- Landon Donovan has an interesting history with the city of San Jose, how will the city's fans react when he visits with his new team, León?
SAN JOSE — Landon Donovan has been welcomed and cheered in Mexico. Now we’re wondering how he’ll be received in the U.S. city that launched his peerless pro career, and in a stadium that houses two MLS Cups he helped win.
“It’s funny how life works,” he said Friday.
These are surreal times. It’s 2018, and nothing makes sense in sports, either. Loyola-Chicago or Kansas State is 40 minutes from the Final Four. An NHL expansion team from the desert is closing in on 50 wins. The Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl champions, and a World Cup is about to kick off without Italy, Chile, the Netherlands and the USA. And yes, the Americans belong in that group—not because they would've been threats to lift the trophy but because their presence, at least, was expected and familiar.
Add Donovan’s year to that list. American soccer’s most decorated player has always been provocative, and a frequent architect of the unexpected. That was true on the field and off. But his 2018—which was scheduled to be anchored by his pursuit of an MLS expansion franchise for San Diego and his commentary work with Fox—has set new standards, even for a man who often felt uncompelled to conform to them.
He not only unretired—again—but did so at 36 and in Mexico, a country that’s passionate about its fútbol and which, for around a dozen years, was almost as devoted to its dislike for Donovan. The animus was nuanced, however. A grudging respect emerged over time, and Donovan, a Southern Californian, always had a latent affinity for Mexican culture and people. His desire to recast his relationship with their country was among the things that prompted him to sign with Club León in mid-January (the chance to lace ‘em up again and the reported $3 million salary obviously contributed). He announced his return with a tweet: “No creo en los muros,” or, “I don’t believe in walls.”
More than 7,000 fans came to León’s Nou Camp stadium to welcome the man who’d been their public fútbol enemy No. 1 for so long. And there will be León supporters here Saturday night at Avaya Stadium, as the San Jose Earthquakes will host the Mexican club in a friendly. Los Panzas Verdes' reception for Donovan might be more uniform than that from Quakes fans, however. While the player endeavors to deepen and improve his relationship with Mexico, his connection to San Jose remains complex.
The proof was in some of the questions at Friday’s news conference at Avaya, where several local reporters wondered about the welcome Donovan anticipated from fans who celebrated his success, then cursed his 2005 departure to the rival LA Galaxy. That was an athletic lifetime ago. But the Quakes then endured some lean years, including the 2006-07 hiatus and seven seasons at a small college stadium. Meanwhile, Donovan was winning trophies in Southern Cal. Some San Jose supporters called him Judas, and some still do, and that obviously was on the minds of local writers on Friday.
“I absolutely understand why some people aren’t happy about the way things unfolded,” Donovan said. “I would be the same, and I can’t blame them for that. I hope that people remember that for four years of my life I gave everything I had to this city, the fans and the club.”
He recalled the trailer outside Spartan Stadium—the former, former home of the Quakes—where the team showered and dressed and where fans would gather for photos and autographs for up to a couple hours after matches.
“I’ve never connected with a fan base in that way since,” Donovan said. “I would hope that there are good memories for people, but I absolutely understand why some people are upset with the way it unfolded.”
He was booed when returning with the Galaxy, which is a whole lot easier to understand. The Bay Area-LA, Northern California-Southern California rivalry added fuel to the fire and rubbed salt in the wound. But Donovan’s Galaxy heyday ended in 2014, the year before Avaya opened, and he’ll be in León green rather than LA white on Saturday. Perhaps seeing him on a new field and with a new team will trigger happier memories.
“I just hope it’s an enjoyable evening, and that they can watch a good game and enjoy it and that’s my focus,” Donovan said.
He holds no grudges. If Donovan’s 2018 has been about strengthening connections—with Mexico, with the joy of playing absent the pressure of being a focal point—then maybe San Jose can be included as well. Donovan decided Friday to delve a bit deeper into the story of his 2005 departure, perhaps in an effort to engender a bit of empathy from those who might still be sore.
“I’ve always wanted the opportunity to talk to people about it so they can understand,” he said. “I’ve not mentioned this publicly before but I will now: at that time of my life, and I’ve spoken openly about my battles with depression, I was in a pretty bad place … and it was important for me to be close to my family. So I think for people who are just seeing it from a purely sporting perspective, I can understand why they were disappointed and upset. … But I’ve always had to do, and chosen to do, what's important for me personally. And that’s my health and well-being.”
He continued, “It’s easy to have opinions and characterize people in certain ways. We all do it with politicians, celebrities, athletes. And part of it is my fault. I can be better about how I word things and say things. ... I would love the opportunity to speak with anybody about anything if they feel anything negative, but the reality is that’s probably impossible.”
So he’ll answer the uncomfortable questions. He’ll acknowledge and act on the fact that honesty and candor usually are more effective than a tweet, and he’ll pay his respects to San Jose, its fans and their new stadium. He’ll hope they see his joy when he steps on the field Saturday. Getting game fit at 36, especially after nearly three years away, isn’t easy, and Donovan has played sparingly for León. Two-thirds of the way through the Clausura campaign, he's made only six appearances (four in league play) as a substitute.
Donovan’s happy to be back in San Jose, but he seemed equally as happy to be back on any field at all.
“I’m mostly excited to play, to be honest,” he said. “There’s a lot of plusses to this trip.”
The current face of the franchise, Chris Wondolowski, stopped by the press conference for a quick photo op. Wondo is Bay Area born-and-bred and, as he chases Donovan’s MLS regular-season scoring record, there’s no doubt about his place on the Quakes' Mt. Rushmore or in the hearts of supporters.
Donovan admitted that he’s not rooting for his record to be broken, but confessed that he is rooting for Wondolowski the person. That’s the power of “getting to know a human being,” Donovan said. And speaking to SI.com this week, Wondolowski said he hoped San Jose fans can respect the reasons behind Donovan’s departure, can acknowledge the man he is now and can celebrate the contributions he made to the club. If Avaya is the house that Wondo built, then the jersey was designed by Donovan.
“We don’t have two stars on there without him,” Wondolowski said.