Column: For Landon Donovan, coming back meant taking a new path

Landon Donovan thanks cheering L.A. Galaxy fans during his first game back from retirement as the Galaxy beat the Orlando City SC, 4-2, at the Stub Hub Center on Sept. 11.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When Landon Donovan decided in September to end his 21-month retirement from soccer and rejoin the Galaxy, he had a vision of how his return would unfold.

He imagined he’d step back into his old midfield position and play like the man who retired as owner of Major League Soccer’s records for regular-season goals and assists, and that he’d have an immediate impact in helping lift the injury-plagued Galaxy out of the doldrums.

It didn’t quite happen that way.

“I think sometimes the fantasy and the idea is a little different from the reality,” he said. “And when it first happened, there’s a shine on it and an excitement about it and then you get into it and there’s the work and so … I knew that was coming, but I’ve enjoyed it. If I wasn’t enjoying it, that would be different.


“As athletes, we have big egos and we think we’re greater than everyone. So I thought it would maybe take a few weeks and then I’d be back, but I realized quickly that these guys I’m playing with are much fitter and much further along than I was, and everyone we’re playing against is the same, so it took me a long time to really get into it.”

Donovan, 34, was a reserve in his first four appearances and wasn’t in the starting lineup until Oct. 16, when he played 63 minutes in oppressive heat in Houston. On Sunday, he started and played the full game in the Galaxy’s regular-season finale, a 0-0 tie with Dallas at StubHub Center, and looked sharp on a free kick and a few other creative situations.

The game against Dallas, the six-time MLS Cup champion said, “was really the first time I felt like I was a normal soccer player again.”

Those are welcome words for the Galaxy, who will open the playoffs Wednesday with a knockout game against Real Salt Lake. “Landon is getting there,” defender Jelle Van Damme said, “and it’s good timing.”

While Donovan was away from the game, he became a husband and, nearly nine months ago, a father to son Talon. There’s balance to his life now, a healthier perspective.

But those events didn’t dull his competitive instincts or his loyalty to his former team. While doing TV commentary on some Galaxy games, he saw mistakes that he thought could be corrected. Unlike most TV analysts, he could actually do something about those problems, and he signed a prorated contract for this season that will pay him about $155,000.

So he isn’t doing this for the money.

“I saw a really good, talented team that was playing a little naïve. And for as many old players and experienced players as we have, we’re giving up goals that shouldn’t have been given up, late in games, mental letdowns, things like that,” he said. “If you get beaten by a great goal, that happens. But to give up goals with the players we have, that were somewhat easy for the other team to score, is unacceptable.”

He knew, though, that he couldn’t enter the locker room and start barking orders to teammates. Much had changed in the league during his absence, including MLS having named its most valuable player award the Landon Donovan Award, and more had changed with the Galaxy beyond Steven Gerrard taking Donovan’s old locker and Giovani dos Santos taking his old number, 10.

This is a different group with different personalities and chemistry, and Donovan knew enough to tread lightly.

“I know I have good qualities in the locker room, good leadership qualities, and I want to show that and I want to help in that way, but you have to do it in a smart way,” he said. “I wanted to reintegrate, and most of all I want to contribute on the field, and when you contribute on the field, then you can say things that carry weight.

“I feel now like I’m contributing and if something needs to be said, I feel comfortable saying it.”

His teammates are listening. “I think that’s what he brings even more to this team,” defender A.J. DeLaGarza said, “is someone in the locker room who brings everyone together and can be a voice and a good veteran.”

Donovan said he believes the Galaxy is a championship-caliber team, “But I wouldn’t have said that a month and a half ago,” he said, citing the team’s recently increased willingness to defend well, work hard and work together. “We’ve finally figured out, I think, that if we do those things the right way, we have a real chance.”

He also has a chance to make different part of his return-to-soccer vision come true: winning another title. “Nothing would make me happier than holding my son up on Dec. 10, celebrating a championship, so that’s my goal,” he said.

Could he then walk away happy?

“To be determined,” he said, smiling. “We’ll see what happens. I would have said I’d never be back, but look at this. Never say never.”

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen