Speculation and uncertainty dictated the conversations about Landon Donovan this winter. One bedrock principle – his desire to step away from the game for an unspecified amount of time – fueled the ongoing furor and prompted theories about the duration of his absence and the reasons behind it.
Those discussions will not cease until Donovan steps forward and resolves them himself. Only he can explain why he felt the need to do what he did. And he may or may not choose to do so in the manner or with the expediency those around him and the fans around the country want at this juncture.
Although Donovan has not explained himself yet, his club has at least offered a timetable for his return. Donovan will link up with his Galaxy teammates during the last week of March, according to a statement issued by the team on Sunday afternoon.
“We understand this arrangement is not ideal, but we are confident it will allow Landon the time he needs to be both mentally and physically prepared for the upcoming season,” Galaxy general manager and head coach Bruce Arena said in that statement. “We remain focused on our preparation for the start of the 2013 season and look forward to Landon rejoining us next month.”
The mooted end date to Donovan's sabbatical allows the Galaxy – and, if all parties are amenable, the U.S. national team – to plan for his return. It also permits a cursory review of the assessable fallout from Donovan's decision to extend his break.
Most of the focus will undoubtedly fall on the pair of World Cup qualifiers Donovan will miss for his country in late March. Make no mistake: his absence from the squad for the matches against Costa Rica and Mexico is significant. Donovan remains a figure capable of deciding a match and lifting the level of his teammates on the international stage. There is simply no available replacement for his experience and his quality at Jürgen Klinsmann's disposal.
Donovan's decision to return after this critical point in the Hexagonal raises significant questions about his future with the national team. It is by no means certain that his return to the Galaxy also means a return to the U.S. setup. There are hard discussions ahead between Donovan and Klinsmann and Donovan and his teammates. Ability usually trumps all in the pragmatic chase for a berth in the World Cup, but acceptance matters quite a bit as well. But forecasting how or whether Donovan fits or wants to fit in the national team in the future remains a question too complex to answer given the paucity of evidence available.
No such strictures limit the assessment of this sojourn on the Galaxy: it is a minimal blow at best. Donovan will likely miss a minimum of three league matches and will definitely skip the two-game tie against CS Herediano in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. He could miss a few more encounters depending on his fitness level and Arena's willingness to throw him straight into the mix upon his return to the fold.
While those affairs do mean something to the Galaxy, they matter far less than having a content Donovan back in the squad. As the two-time defending champions proved last season, early success is not a prerequisite for ultimate triumph. This seasoned group – particularly with Omar Gonzalez fixed in the middle of the back four, Juninho once again deployed in midfield and Robbie Keane set to lead the line once again – can muddle through just fine without him. The need for his extra touch of class arises later in the calendar when the matches increase in importance. And he will more than likely supply it as he always has.
No certainties – not even Donovan's brilliance on a domestic stage he has dominated time and again – exist beyond that return date at the moment. Donovan's decision to step back from his career removed that comforting constancy from the equation. Whether he reshapes his revamped reality into a new mold or slides right back into the familiar strictures remains solely his choice. Until he unveils his path, it is left to everyone else to wonder about his next move.