At this point, nothing Landon Donovan does should really surprise us any longer.
His career was — is, we should now say — unconventional and his retirement sort of was too. Donovan did traditional things, like get married and have some kids and set off on a broadcasting career. But then he also became a budding soccer baron, buying a share in Premier League team Swansea City — through a consortium of 27 part-owners, including sitcom star Mindy Kaling, for some reason — and throwing his still-considerable clout behind San Diego’s bid for a Major League Soccer team. He even toyed with the idea or running for president of U.S. Soccer.
He took a sabbatical from soccer in 2013 when he was 30 and in his prime — deepening a rift with then-national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann that eventually cost Donovan his spot at the 2014 World Cup. He retired fully in 2014 at 32 — very young for a player of his caliber. He opened up about motivational issues, about mental health battles, ripping the lid off some of professional sport’s biggest taboos.
Then, after Major League Soccer named its MVP award after him, Donovan made a comeback in the latter part of the 2016 season, positioning himself to hypothetically win his own award. He retired again after nine appearances, seemingly for good — and for real this time.
But on Jan. 13, Donovan announced that he’d signed with Club Leon in Mexico with a tweet, a story coming out of absolutely nowhere. Donovan, who is about six weeks from his 36th birthday and hasn’t played competitively since Nov. 6, 2016, could make his Liga MX debut as early as Saturday, when Leon plays Cruz Azul.
And so begins the sixth chapter of a club career that started with a brief and unhappy spell at Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, turned around with the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, wound through a not-so-successful loan spell with Bayern Munich and two happier ones with Everton, and now culminates south of the border. In the very country where Donovan was reviled during the height of a national team rivalry that produced epic showdowns during his soaring and record-setting national team career.
In typical Donovan fashion, even the tweet announcing his signing revealed something deeper about him. Donovan was never one to hide his true self from the public, making for invariably candid interviews and an enduring popularity with the press for his abiding honesty.
Presidente: me encantó la Ciudad. Es la mejor afición. @clubleonfc es un equipo histórico y ganador. No creo en los muros, quiero ir a México, vestirme de verde y ganar trofeos con León. Nos vemos muy pronto! https://t.co/Xqm4jX2hW7
— Landon Donovan (@landondonovan) January 13, 2018
In his tweet announcing his signing, Donovan casually declared that he “doesn’t believe in walls.” And he reiterated it when he was introduced to the Leon fans a few days later.
Landon Donovan: “Like I said on Twitter, I don’t even believe in walls…when I was young I started playing fútbol with Mexicans and it’s always been a dream to play in Mexico.” (:@UnivisionSports)pic.twitter.com/g3AlZ8apkK
— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) January 16, 2018
Donovan didn’t overtly say that he opposes the border wall that was a central promise in President Donald Trump’s campaign and first year of administration, but the implicit message was pretty obvious. Maybe? Surely. Right?
After all these years and for all his startlingly frank utterances, the mystery of Donovan’s thinking endures. Did he mean to make a political statement with his comeback? Possibly. You would hardly put it past him. Or perhaps it was a happy benefit of fulfilling what Donovan calls a lifelong dream of playing in Mexico. Either way, it’s quintessentially Donovan: compelling yet also sort of incomprehensible.
Donovan’s surprise un-un-retirement, following his re-retirement — or un-un-un-retirement if you count the sabbatical — registered surprise in the American soccer world. And for a time, the whispers of it in the days leading up to the announcement were waved off as a hoax meant to drum up interest in the release of one of Leon’s new jerseys.
It wasn’t. And the best player in American soccer history is playing soccer again.
In Mexico. The country he once took delight in tormenting with his runs and dribbles and goals. Because there’s no predicting Donovan anymore. There never was, really.
“I’m here to play, win games and be champion,” Donovan said at his introductory press conference, per ESPN. Boilerplate stuff. Athlete speak.
And then it was back to Ol’ Donovan. “Being human you actually have fear of failure and that was one of the first things that came to mind,” Donovan said, according to ESPN. “I know that if I commit myself to this there is no chance of failure so it’s incumbent on me to make sure I commit myself.”
“If I come and do it halfway, I could fail,” Donovan continued. “If I do it three-quarters of the way with my age, I could fail. If I do it all-in with all my heart, I won’t fail.”
It was that signature Donovan candor. He’d never really contemplated another comeback, until an opportunity came along, he says. “I wasn’t at home thinking about playing,” Donovan said. “I was watching football and loving it. But when a special opportunity comes up, you have to be open to it.”
Donovan, if nothing else, has always been open.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.