After a weekday morning practice earlier this month, Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara grabbed the phone from his locker and began to scroll down his Twitter timeline. In a matter of seconds, he stumbled across tweets revealing Landon Donovan’s plans to end his retirement and return to the LA Galaxy.
Inside the locker room of an MLS adversary, the news prompted a range of reactions.
“No way. Not happening,” winger Brad Davis said.
“Kind of stunned,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said.
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“As a soccer fan, I was just really excited,” defender Kevin Ellis said.
A few rooms away, the response inside the club’s coaching offices was a bit different.
“I only look at it from a competitive perspective. It’s another piece for them, which makes them even more dangerous to play against,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said.
Seven days after the return became official with a late-game substitution against Orlando City, the Landon Donovan Comeback Tour will swing through Kansas City, Kan.
On Sunday, Sporting KC will play host to the LA Galaxy at Children’s Mercy Park, a 1 p.m. kickoff that will be broadcast on Fox.
In a matchup featuring two teams jockeying for playoff positioning in the Western Conference, the story will instead shift to Donovan, the unquestioned greatest player in Major League Soccer and U.S. men’s national team history. Donovan is the MLS all-time leader in goals (144) and assists (136), and he’s the owner of six MLS Cup championships. He also has more goals (57) and assists (58) for the American national team than anyone.
But what does he have left?
“Coming back in a limited role late in the year, he’s not going to be the same person. But he’s still Landon Donovan,” said Davis, a teammate with Donovan on the U.S. national team. “Is it going to be difficult for him? Absolutely. But he’s a guy who was blessed with tremendous gifts. And knowing the type of mentality he has, I know he’s going to find a way to make a difference.”
The late-season comeback was never planned, Donovan explained in a Facebook post announcing his return last week. But after he worked as a TV analyst during a game in which the Galaxy suffered three key injuries, staff and players “jokingly asked if I was ready to make a return to the field.”
After contemplation, he took them up on the offer.
“I care so deeply about the Galaxy organization, and I believe I could help in a small way to aid the team in its quest for a sixth MLS championship,” Donovan said.
The return last weekend was predictably greeted with a standing ovation from the Galaxy fans.
But it was a short one. Donovan played only seven minutes — plus stoppage time — in the Galaxy’s 4-2 win against Orlando City. It marked his first competitive soccer match since the 2014 MLS Cup.
After the game, the TV cameras moved to Donovan, and he jokingly — or perhaps not — let out a large exhale to signal his exhaustion.
“I’ve never experienced what he’s doing now, but I have had the experience where I’m not playing games every week, and even if you’re practicing, you don’t have that game fitness. It takes awhile to get up to game speed,” said Feilhaber, also a former national team teammate with Donovan. “But he’s always been an extremely fit player. I think it will come pretty easily to him, and once it does, I think the ball skills will come back pretty quickly, too.
“I’m excited to see him back in the league and to watch him play, and I think we’re all excited to play against him again.”