“No creo en los muros,” he wrote.
“I don’t believe in walls.”
It’s a timely political statement as well as a deeply personal one, and it may just offer a glimpse into the thought process of a legend who’s flouting convention again. Landon Donovan enjoyed the most decorated career in American soccer history (men’s version), and along the way he stayed when he was told to leave and then left when he was told to stay. He went on sabbatical. And he went to Everton.
Then he retired a champion at just 32, returned to the LA Galaxy for a two-month spell in 2016 and nearly reached a deal to play for rival Real Salt Lake last year. In sum, Donovan has proven to be as elusive off the field as on it. We can count the goals, assists, medals and accolades. But his career also has been defined by his inclination to cut left when everyone expected him to go right. Donovan has always been his own muse, and he’s typically had the conviction and confidence to follow his heart. Like defenders, the codes and consensus (or walls) that shape the paths of many others have been routinely evaded.
Donovan is two months shy of his 36th birthday. He and his wife, Hannah, have two young children. He’s a part of the Fox team that’ll be covering this summer’s World Cup in Russia, as well as an investor group aiming to bring an MLS franchise to his new hometown of San Diego. His financial future and legacy seem secure. So, naturally, he’s coming out of retirement again, this time to play for Mexico’s Club León.
Donovan, León president Jesús Martínez and the club itself revealed their intentions on Twitter late Friday night. On Saturday, La Fiera’s official account unveiled a green No. 20 jersey featuring Donovan’s name on the back.
He reportedly will be introduced to the Nou Camp crowd during Saturday evening’s game against Toluca, and Martínez apparently told Fox Deportes that Donovan has signed a one-year deal. This is looking less and less like a “Footy McFootyface” send-up.
Reached by text Saturday morning, Donovan told SI.com that he wasn’t ready to comment publicly. He added, “But it’s going to be interesting!”
Interesting, to say the least.
He’s played all of 455 minutes of competitive soccer over the past three years and reached an age when most are hanging up their boots. Criticized by some for choosing comfort or certainty on too many occasions, Donovan would be opting for the opposite by joining León. Liga MX represents an obvious step up from MLS, and Los Esmeraldas are a seven-time champion that advanced to the 2017 Apertura quarterfinals with one of the circuit’s most prolific attacking sides. Argentine Mauro Boselli tied for the league lead with 11 goals and outside midfielder Elías Hernández was second with seven assists.
Surviving and then excelling in that environment would be a stiff test for any new signing, especially someone unfamiliar with the league who’s been inactive for 14 months. It’s illogical. It’s stunning. Once again, Donovan has left everyone grasping.
It must be equally confounding for fans in León, who like many Mexicans, may have considered Donovan public fútbol enemy No. 1 for a decade-plus. The rivalry was real, but as much he loved tormenting El Tri, Donovan has said he wound up developing an affinity for Mexican soccer.
“I didn't realize the extent of the rivalry early on. And I didn't, especially, realize what it meant to the Mexican people. So I ran my mouth a lot and said a lot of stupid things. And I regret that. I should have had more respect for the people and the players and the rivalry. As I got older, I realized that,” he told the Los Angeles Times last summer.
"As you get older, you appreciate it more. At the end of my career, all these guys that were villains, I ended up having so much respect for,” he said.
For Donovan, Mexican and Latino culture has never been truly foreign. He grew up competing alongside and against Hispanic players in Southern California, and has shared a locker room with many as a professional. Donovan speaks the language, and his career can be measured in part by USA-Mexico milestones. He’s even done commercials for a Mexican lottery. Interactions that once caused friction evolved into something more familiar, to the point where the barriers may have fallen away completely.
“I love the city. It has the best fans … I don’t believe in walls, I want to go to Mexico, wear green and win trophies with León,” he wrote Friday night.
Who saw that coming?
It may have been plausible only to someone who doesn’t believe in walls—someone who’s ignored expectations and established convention so many times that nothing seems unreasonable or unobtainable. Donovan has been impossible to peg or characterize simply. And just when you think you’ve got him nailed down, he accelerates. Just when you’ve got him boxed in, he nutmegs you—on the field and off.
Now, the play-it-safe homebody, or the retired legend with a comfortable TV/ownership/appearance career ahead--pick your trope--appears to be voluntarily and eagerly entering the lion’s den. Donovan's drumbeat is uniquely his own.