Soccer

Landon Donovan found a new love for soccer in Mexico

Wearing a golf cap, gray t-shirt and shorts over ankle-high socks and running shoes, Landon Donovan steps out of an elevator and into a white-tablecloth restaurant. Surrounded by businessmen and bankers in tailored suits and ties, arguably the greatest soccer player in U.S. history looks like just another gringo on vacation in Mexico.

In a way, he is.

After coming out of retirement for the second time in 16 months to join Leon in the Liga MX, Donovan found something in Mexico he says he lost in the U.S. years ago: his joy for the game.

“I just don’t feel any pressure,” said Donovan, whose mid-January return caught most of the soccer world by surprise. “That’s probably why. Before it really felt like a job. But now it just feels like fun.

“What it’s allowed me to do is just play. When we go out for training, most guys are moping. I’m running out ready to get the ball. Because I don’t have the weight of having to succeed or having to be one of the people that’s helping the team win every day.”

Donovan, 36, says his third comeback in five years is not about winning, or really even about playing. He’s already done plenty of both, capturing a record six Major League Soccer titles with the Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes and ranking second in games played with the U.S. national team.

He says he’s come to Leon to help mentor the young players. “I’ve played enough soccer games in my life,” Donovan said. “I don’t need any more.”

Whatever his motivation, Donovan’s salary is reportedly about $3 million, more than he made in his second-to-last full season with the Galaxy. It makes him among the highest-paid players in the Mexican league.

The big contract, combined with Donovan’s lack of playing time, has led members of the Mexican media to conclude the signing was nothing more than a publicity stunt to deflect criticism away from team president Jesus Martinez — who, at 33, is three years younger than his oldest player — and his team’s three-year title drought.

Bruce Arena, Donovan’s coach for 13 years with the national team and the Galaxy, also is skeptical. He’s not buying the idea that Donovan came to Mexico to teach.

“To bring an American into a Mexican club to be a mentor to young players? That doesn’t sound right to me,” Arena said. “I would tell you this: Every very good or great player, they got there because they have big egos. And they don’t like not playing.”

Yet Donovan hasn’t complained publicly despite Leon coach Gustavo Diaz using him in just four games for a total of 37 minutes in his first two months. In last Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Lobos at Estadio Leon, where a three-story-high banner with his likeness hangs from the rim of the stadium and where vendors hawk replica jerseys with his name and No. 20 on the back, Donovan never stirred from the bench.

“No one’s there to be a good guy, a cheerleader, a mentor,” Arena said. “They’re there to play and make a statement.”

However, it could be that the player who once quit soccer briefly to roam Cambodia seeking happiness and fulfillment is now looking for contentment by returning to the game in Mexico.

“It’s a new place, a new situation, a new league, a new style, a new coach, new players,” Donovan said. “Everything is new and different. It feels different and exciting.

“I’m just doing it from a place of wanting to help versus feeling like it’s my obligation. That mindset, coupled with knowing that there are a hundred thousand other jobs that I could have to work in my life, allowed me to really enjoy this. And I really enjoy it.”

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Leon´s new footballer, Landon Donovan, poses with the team´s jersey during his official presentation on Jan. 15.
(Gustavo Becerra / AFP/Getty Images )

For more than 15 years, Donovan was the face of U.S. soccer.

When he returned from a failed stint in Germany in 2001, he helped save the financially challenged MLS, then became the league’s all-time leader in goals, assists and championships.

Two years after he joined the U.S. national team as a teenager, he led it to the World Cup quarterfinals — its best performance of the modern era — on his way to becoming U.S. Soccer’s all-time leader in goals, assists and World Cup caps.

It was more than he expected when he fell in love with the game as an undersized, overactive boy playing on weed-strewn fields in Ontario. And it turned out to be more than he could handle.

Everything changed, he said, after the 2006 World Cup. The U.S. entered the year ranked fourth in the world but went winless in the tournament, getting bounced in three games in which Donovan managed neither a goal nor an assist.

