As the Best of 2013 continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 10 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. On Dec. 30 we'll reveal our Story of the Year, as voted by our editorial panel.
Contributor Andy Edwards takes us to No. 9: Landon Donovan's preseason vacation to Cambodia and his triumphant return to both the LA Galaxy and US national team.
On the surface, 2013 was just another typical year for Landon Donovan.
Another season of 10 goals and nine assists for the LA Galaxy, the tenth straight season he achieved at least one of those numbers, let alone both. Plus eight more goals and eight more assists for the US national team en route to winning his fourth Gold Cup trophy and qualifying for his fourth World Cup.
He also tied Jeff Cunningham’s all-time MLS goal scoring record (134) to be broken sometime in 2014, and became the first USMNT player to reach the 50-goal, 50-assist plateau. No other player has 50 in either category.
But that’s not even the half of what this year was all about for Donovan. Instead, 2013 will ultimately be remembered as the year he almost walked away from the game, at the age of 30, and the comeback that ensued.
- BEST OF 2013: What other stories made the Top 10?
Following 240 games played between club and country since the start of 2008 and little more than a single two-month break following the 2010 MLS season, Donovan was tired. Tired physically, but more so than anything, tired mentally; “burned out,” as he put it.
“Obviously, there's points in your life that's difficult,” Donovan said this spring. “But if you're really at a place where you're struggling mentally, we need to be more compassionate and understanding of people in all walks of life and understand that they might need time away, too.
“That was certainly the case with me. I had the added physical element, in that my body was exhausted, but if I didn't take this time off, I would have been useless to everybody this year in a professional setting, and probably a personal setting.”
So he did exactly what he said he needed to do. He took a self-imposed sabbatical from the game, right in the middle of the Galaxy’s preseason. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena granted him an extended leave of absence, USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann was forced to open the final stage of World Cup qualifying without his best player, and no one knew — not even Donovan himself — whether or not he’d be back.
If anything is to be learned from Donovan’s contemplation of retirement, it’s that sometimes you just need to play some barefooted soccer with a bunch of kids in a field in Cambodia to remind yourself why you love this game so much.
Life on the field wasn’t instantly easy for Donovan after missing the first month of the season, though. He wasn’t fully fit, he dealt with nagging injuries, and his timing and sharpness weren’t precise.
He downright struggled at the start, scoring only three goals in his first 13 league games upon returning in March. Naturally, there were questions about whether or not he would ever rediscover his former greatness.
And then came the Gold Cup, a tournament of which he is now four-time Best XI honoree, three-time Golden Boot winner and first-time Most Valuable Player. Donovan scored five goals and assisted on seven others often times against the, admittedly, subpar talent from the likes of Belize, Cuba and El Salvador.
The competition didn’t matter, though. A string of top-class performances and team success was exactly what he needed to kick-start his year.
“I’m really proud to be a part of what we’ve been through,” Donovan told reporters following the final against Panama. “As I get older, the things that matter to me are winning. When you look around and you see young kids holding the trophy and experiencing something for the first time, it makes me really happy.”
That form carried over to the Galaxy. He scored a hat trick in his first game back with the club. He scored again two games later, and then again in the next game.
- BEST OF 2013: Did you miss the Game of the Year?
Now 31, Donovan returned to Klinsmann’s USMNT first-team squad for a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers in September, where his standout performance against rivals Mexico not only offered flashbacks to that 20-year-old kid in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, but his goal and assist in the 2-0 victory also helped secure qualification for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
To have watched Donovan go from, “I would have been useless to everybody this year,” to once again the centerpiece of a World Cup-bound US squad in six short months, served as another reminder of the important player he has been for more than a decade now, and looks more than ready to continue to be for a little while longer.
And with a full offseason worth of rest expected for Donovan again this winter, 2014 is shaping up nicley to once again provide him ample opportunity to write headlines of the grandest variety.
For all he’s done, perhaps his last defining moment is still yet to come.