Landon Donovan’s comeback got off to a slow start Friday.
“I didn’t do much today,” said America’s greatest soccer player, who spent much of his first practice session in 21 months lying on the grass as a trainer stretched out his weary legs.
Whether Donovan, 34, will be able to do much more is uncertain, the player and Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena admitted. But it’s a gamble both were eager to make when they agreed on a four-month contract that brought Donovan out of retirement earlier this week.
“There’s no science to it right now,” said Arena, who is also the Galaxy’s general manager. “There are some athletes, they have certain qualities and with the right motivation and support there’s always a chance that they can come back in their sports and play. And I think Landon’s one of them.”
Added Donovan: “Mentally, I can play. Physically, we’ll see.”
The leading scorer and playmaker in U.S. soccer history, Donovan was burnt out when he walked away from the sport at 32 after leading the Galaxy to a Major League Soccer title in December 2014. He married, moved to San Diego, started a family and dabbled in a number of activities, including broadcasting.
Soccer, clearly, was in his rear view mirror. “I’ve been very content in retirement,” he said.
But that began to change three weeks ago as he watched the Galaxy, the team he spent a decade with, lose three players to injury during a scoreless tie with the Vancouver Whitecaps. When midfielder Nigel de Jong joined the exodus by leaving for a club in Turkey five days later, the Galaxy was left with an open roster spot, some salary-cap space and few options for filling either.
So last weekend Arena phoned Donovan and asked if he was busy. “I would say I instigated it, if that’s the right word,” Arena said Friday. “Anything he can give us in a positive manner is a plus. Knowing Landon, at his worst he’s not going to be a liability. At his best, he’s going to be an asset.”
For Donovan, who will get $152,500 for the rest of the season, nearly equal to the salary De Jong forfeited, the decision to return hinged on two things: would it be “an incredible life experience” and did it make sense?
And his 8-month-old son Talon figured heavily in his thinking.
“I was always jealous when guys could run down on the field with their kids after a game. So that’s sort of the selfish reason for it,” Donovan said. “I don’t know how much I can help. If I can play a few minutes and maybe make one play that makes a difference over the end of the season, then I think that would be great.”
Fitness will obviously be an issue for Donovan, a midfielder whose availability for Sunday afternoon’s game with Orlando City at the StubHub Center is uncertain. He was expected to work out with the first team for the first time Saturday morning and Galaxy teammates, who were caught off-guard by Donovan’s return, urged patience.
“When you’re a big player and you have a good reputation, people are … thinking that he’s going to come in and set the world alight and score in every game,” Galaxy captain Robbie Keane said. “But everyone has to be patient. It will take a little bit of time to get back into the swing of things.”
Time, however, is running short for the Galaxy, who have won just one of their last eight MLS games, scoring less than two goals in half of them. Still, they entered the weekend tied for second in the Western Conference with six regular-season games to play.
“I think I’m ready,” Donovan said. “Realistically, when you haven’t played a soccer game in 20 months [it’s] probably not so easy. So I’ve got to manage what I want to do versus what’s smart.
“The reason I’m here is to help, hopefully, win a championship. And we can’t win a championship by me playing a few minutes on Sunday. But I can certainly do something stupid that jeopardizes my ability to contribute.”