Landon Donovan spent the past few months in parts unknown trying to prepare himself for this moment in a variety of different ways. His display on and off the ball during a 29-minute appearance off the bench in Saturday's 2-2 draw at Toronto FC showed those rejuvenation efforts did not go to waste.
Subtle movements quickly captured the positives of the respite. The onlooking cameras soon caught Donovan stalking the ground between TFC center backs Danny Califf and Darren O'Dea. The U.S. international employs a hurried, forceful gait when he invests in a game. He prowls around with menacing intent, searching for an opening to make an impact. For opposing defenders, it is truly a threatening sight. For the Galaxy, it suggests this return isn't undertaken by a spent star.
More overt signs also emerged to reinforce that the clarity and the relief provided by some time away from the game did not diminish his competitive streak. Donovan gestured to Todd Dunivant when the left back's cross went astray. He poked a ball back toward midfield as the Reds attempted to gain ground on a free kick. Curt exchanges with O'Dea and referee Hilario Grajeda underscored the general impression that the break had well and truly concluded.
Fairly or not, Donovan needed to show his usual fire when he stepped on the field. His decision to step away for a period called his commitment and his desire into significant question. His engagement in this match indicates those qualities still burn brightly, perhaps even refreshed after a respite from the game.
But those indicators only matter a touch in the final accounting. Only his continued and influential presence will dispel most of the qualms created by his choices over the past few months.
A few stellar performances wouldn't hurt, either. It may, however, take a few weeks for Donovan to return to the sharpness required to dominate domestic matches and place himself in contention for an international recall. The inevitable fallout from his layoff appeared at points during this spell on the field. Donovan possesses more natural ability than all but a selected few MLS players, but even he cannot conjure it consistently after participating in a few training sessions.
Bright ideas resulted in somewhat imperfect execution. The clever chip to spring fellow substitute Colin Clark drifted just a bit too close to the end line. A corner kick landed just a bit too wide of the far post. A couple of combinations with Mike Magee sputtered when they might have produced a goal on another day.
And yet a few glimpses provide encouragement that Donovan will return to his devastating best in short order. He conjured up plenty of ideas in the final third. He connected well with his teammates and navigated into the right spaces. He produced a cushioned, delicate touch to prompt Juninho's blast over the bar. He revealed fitness posed little, if any, concern.
Arena and Donovan hit all of the right notes as they discussed Donovan's first match of the season. Arena mentioned how his star man needed to catch up quickly and noted that the scale does not include compensation for layoffs. Donovan said he needed to obtain the necessary sharpness in order to improve his performance.
Those words, of course, are all true. Donovan – for better or for worse – must meet a high standard in short order. His club teammates could use his magic to help send Monterrey crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League over the next couple of weeks. His international teammates will need him when the Hexagonal resumes in June.
All of a sudden, the usual demands and the trappings associated with them are right back on the 31-year-old's shoulders. It may take a modest amount of time for Donovan to place himself in a position to bear the burden, but his first steps indicate he once again appears capable of assuming those responsibilities in due course.
Five Quotes – Week 5
1. LA Galaxy forward Landon Donovan on his feelings about returning to the field: “I felt like I felt when I was a little kid today,” Donovan said on the Galaxy's post-game show, according to MLSsoccer.com. “That's the feeling I want back. I was excited to be out there. I was engaged, I was aware and sort of in the moment, and enjoyed it. For the last while before that [last year], it hadn't been that way, so I'm very fortunate I was given this opportunity to clear my head, and now I'm excited to be back and help this team.”
2. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear on extending the Dynamo's unbeaten run in Houston to 34 matches with a 2-0 victory over San Jose: “You don’t get anything for it,” Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com after his side joined Real Salt Lake (2009-2011) for the longest stretch without a home defeat in all competitions by a MLS side. “You don’t get a T-shirt or a hat or a ring for it. You get a lot of points and get asked a lot of questions and a lot of satisfaction on a week-to-week basis, but in the end it goes down in a statistical record book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful accomplishment and I’m glad I’m part of the group that’s done it, but there is still a lot of stuff to be thought about as well.”
3. Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis on the return of Javier Morales: “We know how valuable Javier is,” Kreis told reporters after RSL defeated Seattle 2-1 at a sold-out Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night. “We know how gifted he is with the ball. We know that if we want to be an elite club in this country and in this league we are going to need a player like Javier Morales to make differences. So it’s good to have him back on track and moving forward.”
4. Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning on Sounders FC's slow start: “The reality is that we are dead last in the league after four games,” Gspurning told reporters after Seattle fell to a third defeat in four matches to start the campaign. “It’s not what we think we are – what we are doing is important.”
5. Chivas USA coach José Luis Sánchez Solá on whether his side is a contender: “My team is made for every week,” Chelis told reporters after a 2-1 victory over Vancouver on Saturday night. “I want to look at the cup half full. How long it’s going to last, I don’t know. But I want to see the glass half full. Surprise or no surprise, Chivas exists.”
BONUS. Colorado coach Oscar Pareja on the first penalty kick awarded to Portland in 37 MLS matches: “Yeah, we had our two points in our pockets,” Pareja told reporters after referee Drew Fischer pointed to the spot when Atiba Harris caught David Horst across the chest with his leg. “That's frustrating and disappointing. Our boys did a good job today. I've got to make this very clear. The penalty was very soft. It was not a PK. I'm not happy with it. I thought that we have to make it clear because we came up here with a play that is unacceptable.”