By: Andy Humphrey
We’re no strangers to seeing star athletes briefly retire and then come back to play professionally, but this doesn’t feel like any ordinary comeback story.
If you rewind to a year ago today and asked ten casual American sports fans about Landon Donovan, how many of them do you think would be able to tell you he retired at the end of 2014? The idea that those ten people wouldn’t be able to unanimously recall Donovan’s retirement should tell you something about the United States’ golden boy of soccer and the league he made popular.
One may draw an analogy from Donovan’s absence from the game to Michael Jordan’s first retirement from the NBA between 1993 and 1995. On the surface, this comparison seems fair; both players are arguably the most recognizable icons in their respective sports, Michael Jordan’s first retirement lasted about the same amount of time as Donovan’s, and both players left the game right after winning a league championship.
Yet, the implications on the American sports culture caused by these two cases couldn’t be more different. Jordan exited stage left at the top of his game and at the apex of popularity in the sports landscape. The average fan could not escape the news that the NBA’s GOAT left the Chicago Bulls to enter a career in baseball. Jordan was too transcendent of an athlete for the average American to ignore his decision. Not only that, but power immediately shifted to other teams and players in the NBA following Jordan’s retirement. Attention could easily be transferred to the likes of Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone and Reggie Miller. Then, when Jordan decided to return, that power immediately shifted back to him.
When Donovan retired from Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy, his power didn’t transfer anywhere. As much as passionate MLS followers like myself would like to believe that there are major stars in the league that can draw attention from the average sports fan, it simply isn’t true. As much as American soccer fans want to point to the real growth soccer has gained in this country, that growth hasn’t materialized into a consistent monitoring of American soccer happenings by the general public. Donovan’s popularity and success easily surpasses that of all other American soccer athletes, and that huge gap between Donovan and everyone else can explain why MLS isn’t on the same level of recognition as other major sport leagues in the United States.
Donovan still appears in commercials more than any American soccer player. Donovan still kept ties with the LA Galaxy and U.S. Soccer as a TV broadcast analyst. MLS even allowed him to coach the MLS Homegrown Team in the 2015 MLS Homegrown Game during the league’s All-Star week. He never left the game; in fact, it’s almost impossible for him to do so. He means too much to American soccer.
It’s also very clear that he left the door open for a return right as he announced his departure. After he played his final game, he acknowledged that his fatigue was more mental than physical. During his career, Donovan had opened up about struggles with depression, and he added that he wanted to take his retirement as an opportunity to start a family. He married for the second time in May 2015 and had his first child back in January of this year. He never admitted to being physically incapable of playing before entering retirement.
And even though he had never played a “meaningful” soccer game, you better believe the MLS all-time leader in goals and assists was keeping fit at age 34 while being away from the professional game. That’s why after the recent injuries to key Galaxy pieces such as Steven Gerrard and Gyasi Zardes, Donovan was eventually swayed to re-enter not only the game he loves, but also the game that will never cease to love him back.
That’s why I’m reluctant to call Donovan’s absence from the game as a “retirement.” Rather, I think a “mental break” is a more appropriate term. We’ve seen soccer players – albeit still playing for their professional clubs – take breaks from the international game before. Pele took a break from Brazil. Tim Howard took a break from the United States. And you better believe Lionel Messi will be itching for an international comeback after announcing his retirement from the Argentinian national team following last summer’s Copa America tournament.
While it’s uncertain that Donovan will play past 2016, there is no denying that the most decorated American soccer player in history has come back to competitive soccer. But to the general public, it’s as if he had been playing all along.
(Featured Image: Stuart Wainstock, Flickr)