He’ll be wearing white. He’ll be elusive, he hopes. And he’ll seem familiar, yet somehow altered by a journey from one kind of existence to the next. You’ll recognize him, even if he’s not exactly what you remember, and if confirmation is required simply check the LA Galaxy team sheet. Go past No. 10 all the way down to 26, a relatively anonymous number (beyond Stamford Bridge) that means far more to the man Landon Donovan is today than the one he was.
He’s back, as many figured he might be eventually—a ghost returned from the limbo of early retirement and signed by injury-hit LA for the rest of the 2016 season. He departed an MLS champion for a record sixth time nearly two years ago. He was an icon, a Rorschach test and a World Cup hero and martyr whose skillful, slashing style was as unique as his relationship with the game. That relationship was uncomfortable at times, but he made peace with it toward the end. Whatever impact that journey may have had on his failed quest to play in a fourth World Cup, it empowered Donovan and allowed him leave the sport on his terms. He was a key component of LA’s title run. He was celebrated at an emotional U.S. sendoff in Connecticut. And he was immortalized as the namesake for the league’s MVP award.
Most ghost stories are about unfinished business. The spirit returns to the plane it once inhabited to see something through, right a wrong, make good on unrealized potential or exact revenge. This one is different. Donovan is undisturbed and may be more at peace than he’s ever been. If he’s changed, it’s for the better. He’s a husband, a father, a student, a coach and a commentator, and perhaps he’s never been more comfortable in his own skin—even as it evolves.
Soccer was a part of his life, not its entirety. That bothered some but made sense to him, and in a way, he’s never been in a better position to “enjoy his football,” as his former teammate David Beckham would have said. No one this fall will expect or demand that Donovan be singularly devoted, nor will they assume he’ll be his team’s most impactful player. When he was able to focus on enjoying the game, free from the scrutiny, over-analysis and negativity that occasionally encumbered him, he typically was spectacular.
“It’s a crazy thing when I sit down and think about [returning],” Donovan said in an interview posted by the Galaxy. “But in the end, when I take away all the layers of it, I’m really excited and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I really hope it can be beneficial for this club.”
That’s been the key—taking away the layers. When reminiscing about Donovan’s World Cup winner against Algeria in a Sports Illustrated feature on famous national team goals, former U.S. defender Jay DeMerit said, “You see there’s a lot more pressure on his shoulders … Maybe some of it is self-imposed, but most of it wasn’t. There’s certain things he has to live up to and he’s kind of in a sticky situation because he’s pretty guarded in his ways. But in that moment [against Algeria], you could see him let go.”
Donovan has nothing left to prove. There's nothing left to accomplish. But that doesn’t mean there's nothing left to do. He said that the thinning of LA’s roster, from Gyasi Zardes’s broken foot to the departure of midfield menace Nigel de Jong, set the stage for his return. That opened the locker room door, but something else had to push him through. He thought about sharing an on-field photo with his son, Talon, who was born on a 26th (last January, to be exact). He said he thought about “the energy around the game, so when people are in the stadium and they’re cheering and you’re hearing the Riot Squad and the Galaxians and the ACB cheering and all the energy in the stadium, you can’t replicate that. There’s nothing else in life that does that.” And he thought about helping out—not as a savior, but as a contributor.
“They don’t need much,” Donovan said of second-place LA. “Some of my qualities, even though the physical has gone a little bit, in a game I think can make a difference. I think in the locker room and away from the field I can help make a little bit of a difference, and if all those little things add up to one play or one moment can help propel a team to a championship, that would be great for me.
“My goal here is not to disrupt what’s going on. It’s to supplement and to help,” he said.
There’s wiggle room there. There’s leeway to play a reserve role—which is likely considering the two-year sabbatical—and to support or mentor. Any contribution will be welcome. He’s not a Designated Player, a captain or the focus of a game plan. Donovan can play this fall as a squad member, without the pressure or specter of his national team form, European prospects or even his 2014 farewell tour weighing him down. There's no one to probe his psyche or question his motivation, only those left to wonder if he’s having a good time and, if they’re Galaxy fans, hope he’s providing “all those little things.”
Donovan hasn’t gotten to play that sort of soccer before. No wonder he’s coming back.
He dabbled while retired, ran some camps and appeared in a couple of charity games. It was easy to imagine that Wells Fargo ad as a totally plausible slice of his retired life. An anonymous Donovan, signing up for a rec team and starting out on the bench behind a doofus like Hat Trick Rick. He’d earn his way onto the rutted field soon enough and have the time of his life.
But throw in the crowds, that white jersey, the opportunity to help the club he adores and the chance to play once again in front of family and friends, and you’ve got a recipe that represents the best of both worlds.
“My goal here is to help,” he said. “I didn’t have some crazy urge to go running around a soccer field again. But I do like to help. I love this team … and it seems like the situation played out in a way where the team could use a little bit of help.”
This won’t be the Donovan we remember. He’s a couple years older, surely a bit wiser and he’ll look strange with that 26 on his back. But what’s to come may be the most authentic version of Donovan we’ve seen on a soccer field–free to be himself, do his thing and enjoy his football. That could turn out to be fun for fans and quite dangerous for the opposition. Because it won’t be El Niño and Spray Dan alongside him. It’ll be Gio dos Santos and Robbie Keane.