Not all soccer leagues are created equal, and not all soccer leagues are created with parity. Ask any two observers of the sport for their take on Major League Soccer, and you’re likely to spark an argument. Some contend that it’s a league on the rise; others criticize it for its teams’ signing of superstars of a certain age; another faction shouts at the heavens that what it really needs is a system of promotion and relegation. But one fact about the league that’s hard to dispute is the relative supremacy of the Los Angeles Galaxy. Since 2010, they’ve won two Supporters’ Shields, given to the team with the best regular season record, and the MLS Cup three times. They’ve attracted a high caliber of player, including Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, and David Beckham.
And, of course, Landon Donovan, whose announced return to the Galaxy late last week turned many heads, and who received a standing ovation when he entered yesterday’s match against Orlando City as a substitute in the 83rd minute. Though he didn’t play his entire career with the Galaxy–or even his entire MLS career with them, having played several years early on in San Jose, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen–his history is deeply interwoven with the Galaxy’s. Though his career began under contract with a Bundesliga side, and though he also had loan spells with both Bayern Munich and Everton, it’s the Galaxy–his hometown team–that Donovan continued to return to. High-profile international signings came and went, but Donovan, until his retirement after the 2014 season, was the constant.
The Galaxy are, to a large extent, MLS’s equivalent to the Scottish Premiership’s Celtic F.C.: a team that regularly dominates their league and attracts a higher echelon of player than their counterparts. It’s helped that Galaxy that large portions of their squad are incredibly likable. What’s not to like about Gyasi Zardes, who’s ascended into stardom while playing for his hometown team, and secured a regular spot on the U.S. Men’s National Team along the way? Robbie Rogers returned to soccer as one of the first openly gay male athletes playing professional sports, giving plenty of viewers a vested interest in wanting this new leg of his career to succeed. Defender Omar Gonzalez comes off as one of the most charismatic players in America, which included the time he posted a video to Instagram of himself standing in the desert, playing “Careless Whisper” on the saxophone, and wearing nothing but underwear and socks.
The team to which Donovan has returned, however, has a slightly different feel. Gonzalez left in the off-season, transferred to the Liga MX side C.F. Pachuca. The Galaxy continued in their tradition of high-profile signings, including Ashley Cole, who spent many years playing alongside Gerrard on the English National Team. Two of the other big-name signings, though, raised a few eyebrows. First, there’s Jelle Van Damme, a player whose racist comments in 2009 to American defender Oguchi Onyewu prompted Onyewu to file a lawsuit against him. (Van Damme later apologized.) And then there was the addition of Nigel de Jong, best-known to many American soccer supporters for his tackle in an international match the broke the leg of American Stuart Holden, the first in a series of injuries that would ultimately end Holden’s promising career. (See also: the game in 2010 when de Jong broke Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg.) It probably didn’t help matters when, in one of his first games with the Galaxy, de Jong executed a dangerous tackle on another promising American player: the Portland Timbers’ Darlington Nagbe. Less Celtic F.C., perhaps, and more Cobra Kai.
Certainly, bringing in a trio of high-profile international players without spending a lot of money isn’t a terrible thing, in soccer terms. But this transfer-window equivalent of a heel turn is an odd look for Los Angeles. Perhaps it was undertaken out of tension that the 2018 arrival of cross-town rivals Los Angeles F.C. would impact their supporter base–though the growing rivalry between the New York Red Bulls and New York City F.C. on the other side of the country seems to have led to an increase in support for both teams. Perhaps it was just the idea that, hey, sometimes the bad guys come out ahead.
But in the last month, we’ve seen de Jong make his way back to Europe, and the return of a player whose career is nearly inseparable from the club whose uniform he’ll again be donning. Do the Galaxy need Donovan on the pitch? Only time will tell whether this move will have been a wise one for Donovan, coach Bruce Arena, and the team as a whole. But perhaps Donovan’s return is a kind of reclamation of the team’s recent history, and the mindset that got them there.
As of the time of Donovan’s announcement, the Galaxy are presently third in the West. They’re still in the running for a top spot there, and a late-season collapse by FC Dallas, though unlikely, could be hugely beneficial for the teams below them in the Supporters’ Shield race–including the Galaxy. And Arena, at this point the longest-tenured coach in MLS, is known for getting the most out of his players. For all of the symbolic value of Donovan’s return, one hopes that his return is also a practical one. Comebacks from retirement aren’t always triumphant ones. Then again, Donovan is a player who chose to retire at an age and skill level when he was arguably capable of contributing for many more years–this decision, while equally unpredictable, suggests similar deliberation.
Among the must-read books of American soccer history is Grant Wahl’s 2009 The Beckham Experiment, focusing on David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles and his initially contentious relationship with several of his teammates, including Donovan. We’re now witnessing the beginning of The Donovan Experiment, its outcome still a mystery.