Can Landon Donovan be the LA Galaxy’s difference-maker?

Kelvin Kuo/Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one player who has been crucial for the LA Galaxy’s success over the years, it’s Landon Donovan. He led the Galaxy to four MLS Cups and holds the league records in both goals and assists.

But now, nearly two years since he led the Galaxy to the MLS Cup and retired, the Galaxy may need Donovan to again make the difference, this time on a depleted Galaxy team. After coming out of retirement in September to help them mitigate a growing injury list, Donovan looks poised to make his most impact just as the Galaxy prepare to open the playoffs on Wednesday against Real Salt Lake in a single-game win or go-home clash.

Donovan, 34, went his first full 90-minute shift of the season over the weekend and, though it was a frustrating scoreless draw against FC Dallas, it was a positive sign to see Donovan go the entire match. His fitness has been the missing piece since his return and he finally looked like he had gotten his legs back under him over the weekend. Now he has that fitness to go along with his unmatched experience and soccer IQ.

He was perhaps the best player on the pitch for his 16-minute shift in a 2-2 draw to Sporting Kansas City in September. He scored a crucial equalizer, his only goal so far, and did well both with the ball at his feet and off the ball to create threatening moments. But it was only for 16 minutes.

In his six games played, he has run out of gas early and, by his own admission, he was at times the slowest player on the field. In his first 90-minute match on Sunday, he wasn’t quite at 100 percent by the end, but he is getting there and not a moment too soon.

After all, the longer he is able to be on the pitch, the more of an impact he can make, and the Galaxy could use his defense-splitting passes that change games. We’ve seen it countless times before — as much as Donovan has been a goal-scorer in his career, he has also been a chance-creator. He had 19 assists in his last full season in 2014, the league high that year, and he also holds the record in all-time MLS assists at 136.

On top of that, he is a set piece specialist. The Galaxy have looked far more dangerous on set pieces with Donovan standing over the ball. In Sunday’s draw to FC Dallas, Mike Magee flubbed a well-taken Donovan set piece and Jelle Van Damme just barely failed to finish another. The Galaxy have been one of the weakest teams on set pieces this year, tying for second-last on the list of set-piece goals scored — and Donovan could help them change that.

The Galaxy have scored just five goals in their last five games, which is pretty low considering the roster they have, even despite a rash of absences. Robbie Keane is perhaps the greatest Designated Player signing in MLS, but he’s been injured and struggling to produce. Steven Gerrard has been injured and struggling too and Gyasi Zardes’ availability for the postseason is a question mark as he recovers from injury. Tactically, Donovan’s presence gives Bruce Arena options and allows him to put Donovan is a spot where it should help everyone else perform better.

The Galaxy also need to do better defensively if they hope to make a run through MLS and Donovan at full fitness will help there, too. Though Donovan isn’t traditionally thought of as a defender, that’s again where his field vision makes an impact. He knows where to track back and how to get involved defensively, which is helpful for a Galaxy team that often gets beaten on the flanks and has led the league in shots allowed per game. Although their goals conceded total isn’t nearly as bad, giving up so many shots could eventually hurt them.

But any impact Donovan can have is limited by his fitness and whether or not he can keep up at full speed the entire time. With each match, Donovan says he feels better than the one before. Now, the Galaxy must turn around for a midweek game with everything on the line and there’s a good chance Arena will give Donovan the start. If the un-retired legend is up for it, it could be the difference.