So I was back in San Jose last weekend, and I have to admit, the memories were kind of thick. With this being the 10th year of the league, and almost to the date, an anniversary of the inaugural game, it's hard for me not to be reminded of how I was touched by this place. Although the relationship might have been tumultuous at times, it's still a part of history, a history I don't ever want to forget.
But a lot has happened with this organization in these short 10 years, so when you're talking about history the one name that is most synonymous with this place is Landon Donovan. His accomplishments speak for themselves: two MLS Cup titles, one MLS Cup MVP award and an All-Star Game MVP trophy. Whereas my relationship was tumultuous, Donovan's was more of a love affair with the fans and the city. Or was it?
Two weeks ago, the deal was finalized to bring Donovan back to the league and back to the country in which he loves so much to play. In signing a multi-year contract with Major League Soccer, Donovan, whose decision to return to the league is all about being "happy," is coming home. The problem for San Jose fans is in the midst of this process, they've discovered that Donovan's home is not San Jose. It's Los Angeles.
So where do we go from here? A lot of us are left asking a lot of questions about this decision and its impact on soccer in the U.S. Some of the questions are fairly obvious. Does this decision help the league? I think the answer to that is yes. Does this decision hinder his progression as a player? Or is that question secondary in all of this? The biggest difference between Landon Donovan's German career and his American one is very simple. In Los Angeles, regardless of what Steve Sampson says or does, when healthy, Landon Donovan will start every single game. That obviously was not the case at Leverkusen, and it was one of the reasons Donovan was "unhappy" in Germany. For the first time in his career, practice took on a whole new meaning. He had to earn his spot every day and every week if he was going to play.
The biggest disappointment I have with Donovan is he did not accept that challenge. As "happy" as I am to see him back in this league, because I too enjoy watching him play, I wonder if some day in the future, Landon will wonder about the might-have-beens and the could-have-beens and question his own abilities. It would be unfortunate for a player as talented as Landon to ever question how good he was or could have been. Europe is all about testing yourself. It's not that the competition on the field is that much greater, it's the lessons learned about oneself in a drive to be the best that you can be.
In speaking to my good friend Alexi Lalas, the president and general manager of the Earthquakes, a certain sense of disappointment was detectable in his voice and his tone. On the bright side, San Jose has never had such a large number of season ticket holders, and they've done it without a franchise player. But to me, the underlying theme remains: When asked to comment on Landon Donovan's move to Los Angeles, Alexi noted that the move was made for personal and professional reasons. Let me reiterate the fact that Lalas put Donovan's priorities in that order. So maybe Alexi's frustrations with Landon are similar to mine.
You know, it's so easy to criticize Landon Donovan, but that comes with the territory when you take on the responsibility willingly, to be the figurehead of U.S. soccer. His short stint in Germany was not a successful one, but to his credit, Landon has an undying love for MLS. He wants to create a legacy, and he wants to take Major League Soccer to what he calls "the next level." And his decision to stay in America and to go to his real home of Los Angeles and help this league grow is still an honorable one and something that we can all respect. I personally do not respect his decision, but I understand it.
And let's face it, it won't be a very warm welcome for Landon Donovan on June 25 in San Jose upon his return. It won't be a welcome home party, because I think it's finally been established that San Jose was never his home.
So here's San Jose, a Landon-less San Jose, where they have a team and a franchise with a great history and its own great tradition. The club has an uncertain future but still an opportunity to create a legacy for itself.
Former U.S. international forward Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in MLS history, and is currently the analyst on RadioShack's Soccer Saturday on ESPN2. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.