By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 16, 2018) US Soccer Players - After a month in Mexico, Landon Donovan made his first appearance for Club Leon in Liga MX on Saturday. The 35-year old entered in the 84th minute of a game Leon led 2-1 against Puebla and touched the ball a handful of times before the final whistle blew. The performance was more notable for the surreal nature of it all than for anything Donovan did on the ball. Still, it's certainly worth pointing out that he did come close to creating a chance and executed an important recovery while showing only moderate signs of rust.
There was a time when Landon Donovan signing with a Mexican club would have made all the sense in the world. The American star was notorious for making the Mexican national team’s life difficult. Some USMNT fans took to calling him “Mexicutioner” for his exploits. That earned him plenty of respect south of the border. Donovan speaks Spanish, and his preferred style of play always seemed like a good fit for the quick-movement nature of Mexican club soccer.
His level of fame was such in Mexico that a Mexican lottery signed him up as a pitchman. Donovan’s desire to beat Mexico on the field never impacted his affection for the country and its people.
Donovan never made the switch during the backend of the career, choosing instead to help the LA Galaxy to three championships in four seasons from 2011 to 2014. When he retired after the 2015 season, the obvious conclusion was that the fantastic possibility of Donovan playing in Mexico was gone. A short comeback to the Galaxy for the stretch run of the 2016 campaign revived the chances of Donovan playing in MLS again, but no one foresaw Mexico in his future.
Donovan didn’t play anywhere in 2017, instead spending most of his time promoting San Diego’s bid as an MLS expansion candidate. So when he suddenly appeared in Leon in mid-January after a burst of rumors linked him to La Fiera, the soccer communities of two countries were duly shocked.
The “whys” of it were numerous and obvious. For Donovan, why go to Mexico now, after more than a year away? For Leon, why sign a player off the couch already in the second half of his 30s?
The former is for Donovan and Donovan alone to answer. When introduced by Leon, the midfielder referenced the political climate between the United States and Mexico and spoke about his still-burning desire to win. Perhaps Donovan regretted never playing in Mexico and wanted to take the opportunity before the window was well and truly closed.
Beyond what Donovan might contribute on the field, the benefit to Leon was already evident in the buildup to the official announcement. Not only did the signing elicit a response in the club’s existing fan base, but it also brought overwhelming attention from American soccer fans intrigued one of the country’s greatest players arriving in Liga MX without warning.
Liga MX is the most popular league n American television. Though they've flirted with English-language coverage, it's never been a priority. Coverage of Mexican soccer in English is effectively non-existent for game broadcasts. Only a few clubs have taken steps to connect with English-speakers via websites or social media. That lack of effort is odd considering the growing appetite for the sport in the United States and geographical proximity of Mexico to millions of potential converts.
Leon hasn’t ramped up their English output yet. Maybe they’re waiting to gauge the response to Donovan’s arrival. However, they're already reaping the benefits of adding the American to their roster. Interest in Club Leon and Liga MX is rising among soccer fans who might have otherwise not paid much attention. The anecdotal evidence of more English-speaking Americans watching Club Leon games is strong.
It might be fleeting in the end, since we can’t know how long Donovan will remain with Leon, or how much he’ll actually play. After Saturday’s cameo, he remained on the bench for Leon’s 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Santos Laguna on Wednesday night. Donovan’s new team has issues that his contributions are unlikely to fix. Namely, a propensity for shipping goals at a prodigious rate.
Rather than try and label Donovan’s move to Mexico at 35, the best approach to enjoy it for what it is. We can’t know what a 28-year old Landon Donovan might have achieved in Mexico. That version of Donovan went to England to prove something to himself during a loan stint at Everton. What we have in 2018 is a pleasant surprise that carries almost no expectations.
There’s a lot working against Donovan. Leon’s defensive problems have the club down in eighth place after seven matches. While that’s just good enough to get into the Liguilla playoffs, it puts the team in a precarious position. Leon, like so many Mexican clubs, is prone to rapid coaching turnover, meaning that Gustavo Diaz may not be long for the club. Donovan may be soon trying to convince a new coach that he can help the team get back to a more solid footing.
Leon’s next date is at home on Saturday against third-place UNSAM Pumas. By then, Donovan should be a just a little more fit. If his team can avoid falling into a hole, there’s a chance Donovan will get a few more minutes and a shot at his first major contributions to the team. If Leon continues to follow recent trends, he may again be a spectator.
A month ago, the idea of Donovan playing in Mexico was nothing more than a “what if” that never happened. Now, the surprise of his signing makes way for the desire to see what he can do. Before we can say for sure what Donovan playing in Mexico is like, we need to see Donovan get his chance to really play.
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