On one hand, Landon Donovan doesn't know what to expect when he makes his return to Spartan Stadium this Saturday night. But, then again, he's not naïve either.
During the most recent performance of the San Jose Earthquakes, a 3-0 victory against Real Salt Lake last Saturday in San Jose, the public address announcer read several promos for the upcoming home game against Donovan and his new team, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Of course, the mere mention of the rival Galaxy is typically more than enough to stir up the emotions of Earthquakes fans, but they saved their most vociferous boos when the name of the former local hero was announced.
"First of all, it's gonna be weird being in the away team hotel. To come to San Jose and not be going to a house or where I live is gonna be weird," said Donovan. "I don't know really what to expect. I'm assuming there will be people who are excited to see me and there are people who will not be happy.
"I hope that people will be respectful -- and I fear that probably won't be the case."
To gain an appreciation for why San Jose fans would turn against the player who was arguably the most responsible for the rejuvenation of the club, one most only look at the events of the past seven months. The announcement was made last Nov. 23 that Donovan, who joined the Earthquakes just prior to the 2001 season and led the team to two MLS championships in four seasons, would be returning to Bayer Leverkusen.
Donovan reported on Jan. 1; however, he stayed with Bayer Leverkusen for just two months, registering no goals and two assists in nine appearances before coming back to MLS. When he returned, it was not in the familiar blue and white shirt of the Earthquakes, but in the colors of the rival Galaxy, his hometown team. Donovan concedes that returning to MLS and latching on with the Galaxy was no accident.
"It was difficult to go to Germany, but fairly easy for me to come to L.A. because it's home," said Donovan. "I wouldn't use the word 'accidental.' It was made clear to me before I left that at some point, whether that was six months, two years, five years, that MLS would like to have me back. And I made it clear that I would like to be back at some point. I'm not going to pretend to say that I meant to go to San Jose all along and that I would always be in San Jose and end my career in San Jose."
Donovan leaves behind a host of fond memories from his four seasons with San Jose, but none tops the crowning achievement of his first season, a 2-1 victory against -- who else -- the Los Angeles Galaxy in the 2001 MLS Cup.
"Winning the MLS Cup the first year was probably the best moment," said Donovan. "That team was pretty special. From not playing in Germany and having it end like that was pretty special."
Although Donovan understands why Earthquakes fans are upset with him, especially considering the circumstances of his departure and almost immediate subsequent return to MLS with the rival Galaxy, he is sensitive to the issue of negative fan reaction.
"I'm not going to pretend that it wouldn't bother me. You get into this relationship with people that's pretty intimate. Whether you like it or not, being there for four years, you're sharing something with them," said Donovan.
"But I understand. Some of these people have been around since the old Earthquakes, so they root for the team, they're not rooting for a player. So if someone leaves them, especially to go to a rival, it's understandable."
Donovan insists that the move had nothing to do with soccer, per se, but at the same time concedes that the uncertain future of the Earthquakes played a role in his decision to join the Galaxy.
"People feel like it's a soccer move, like San Jose wasn't good enough for me so I had to go play for the Galaxy and it had absolutely nothing to do with that," said Donovan, adding, "It was difficult for all the players to constantly never know what was going on in San Jose. Even this year, you hear rumors going around. That uncertainty played a big part and when I left, I knew that when I came back to MLS, I was hoping that I could be in L.A."
Donovan has thrived in Los Angeles, ranking second in the league in scoring with six goals and four assists in just nine appearances with the Galaxy, who are in second place in the Western Conference with 23 points, five ahead of the third-place Earthquakes.
Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to tha approval of Major league Soccer or its clubs.