Landon Donovan returns to Everton with less to prove

A first loan spell at Goodison Park worked wonders for the US striker. Now he is back for a second try in what he says are 'the best few years' of his career.

MVP and game-wining goal scorer Landon Donovan (R) lifts the winning trophy following victory over the Houston Dynamo in their MLS Cup final at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California on November 20, 2011.  The LA Galaxy defeated the Houston Dynamo 1-0. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN
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When Landon Donovan jogs on to the pitch at Goodison Park tonight wearing the No 9 Everton shirt, America's most prolific footballer will be seeking to reprise the successful 2010 loan spell with the Merseyside club, one that lifted him from obscurity on the eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean and validated him in the eyes of all but the harshest of his domestic critics.

Everton can be fairly described as "goal-starved", having scored only 19 times in 18 Premier League matches, and the coach David Moyes will be hoping the LA Galaxy forward can breathe some life into a moribund attack, as he did two years ago, beginning with tonight's match against Bolton Wanderers.

"I've always looked at Landon as probably the most gifted player in the MLS, as far as the US players go," Moyes said when the loan deal was complete. "And when he came in here [in 2010], he was a little bit of a gamble for us because, perhaps, he hadn't done so well in his early days when he was in Germany. And I think Landon might have had a little bit to prove, as well.

"And he came in and he done good against Arsenal, he played in some big games for us. We were on a very good run at the time, and Landon was very much part of the team."

Donovan scored twice in 13 matches with Everton and was remarkably popular with supporters. The club investigated making the arrangement permanent but baulked at the MLS asking price, estimated at US$10 million (Dh36.7 m) for a player the league's commissioner called "a national treasure".

Donovan, who turns 30 in March, told Everton's website that he is a better player than he was in 2010.

"Before you get to the end of your career, mentally you get better and better," he said. "I feel I have grown a lot over the last two years. I've had a World Cup and I feel these may be the best few years of my career.

No American has scored more international goals (46) or World Cup goals (five) than has Donovan, the focal point of the US attack for more a decade. He is the face of the national side, as well as MLS.

Yet his profile in Europe two years ago was modest, and certainly did not rival those of compatriots Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel or Tim Howard. It was a direct result of three troubled stretches in Germany, from 1999 until 2009, each of which ended with him returning to the US and to the derisive nickname of "Landycakes", hung on him by US fans who considered his career incomplete without a successful spell overseas.

"The interesting part for me was that when Landon came here, it worked well for him. It helped him," Moyes said. "I don't know how much it helped his reputation back home, because I know it's huge as it already is, but it certainly helped his reputation in the Premiership, and he was well thought of not just by me, but by all the other Premiership sides as well."

Donovan's second stretch at Everton comes as a surprise. He carried minor injuries for much of the 2011 season, which ended with him scoring the only goal in the MLS Cup, his fourth championship. He will remain with Everton until the February 25 home match with Liverpool, then return in time for the start of the MLS season.

Well-read but intensely private, and a person his mother once described as "an old soul", Donovan's latest Premier League adventure could be related to a rough patch in his personal life, which includes a divorce from his actress wife Bianca Kajlich, with whom he shared tattoos of hummingbirds because, he said, "they mate for life".

Three weeks ago he tweeted that he was sitting at home alone on a Friday night and watching a quiz show. "I think I have a problem," he wrote, with the hashtag: "Loser".

Word of his return to Everton, in tandem with his tweeting "Once a Toffee, always a Toffee", prompted celebration from some Everton fans. Wrote one: "Thank you Father Christmas for bringing Landon back to Goodison."

Donovan most often plays as a withdrawn forward or a right-side midfielder. He is both supplier and finisher, and his work rate has always been impressive.

The Californian, who grew up in a sunny middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, came to prominence at the 1999 Under 17 World Cup, where he was voted the Golden Ball. He was signed by Bayer Leverkusen to a six-year contract but was depressed by the cold and wet German winter.

He wangled a loan to MLS in 2001, and led the San Jose Earthquakes to the 2001 and 2003 championships. Leverkusen recalled him in 2005, but he appeared in only seven matches and succeeded in convincing the club to sell him to MLS. He landed with his hometown club, which he and David Beckham have turned into the league's glamour franchise.

In 2009, Donovan secured a loan during the winter to Bayern Munich, but Franz Beckenbauer said the little American rated no better than the fourth forward in the team.

He fared far better in the Premier League, and even now some are suggesting that Everton will again attempt to buy him from MLS. Far more likely is Donovan returning to Los Angeles on schedule, and to a reunion with Beckham.