Landon Donovan enjoys rock star welcome for unveiling at Leon
LEON, Mexico -- There have been a lot of opinions shared about Landon Donovan's decision to come out of retirement and suit up for Club Leon. There has been head-scratching about how a player without a professional game in 14 months can make an impact in a league considered stronger than Major League Soccer at 35 years old. And there has been more than one comment suggesting it may all be a marketing ploy.
In terms of what Donovan brings on the field, only time will provide the answer. His game is ideally suited to Liga MX's style but whether his innate talent can win out over an aging body will be seen when Donovan gets some serious minutes under his belt. One thing that did become clear at Donovan's presentation on Monday is that it certainly doesn't sound like he's in Mexico for a final pay check and was bored back in San Diego. Donovan stressed repeatedly that he is extremely motivated for the challenge, and you want to believe him.
"It's my responsibility to show that I can still play football," said Donovan, speaking in Spanish at a news conference on Monday. "I know what I'm like and I'm not going to come here and not be successful. It's not going to happen.
"When I decide in my mind that I want to do something, I do it."
It didn't take long inside Estadio Leon on Tuesday for it to become obvious what attracted the U.S. icon. The player has always wanted to ply his trade in Mexico, he acknowledged, and Leon is a one-team, mid-size city with a passionate fan base, small press corps, storied history and a squad that could well be fighting for the titles.
Donovan may be known as "Captain America" and a figurehead for the northern side of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry for so many years but Mexico clearly appeals to him. While he admitted that this particular move came together quickly, Donovan has shown interest in Liga MX in the past, in particular when Club America tried to sign him in 2009. It's something that goes back to his youth and that can be seen with the forward holding his first press conference almost entirely in Spanish.
"Almost without realizing it as I got into my teens, I played with a distinct style different from other Americans and I never really understood why until I really started to analyze it and realized that I grew up playing with Mexicans and Latinos," said Donovan. "I didn't know any other style of football."
"I was born in Southern California, I grew up talking and playing with Mexicans and it's part of my soul," said Donovan, who added he will be bringing his family to Mexico.
"I know Mexican people are very kind people," he said. "Like I said on Twitter, I don't believe in walls and it's important that our countries are together. We should be friends and companions."
Donovan admitted to feeling emotional at his unveiling on Monday night. Around 7,000 fans turned up and waved U.S. and Mexico flags handed out by Leon, as well as the letters "L" and "D." It was a rock star reception for Donovan, with banners highlighting his achievements, the big screen showing his goals and his No. 20 shirt the most prominently placed item in the club shop. Donovan was even mobbed for selfies and autographs on exiting the stadium.
Atmosphere building in Estadio Leon ahead of @landondonovan's presentation. The letters "L" and "D" have been given out to the public, as well as small 🇲🇽 and 🇺🇸 flags. #ligamxeng pic.twitter.com/N6WcZl401R— Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) January 16, 2018
One local newspaper carried the headline "The Landon era begins" on the sports pages and the team hadn't seen a player presentation to compare since Rafa Marquez in 2012. The buzz and adrenaline rush for Donovan will have been huge on Monday and no matter how many times he stressed he was happy with life in San Diego, for any superstar sportsperson, its not easy to say no to opportunities such as the one he was presented. (Reports in Mexico indicate he'll make $185,000 per month while at the club.)
A tough minipreseason will bring him down to earth, followed by the test of just what he has got left in his locker. The presentation only whet the appetite but watching Donovan in Liga MX promises to be an enthralling affair.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.