulisic is the most exciting prospect since Donovan -- that breakout star hasn't emerged. It's true of the domestic league as well. Some designated players, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco especially, have been better than advertised. But the return of Americans including Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey,and Jozy Altidore didn't move the needle much. Donovan creates sustained excitement in a way those other players haven't.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.