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Landon Donovan opens up about leaving San Jose Earthquakes for LA Galaxy

U.S. soccer great helped Quakes win two MLS Cup championships before switching to Galaxy

Landon Donovan explains why he left the San Jose Earthquakes for the LA Galaxy early in his MLS career
Robert Jonas | Center Line Soccer

SAN JOSE, Calif. — It’s been nearly 13 years since Landon Donovan departed the San Jose Earthquakes following four successful seasons and two MLS Cup championships, only to make his return to MLS with their rivals, the LA Galaxy. It’s a move that angered many Quakes fans then, and the wounds still haven’t fully healed for those that felt betrayed.

Donovan would play ten more seasons with the Galaxy and win another four MLS Cups, elevating his goal scoring total to 145, the most in league history. His accomplishments for the Quakes biggest rival stung, and he was given the nickname “Judas” by those most angry with his change of address to Los Angeles.

But moving back to LA from the Bay Area was a must needed homecoming for Donovan, and it was not for the selfish reasons most Earthquakes fans believe; rather, he felt he had to.

“At that time of my life, and I have spoken openly about my battles with depression, I was in a pretty bad place in my life,” Donovan said. “It was important to me to be close to my family. For people who are seeing it from purely a purely sporting perspective, I can understand they were disappointed and upset, and I can understand their anger. I always had to do and have chosen to do what’s important for me personally, and that’s putting my health and well-being before anybody else’s opinion.”

These were Donovan’s first public comments revealing the true reason for his exit from San Jose, but it was not a surprising admission for a man who has been very open about his efforts to address his mental health in recent years. He arrived in San Jose as an 18 year old, and was only 22 when he played his last game for the Black and Blue back in 2004, still to reach his prime as a player. Those four years in San Jose were memorable and shaped his character. He found it very difficult to face his former teammates during that first year in LA.

“It was hard at first,” Donovan said. “This was where I grew up so this was such a part of me in a real way. This was more first opportunity, so I felt this connection with the city and the people here, and I always wanted to reciprocate. So when I was in LA, it was hard every time we played the Earthquakes. After that, you sort of acclimate and it becomes more normal, but the first year was hard for sure.”

Donovan scored 12 goals and added 10 assists in his first year in LA, and he lead the Galaxy through the postseason, beating the Earthquakes in the process, to an MLS Cup victory. It was a difficult pill for Quakes fans to swallow seeing Donovan celebrating a championship with their biggest rival, and when their own team was relocated to Houston, it only served to fuel the hatred many of them felt to the young superstar.

As the years went by, Donovan would receive vociferous jeers from the crowds in the Bay Area when his Galaxy played the Quakes. He was a lightning rod for the fans’ vitriol, something that Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski admits doesn’t happen if Donovan didn’t leave the club in 2004.

“I don’t think the Cali Clasico, the Earthquakes and Galaxy rivalry, would be the same without him making that switch,” Wondolowski shared.

The Earthquakes will once again face Donovan this weekend, when his new team, Liga MX’s Club Leon, plays San Jose at Avaya Stadium in an international club friendly. The reaction of the crowd, many of whom lustily booed him when he was with LA, will be mixed for sure. Wondolowski, himself an admirer of Donovan’s contributions to the Earthquakes’ two MLS Cup championships, hopes the fans give him a rousing reception.

“I really hope Quakes fans use it as an opportunity to relish what Landon has done for this club,” Wondolowski said. “These two stars wouldn’t be here without him. I understand, I was not cheering him when he was wearing a Galaxy jersey, and rightfully so, but he comes back now and he should get a proper send-off.”

Donovan and Wondolowski are numbers one and two on the MLS all-time goal scoring list with 145 and 135 goals respectively, and it is fitting that they will share a field once again for the first time in many years. When they crossed paths at Avaya Stadium the day before, they joked about Wondo’s pursuit of the record, with Donovan admitting that the Earthquakes star will deserve the acclaim that comes with the accomplishment. It was a fun moment for both players, and one that left Wondolowski a little bittersweet that their paths haven’t crossed more often.

“I am ingrained with this club, and I consider myself a fan,” Wondolowski said. “I was devastated back in my rookie year when he went to the Galaxy. I wish I could have played with him. I understand the fans’ reactions, once again, I am a fan, but at the same time, I hope they use this opportunity to reward what he has done for the club. There might not be a better opportunity to go out there are share their appreciation for what he has done. Not even to mention what he has done for the Earthquakes, but what he has done for soccer as an American player.”

The Earthquakes are expecting a big crowd for Club Leon’s visit Saturday night, and Donovan is slated to make his first start for the Mexican team he signed with after he was coaxed out of retirement earlier this year. He knows to expect a range of emotions from the crowd, but he looks forward to every moment this weekend’s visit to the Bay Area affords.

“It’s nice to be back in this city,” Donovan shared. “Every time I come back, I forget I miss it and how much I enjoy being here. I have a different perspective having been down in Mexico and seeing how excited my teammates are at being in the United States.

“I’m mostly excited to play, to be honest,” Donovan continued, “but I absolutely understand why some people are not happy about the ways things unfolded. I would be the same, and I can’t blame them for that. I hope people remember that for four years of my life, I gave everything I had to this city, the fans, the club, and this team. In the old days at Spartan Stadium, we would used to shower and change in a little portable next to the stadium, and at every home game, we would spend probably two hours afterward signing autographs and connecting with the fans. I’ve never connected with a fan base in that way ever since, and I hope there were some good memories.”

Donovan has been very well received in Mexico, and he has enjoyed the positivity he feels from everyone at the club and in the community. At 36, he could probably keep playing as long as he desires, but he expects that he’ll spend one year with Club Leon before moving on to his next adventure.

“I was very happy with my life and the way it was going,” Donovan said. “ but you always want to go somewhere where you are wanted. When the phone call came and the initial shock wore off, as I thought it through and spoke to my family, the overwhelming sentiment was why not? How many more times will you have a chance to do this. Sometimes you just go with your gut and let’s go do it for a year and enjoy it.”

Maybe Donovan will return to his role as a TV broadcaster. Maybe he will take on another soccer adventure overseas. There’s always a chance he could make another MLS return, perhaps back in San Jose. Donovan has and will do what he feels is best for him, and nobody should ever unfairly judge him for that.