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As if there weren't already enough wild stories upending the American soccer community these days, the news dropped Thursday that Landon Donovan is coming out of retirement to re-join the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Why would Donovan do this after being away from the playing field for a year and half, becoming a father in the meantime? And what will it mean for the Galaxy and Major League Soccer as a whole?
I asked those questions and a few others to Fox analyst Alexi Lalas, who knows Donovan and all the Galaxy's decision-makers pretty well.
(Donovan also shared a few of his own thoughts on his Facebook page while I was writing this story.)
(More details on the latter broadcast are available here, and I'll be doing a full story on the subject next week.)
Here's my conversation with Lalas.
The best way I can think of to start this thing is to simply ask: What the heck just happened, and why?
I think you're looking at a man who still feels that he has something to offer. I think you're looking at a man who has gone through, obviously, over the last year, becoming a father.
And I also think that you're looking at an incredible aligning of stars, if you will, in that just because you want something doesn't mean that opportunity is available - and the Los Angeles Galaxy, in this particular moment, because of their situation with personnel, are desperate for some sort of injection of talent/hope/confidence going forward. So I think this all just kind of works out perfectly.
Do you think Donovan or the Galaxy made this move first?
[Note: Donovan ended up answering this question himself in his Facebook post, but Lalas nonetheless had a few ideas.]
This is the first question everybody is going to ask, and it doesn't happen unless the player feels something pulling him. Now, look, do people put out feelers? I'm sure, but I think we're far enough away from Landon Donovan's retirement where this has come, in terms of having it happen right now, as a surprise. I don't have any inside information, but just kind of feel that this has to come from Landon. As it should.
I wonder about the Galaxy's side of things because Gyasi Zardes is out injured for at least the rest of the regular season, and Nigel de Jong is gone - though of course, de Jong doesn't play the same position as Donovan.
On top of that, their 2-1 win at Columbus on Saturday snapped a streak of seven games without a victory, and on Wednesday they blew a two-goal lead in a 3-3 draw at Real Salt Lake. So I can't help thinking that the Galaxy might just need Donovan.
I just think - like I said, I'm just guessing that it comes from Landon. And I think if you're a Galaxy fan, you want it to come from Landon, because you want him to be invested in it from his side. Not just have it be something that is interesting, because I think that's dangerous.
I don't know what he's going to look like. He's always been a very smart player, but he's also a player that, let's be honest, he wasn't about dominating games from start to finish. He was about moments. So you're looking to re-create some of those moments.
And if those moments are a goal here or there, you know as well as I do that it could be the difference between getting through a playoff round, or, dare I say it, getting to a MLS Cup.
Does this happen if Gyasi Zardes is not injured?
Hmm. I still think so. I think the fact that you lose a guy like de Jong - even though he wasn't a Designated Player [though he would have been next year had he stayed] - he was still a big presence. Even though they obviously don't play the same position, I think it doesn't happen without the de Jong thing.
Would Donovan come back to any other team besides the Galaxy?
No. Bruce Arena and his staff should send a bouquet of thank-you flowers to the MLS Players Union for the [current] collective bargaining agreement that was negotiated, because the way that I read it, he is a free agent. But he's only a free agent because of rules that were not in place at the time that he retired.
In essence, the Galaxy and Bruce Arena got the benefit at the time of protecting an extra player, because they knew Landon Donovan was retiring - but at the time, he didn't qualify for free agency. Then they also get the benefit now of the new free agency law. So well-played to Bruce Arena and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
If Donovan plays well, what does it say about the caliber of MLS right now?
I knew this was coming. And this is a completely valid question, and one that is going to be asked specifically because of where MLS is in the consciousness and landscape of soccer. I just think it says that he's a great player.
I'm sure people will attribute value to it, or use it to make the case that MLS is weak because a player can do this and still be successful. I'm sure there is a case to be made for that. But when we see players come back into leagues, we use it as a referendum on where that league is - I don't think that's happened in the past [in MLS].
But that's just kind of what we do for MLS, so it will not surprise me if and when that happens.
If you're Landon, how do you keep fit when you're away from the professional game for a year and a half?
There's "in shape" and then there's "in soccer shape," which are two different things. I've worked with Landon and I've seen him over the last year, and I've actually even played pickup soccer with him. If you didn't know that he was a retired player, you never would have guessed. He was fine physically. So I think the actual physical part is going to be fine.
Getting back into the swing of things, I don't think he'll be asked to start or anything like that. I think he'll be asked to come in and just add a spark. You won't know until you actually get in the game how those muscles and movements - and thoughts, to be quite honest - that haven't been generated over the last couple of years are. He'll find that out very quickly.
I'm sure that he can run forever and do all that. You keep your shape by doing different things and exercising, and like I said, I've been around him and he looks fine. I've played pickup soccer with him and he looked fine.
There are going to be people to talk about whether, if Donovan plays well enough, he should get consideration for a return to the national team. I think the idea is ludicrous on a bunch of levels, but for what it's worth, if you're Jurgen Klinsmann, do you care at all about Donovan's comeback?
Yeah, I don't think he cares at all. To be quite honest, I don't think that he cares at all. And this isn't a long term situation for Landon. This is a perfect type of environment, because he's coming back to a place he knows for a very short period of time.
What I found years ago when I took a year off was that you come back and you're very good because you are running on adrenaline - but that only lasts so long. This is a finite period of time. So I don't necessarily see this as a lengthy stay. And I'm spitballing this - it surprised me too.
I ask because I can't get the Zardes injury out of my mind with this. If Donovan stays for any longer than the rest of this year - and he says that's it, but just to play the scenario out - isn't he filling a Zardes-sized hole in the Galaxy's lineup, to a certain degree?
And what does it do for Zardes and the young attacking players on that team like Jose Villarreal, Bradford Jamieson, Jack McBean, and so on?
Right. That's why I just don't see it as long-term. I just see it as an opportunity he can take where if it all works out - if it goes great, he just enhances an already incredible and spectacular career, and a legendary type of image and status. And if it doesn't, for me it doesn't take away from anything that Landon Donovan has done.
It's a footnote, it's a coda type of moment. It certainly will be part of his story, but will far from define him - for me, at least, with regards to being the best American male soccer player ever to play the game.
One last question for you, and it's not related to Donovan. Fox announced recently that it will televise this year's MLS Cup final on its over-the-air network in prime time, with an 8 p.m. Eastern broadcast on Saturday, December 10. What will having the final that late in the year, and at night, do to the quality of the game? Especially if it's in a cold-weather city like Toronto or New York?
If it's a freezing cold type of environment - I'll tell you, the coldest game I ever worked was the final in Kansas City [in 2013, when Sporting beat Real Salt Lake]. At least it was in a home environment - and that has changed [from past years], because it was brutally cold in Toronto [which was a neutral host in 2010] when we worked that MLS final.
You hope that it's an environment that first and foremost is exciting to the viewer, something that we can build off of. We have a lot of those environments, and we have some environments that aren't like that. Secondly, if it's an environment that is not conducive to actually playing soccer, that's going to hurt - both the actual kicking of the ball, and the presentation of it.
So a lot of things can go right and a lot of things can go wrong. It will probably end up being somewhere in the middle and we'll deal with it. But I will trade any type of challenge that throws up for the opportunity to do it on big Fox in prime time on a Saturday night, and give a lot of people - including a lot of people that probably don't normally watch - the opportunity to watch a MLS game that means something [and is] for a trophy.
And if the soccer gods favor us, then we have two incredible teams, and two teams that people want to watch, in an environment that the players want to play in, that makes a spectacular type of production in terms of the pictures that we're able to have.