As the Best of 2012 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 12 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 19 until Dec. 30, when we unveil what our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2012.
LA Galaxy beat writer Scott French brings the countdown to No. 3: a long and emotional year for Landon Donovan. The Galaxy captain and US national team stalwart hinted at retirement not once but twice in 2012, leaving MLS and USMNT fans to wonder what 2013 will bring if Donovan has departed.
Landon Donovan's long, difficult 2012 actually began on a high. Another stirring and superb loan stint with Everton, more proof he could cut it with the best in England and, as people expected, a busy and productive offseason that would only pay dividends for both the LA Galaxy and the US national team.
But Donovan returned home with the flu, lost strength and fitness, and suddenly struggled to find himself during LA's horrid opening months while battling a quadriceps strain. He put together a brilliant stretch as they started to turn things around and then limped to the finish after suffering a hamstring strain — and apparently tweaking a knee ailment — in the US national team's mid-August victory over Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
It was a trying campaign that ended splendidly, with another MLS Cup title, but left Donovan needing an extended break and, perhaps, prepared to walk away. And for the first time in a very long time, MLS attempted to prepare for the reality of life without Landon.
The 30-year-old mainstay acknowledged during the summer that retirement was an option, and he made it clear again as the Galaxy prepared for the Dec. 1 title game that it was possible he was done.
“I'm going to take as much time as I need and decide if and when I'm ready to come back,” Donovan told the Los Angeles Times in late November. “I can't put a time frame on that. If it takes two weeks and I'm ready to go again or two months or a year or two years. Or never. I don't know.”
Donovan, who has always proven to be one of the more well-rounded soccer stars, always has sought a balance between his life on and off the field, but nearly two years of constant action — for LA, Everton and the US national team — interspersed with injury and growing fatigue began sapping his desire.
The signs were there in May, after he arrived at the national team's Florida camp before the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign. He told ESPN that “all players reach a point in their career where it's natural to lose some of that hunger, that desire,” that “there's a natural point where it's not as fun anymore” and that “probably sooner rather than later I'll be pretty burned out.”
He reiterated that in October, noting that “your body's going to tell you it's time to take a break, and that's what my body is telling me this year, there's no question.”
After a fine second half in the 3-1 victory over Houston in the MLS Cup final, in which he netted the winning goal with a 65th-minute penalty kick, he was asked if what he felt was, indeed, burnout.
“I guess you could describe it that way, yeah,” he replied. “It's just been a long two years. For all of us. It's not a ‘woe-is-me’ story, but I have to listen to my heart and my gut, and right now my gut says to get away for a while.”
How long that will be, only Donovan knows. And perhaps he doesn't know. And maybe he'll never be back.
But that would surprise Bruce Arena, one of the men who knows Donovan best.
“I probably would be [surprised],” the Galaxy's head coach and general manager said after the game. “We will be fully supportive of whatever Landon wants to do. I think he still has so much to offer the game as a player. I think, hopefully, with a little bit of rest, he'll be ready to get back at some point, but we're going to support Landon anyway we can.”