SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was billed as a homecoming for Landon Donovan, and the former San Jose Earthquakes forward delivered. Donovan, making his first start two months after coming out of retirement, scored the lone goal for Club Leon in a 1-0 victory in an international friendly in front of 14,532 at Avaya Stadium.
“It’s pretty instinctive,” Donovan said. “I just turned and hit it, and I wasn’t exactly sure where I was on the field, but when you shoot, good things happen. It felt good to score, it felt good to contribute, and it was a good night for us.”
Arguably the best American born soccer player ever, Donovan, 36, seemed to close the book on his career back in 2016, when a short-lived comeback with the LA Galaxy ended in the MLS Cup playoffs. But a full year off from the game, and an enticing offer from the Liga MX club to play in Mexico, brought him out of retirement once again.
Donovan’s goal was his first for Leon, and it was his first since scoring one goal for the Galaxy in his brief stint with LA in 2016. The scoring opportunity came about when a deflected cross into the area bounced Donovan’s way. MLS’s all-time leading scorer didn’t hesitate to take his chance, and he rifled the ball into the back of the net. Quakes captain Chris Wondolowski, himself ten goals behind Donovan on the all-time goal scoring list, was duly impressed.
“What a turn and what hit,” Wondolowski said. “It’s a half-chance at best, and for him to put it there is pretty special. It was pretty cool to see. Obviously I wish it wasn’t against us and wish it wasn’t a winner, but all in all it was a good night.”
Donovan didn’t celebrate the effort, saying when you score as many goals in a career as he has, you tend not to get overexcited, but the moment was special. The former Galaxy midfielder, who has slowly but surely built up his match fitness, was pleased with his performance, and he was left impressed with what he saw playing against Major League Soccer’s Earthquakes.
“I am just happy to play,” Donovan said. “It was a great night, and the game was pretty good for a friendly. San Jose are a very good team. The league, even in two years, is much different, and the quality is much better, so I thought it made for a great game, and I had fun.”
In the lead up to the game, there were questions as to how the Quakes crowd would react to seeing Donovan again. He played the first four years of his career with San Jose, helping the team win two MLS Cup championships, but a series of off-season maneuvers saw him land in LA, and whenever the Earthquakes faced the Galaxy, Donovan would be subject to jeers. Saturday night’s crowd, perhaps recognizing the past contributions of the young star were much more receptive than in years past.
“It was great,” Donovan said. “There were more people than I thought would be here for a friendly game that doesn’t mean anything in the standings. I thought the atmosphere was good, the crowd was good. It was a 1-0 game, but there were a lot of chances both ways, so I hope everyone walks away feeling like it was a pretty good night.”
The match featured both teams using almost their entire available rosters, and for a friendly, there were moments that felt anything but. The Earthquakes loss dropped their all-time record against international opponents to 11-10-8, and though the game won’t matter to either team in it’s league campaign, both sides didn’t shy away from playing tough.
“We’re competitive guys,” Wondolowski said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s practice, a friendly or a rivalry game, we get fired up. There’s nothing too much in there. I’m glad that it shows that we have the fight in this locker room and we have each other’s backs. I kind of like that.”
In his first competitive start for Leon, Donovan wasn’t nervous, but he did feel some pressure to help him team beat their MLS competition. His first touch of the ball was a successful pass along the midfield line, and it quickly became apparent that his skills, though a bit rusty, were still very much available to the 36 year old.
“It’s a little bit like riding a bike, but there are pieces of it that are still a little foreign,” Donovan said. “You have to get back into that groove, and that’s what’s been hard about not starting, or not playing a ton of minutes. It’s hard to get a rhythm and get a feel for the game. When you have the opportunity to get a bunch more touches and have more influence on the game, it’s helpful. So that was enjoyable. But I hope it’s something I get used to now, that would be nice, but it was an interesting feeling to do it all over again.”
Club Leon return to Mexico following the break in 12th place in the Torneo Clausura, so Donovan and crew have their work cut out for them if they want to finish in the top eight in the table and advance to the playoffs. The veteran midfielder was pleased to play the full 90 minutes and score the winning goal against the Earthquakes as he makes his case to contribute more to Leon. But even if he is assigned back to the bench — he has made six substitution appearances for Leon so far this season — he views his comeback with a healthy mindset.
“The feeling is different,” Donovan said. “I am thoroughly enjoying it. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but for a long time it felt like my job. So having a year away gives you a lot of perspective and realizing that there’s a lot of other things you could be doing for a living that are a lot worse than running a soccer field. I’m just enjoying it, and I’m trying to make sure I take advantage of the opportunity.”