“I didn’t feel any pressure until after [that],” he said. “I played poorly, the team didn’t succeed and I got critiqued for the first time. Then it all kind of changed.”

He continued to play well, leading the national team in scoring in each of the next four seasons, then taking the Galaxy to MLS Cup championships three times between 2011 and 2014. But off the field he was struggling with burnout and depression. Overwhelmed, he walked away from soccer for the first time in early 2013, escaping to Cambodia where he went unnoticed until he joined some neighborhood children in a pickup game.

The experience, he said, convinced him that he missed the sport. But the game proved cruel and unforgiving when he returned. The sabbatical cost him the captain’s armband with the Galaxy and, a year later, contributed to Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave him off the U.S. team for the 2014 World Cup.

That fall, after winning his sixth MLS Cup, Donovan walked away again at 32. The break lasted nearly two years, until he returned late in the 2016 season to help the Galaxy reach the MLS playoff quarterfinals. When the Galaxy didn’t offer him a new contract for the next season, Donovan retired again, turning to broadcasting, fatherhood and a quiet life in San Diego.

“I wanted to stop. And then I wanted to play. And then I wanted to stop. And then I wanted to play,” he said. “I reached a point where I knew I had too much to give to just sit home every day … and do nothing. I’m just too ambitious and I just want to do so much and achieve so much that I can’t just be home every day.”

A solution came in January when Donovan’s agent, Richard Motzkin, had a conversation with Martinez, the Leon president. The team was in transition, Martinez said, and needed an experienced player with a history of winning to mentor its younger players.

Motzkin said he knew just the guy.

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This latest comeback crossed a number of items off Donovan’s bucket list.

He says he always wanted to play in Mexico, having developed an appreciation for the league and its history growing up in the Inland Empire with Mexican-American kids who taught him the game and their language. He also wanted to repair his complex relationship with that country’s soccer fans.

As a young player, he was arrogant, outspoken and easy to dislike — and Mexican fans took the bait, raining boos, beers cans and worse on him whenever he played in their country. But when Donovan refused to back down, he eventually earned their respect. TV giant Televisa even cast him in a commercial for a Mexican lottery.

He felt like a caricature either way.

“I’ve never known the Mexican people away from Azteca Stadium or [the] Guadalajara stadium. I’ve only know them from being booed and [having] stuff thrown at me,” he said. “I wanted to know people away from that. I wanted to come to the city and mingle with people and talk with people so they can see I’m not this villain.”

The timing was right, too. Two years earlier and Donovan probably wouldn’t have been interested. Two years later and he would have been too old.

“This is the only opportunity of getting to do this,” said Donovan, whose one demand was that he be able to bring his wife and two young sons to live with him in Leon.

Negotiations with Leon lasted just days, and when an agreement was reached Donovan tweeted to Martinez in Spanish that he didn’t believe in walls — a reference to President Trump’s promise to build a barrier along the Mexican border. Leon returned the embrace when 7,000 people packed the team’s stadium at 9 on a Monday night for Donovan’s formal introduction.

The hardest part of the comeback for Donovan has been regaining his fitness. While the mind was willing, the body was a little hesitant. During a brisk training session last week, as his teammates milled about between drills, Donovan bent over, hands on his knees, gasping for oxygen in Leon’s mile-high air.

Donovan has yet to make a contribution on the field — he has taken just one shot in four games — but goalkeeper William Yarbrough said he made an impact on the team just the same.

“He brings a lot to the group,” Yarbrough said. “He understands the game better than a lot of guys. He’s the greatest soccer player in U.S. history, so you want to learn.

“You’re seeing what he does and what he does different that makes him different. What time does he get his rest? What kind of diet does he have? What extra work does he do? It’s good for our young kids to take that approach.”

Donovan’s best days are behind him, and he declines to say how many may be in front of him. His contract with Leon expires in December and he hasn’t ruled out signing another one next year.

“I may never retire,” he joked.

Why would he? For the first time in 12 years, Landon Donovan says soccer is a fun again.

Who walks away from that?

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11