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Donovan to return, questions remain

WAIT IS ALMOST OVER
Landon Donovan is expected to return to LA Galaxy training in the last week of March.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The prodigal son is returning.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy announced that Landon Donovan, the U.S. national team’s all-time leading scorer, will be rejoining the club “during the final week of March,” according to a club statement.

Donovan, 30, had gone on a sabbatical of sorts after he helped the Galaxy win their second consecutive MLS Cup by scoring the game-winning goal against the Houston Dynamo on Dec. 1. He explained at the time that he was eager to spend more time with family and to re-assess his life – suffering through some kind of early-onset mid-life crisis – and would take an indefinite leave from the sport.

His decision was understandable. For the last decade, Donovan had been both a heavily relied-upon player for his club and country as well as the face of the sport in the US. He had frequently suggested these burdens weighed heavily on him. And Donovan had gone on off-season loans to Bayern Munich in Germany and Everton in England in three of the last four years, accelerating his inevitable burnout.

But even if his hiatus was brief at a little under four months, the collateral damage might be considerable. Donovan had been absent more often than not for the national team ever since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as head coach in the summer of 2011, owing to injuries and fatigue. And the US attack has lacked venom ever since.

The swift Californian – whose 49 goals in 12 years easily outpace anybody else’s tally for the U.S. – remains the only player Klinsmann has at his disposal who can take on a defender and help break down a bunkered-in opposition. That quality was especially missed against Honduras on Feb. 6, when the US mustered almost no dangerous attacks to speak of in a fetid 2-1 loss.

Donovan likely won’t return to the national team fold until the trio of World Cup Qualifiers in June - if he does at all. His exact intentions are unclear. That means the US will have to make do without him on March 22 when the team hosts Costa Rica in Denver, Co. and travels to Mexico City on March 26, and may well remain rudderless without their offensive leader. (It’s fair to assume, after all, that Donovan won’t be match-fit for the international level the very week he returns to training.)

There’s little doubt that Klinsmann will bring Donovan back to the fold; he said repeatedly that he was always welcome. And his continued utility to the team is glaringly obvious even in his absence. But his return poses several questions about the parameters of the arrangement.

Will Donovan commit firmly to remaining available to the team at least through the 2014 World Cup? If he won’t, there’s little sense in once again building around a player who openly admits that he’s had “motivational issues” throughout his career. Donovan’s return might be brief. If it turns out the prolonged off-season didn’t bring him the inner peace he has often spoken about seeking, there’s no telling when he’ll walk away again.

How long will it take him to regain the requisite form to make a difference for the national team? It isn’t known what kind of shape Donovan has kept in during his time off. What’s certain, however, is that four months is an awfully long time for a soccer player not to have faced quality opposition in practice, let alone in games. Donovan has historically been extremely fit, and his game relies on those deep reserves of energy to chip away at the opposing back line’s structure over the course of 90 minutes. If it takes him several months to build up his fitness, those crucial June qualifiers would be imperiled, too.

And will Klinsmann be accused of measuring his players by different standards? He has insisted on an increased level of professionalism from his national teamers, something he sees as bedrock to his mission of taking the U.S. to a higher level. Domestically-based players are expected to take no more than a few weeks off during their off-seasons. Klinsmann has helped place many of them on loans or training stints in Europe while MLS lies dormant during the winter. Commitment is paramount. Donovan has obviously not showed much of it of late. His service and accomplishments certainly justify some slack. But if Klinsmann applies one set of laws for one player and another for the rest of the team, the charge of hypocrisy is inescapable.

Donovan’s return is welcome news to Galaxy and U.S. fans alike. But many of the questions about what he has left to give remain.

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