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If he were a country song, it’d surely be titled “The Confounding Ballad of Landon Donovan.”
For the third time, Landon Donovan is un-retiring. And this time around, technically, he’ll be playing a different sport. On Thursday, the San Diego Sockers of the Major Arena Soccer League announced that they’d signed the 36-year-old Donovan for 13 games.
The all-time leading scorer for both the United States men’s national team and Major League Soccer, which named its MVP award for him, is moving to indoor soccer.
To the decade-old league, the signing of America’s most famous male player was such a deal that it not only held a press conference but had its league president give a speech that sounded more like a sales pitch before introducing Donovan.
Donovan then explained how the whole thing had come together within a week. He got a text from a friend about playing for the Sockers. At first, he thought it was a joke. Then he sat down with his wife. He’d practiced with the team once before, at least a year earlier, and had a lot of fun. So why not. He’d sign.
“I’m extremely excited about the opportunity to play indoor soccer here in my new hometown,” Donovan said. He’d only moved to San Diego three years earlier, and spent much of his time there attempting to bring a Major League Soccer team to town — a bid that failed when voters rejected a stadium deal. But the native Californian had been aware of the 41-year-old Sockers’ brand growing up, when he knew little of European soccer and MLS didn’t exist yet.
Donovan was predictably frank, yet never failing to deliver a few memorable lines at a press conference. He conceded that he didn’t think his body could handle outdoor soccer anymore. “Indoor soccer and outdoor soccer are very different,” he said. “The thought of playing 90 minutes and running around on an outdoor field is quite daunting when you’re about to turn 37. The thought of being on the field for 45 seconds or a minute, or a minute and a half, and coming off and resting and then going back out and doing it again is much more feasible at my age. I think this will suit me very well.”
Donovan confessed that he’s fairly new to the sport. “There’s certainly a lot of things I have to learn about the game and how it works, from an indoor standpoint, but I think there’s a lot of crossover,” he said. “Soccer is soccer.”
And, as is almost traditional now, Donovan revealed his deepest feelings about the game. “I was mentally done like four years ago,” he said. “It’s not like I’ve had this crazy desire to go play soccer. But I always try to keep an open mind. Aside from playing for the Sockers, I would play indoor soccer now – I don’t play outdoor soccer anymore. It’s not appealing to me. Candidly, it’s hard on the body. It’s a lot of running. It’s a lot more than I want to be doing.”
Following the announcement, a hokey promo video was released in which the sound doesn’t match the picture.
It all conspires to make this one of the strangest and least expected of Donovan’s comebacks. After retiring from the Galaxy in 2014, just months on from when Jurgen Klinsmann inexplicably left him off the USA’s World Cup roster, Donovan returned for a late-season stint in 2016. Then he retired again. Last year, he joined Leon of the Mexican league, but was released after playing sparingly over four months. Another retirement.
Now, indoor soccer.
Donovan has always been immune to convention. He left Germany early on, as a prospect, to make his career in MLS long before that was fashionable for an American player. He had two loan stints with Everton of the Premier League and did well each time, but seemingly never sought a permanent move. Then, still in his prime, he took a months-long sabbatical of sorts to go find himself in Cambodia, where he was spotted playing pickup soccer with local kids. The first time he retired, he was still more or less at his best, and only 32 years old.
He spoke unlike almost any other pro athlete, let alone a high-profile one, and publicly talked about being centered and offering a conference with dozens of journalists a postmortem on his first marriage.
Eventually, American soccer’s onetime golden boy learned to live his own truth after spending all those years trying to please others and satisfy the expectations of him. He opened up about motivational issues and bouts with depression. And when he didn’t feel it any longer, he walked away, never mind the millions he might have had left on his contract.
A cynic’s view might paint this third comeback – or fourth, if you count the Cambodia thing – as a stunt. Or a money-grab. Certainly, Donovan will be richly compensated. Some $250k for just over a dozen games, per ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle. But even though he’s retired, Donovan never stopped earning. He still appeared in plenty of commercials. One in which he watched the 2014 World Cup from home, making light of his unforetold absence. And one in which he famously rooted for Mexico when the U.S. didn’t qualify.
Besides, Donovan never struck anyone as a profligate spender, or really much of a spender at all. It’s hard to fathom that he did this for the money.
He probably just felt like playing. Donovan said as much on Thursday. And he said his wife and kids and family could come watch him play and that he liked that.
It took Donovan a long time to learn how to reconcile his soccer career and his happiness. So he’s coming back for a fourth go-‘round. (Or a fifth?)
Because Landon just does Landon now.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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