This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Tony Beltran was tuned in for a rarity in Major League Soccer these days: The L.A. Galaxy being bounced early from the MLS Cup playoff picture.
Real Salt Lake's longtime right back looked on as Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard made stop after stop in the postseason penalty shootout, putting the Rapids' then-magical season still on track and putting the end to an era of what was an aging Galaxy squad.
It was there that a thought struck Beltran: "I was thinking, 'I wonder what Landon's going to do?'"
Landon Donovan returned to L.A. midseason in 2016, slamming shut a 20-month retirement period perceived to come way too early for the player considered to be the most talented, accomplished American soccer player ever. Beltran and Donovan have gone toe-to-toe over the last decade, and the RSL defender could tell that Donovan missed it.
"Right then I didn't think that would be enough for him, especially when clearly he could still hang, and not just hang, but excel," Beltran said.
So when the RSL veteran heard that his club was exploring the idea of signing Donovan this offseason, even he was floored. Surprised, yes. Caught off guard? Absolutely.
A revolving chapter to RSL's last month has been the possibility that Donovan could be trading the comfort of his familiar Southern California lifestyle for the jagged snow-capped mountains along the Wasatch Front. Of the two Designated Player spots left to be filled at RSL this offseason, one remains.
Could it be the six-time MLS Cup champion? The guy the league named its Most Valuable Player award after?
The front office found its attacking midfielder in 22-year-old Slovakian Albert Rusnák. That other spot remains. Could it be Donovan? The club remains engaged in contract discussions with the 34-year-old. In an interview on SiriusXM radio Jan. 19, Donovan confirmed he will be playing soccer in 2017.
Just depends if it's in a Sunday recreation league or in front of a massive crowd, he quipped.
The potential of RSL landing a name like Donovan adds a lingering, intriguing element to this preseason, which kicked off Monday in Casa Grande, Ariz. Fans await potential reports with bated breath. The talks have run both hot and cold since first surfacing in late December. But the process of courting Donovan also signals a shift.
Ethos at RSL has been predicated on lack of superstars in the locker room. Asked if there is any hesitancy that the chase of Donovan could disrupt that, general manager Craig Waibel pointed to the timeline of Donovan's career.
"Landon's in a different phase of his career that fits who we are as a club," Waibel said. "It's a bit of evolution on the player end, as well as the club end. We've never gotten in a conversation claiming we're signing a 27-year-old Landon Donovan. All the conversations have been very realistic on his fit within our club and very realistic about the expectations involved, but as I've said, there's so many details that go into any contract that it's far from done."
As this roster readies for the start of the season in five weeks, RSL coach Jeff Cassar said the looming possibility of signing Donovan won't act as a distraction for the team. The cohesion of knocking off the rust, battling through the preseason double-day training sessions, Cassar said, is where he'll get an early idea of the group he has.
"It's a character and quality thing, and no one can argue with either one of those," he said. "On top of that, I love our depth anyway. Obviously we will have to sign someone and we will want that player to be extremely good, and the quicker we can get him in and get him with the group."
Donovan's potential signing would not only shore up the void left after the departure of former DP Juan Manuel Martinez, but would allow RSL's wealth of young domestic attacking talent to learn under the league's all-time leading scorer. After all, he's accounted for 145 goals and 136 assists in 340 career appearances.
Jordan Allen played under Donovan when he was appointed coach for the MLS Homegrown Game during the last two MLS All-Star events. The versatile 21-year-old understands that Donovan's impact at RSL would go well beyond the minutes he'd play on the field especially for homegrown players such as himself.
"Obviously it'd be huge," Allen said. "He has all the experience in the world and he's been through everything that we're going through now, so we'd be able to learn from him, learn from stories, learn from just watching him, so really everything about him being here would be beneficial for us."
The season-opener March 4 against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Toronto FC also doubles as Donovan's 35th birthday. Just a measure of time now whether or not his boots will be laced up in Sandy in a very unfamiliar claret jersey.
"A lot of times, you go out there and you spend big money on signings and it could take a while for these signings to make an impact because of everything else," Beltran said. "But this is somebody who is MLS."
Position • Forward/midfielder
Age • 34
Club history • L.A. Galaxy (2005-2014, 2016), Everton (2010, 2012), Bayern Munich (2009), San Jose Earthquakes (2001-2004), Bayer Leverkusen (1999-2005)
Stats • MLS all-time leading scorer with 145 goals and 136 assists, U.S. men's national team all-time leading scorer (57 goals) and assist man (58 assists), six-time MLS Cup champion