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Donovan joins Leon, ready to “win championships” in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Landon Donovan, the most accomplished player in American soccer history, is talking about winning championships with his new team in Mexico.

Donovan is returning from retirement for the second time in three years, this time with Club Leon. He was cheered loudly by hundreds of fans during a brief ceremony Monday, an unusual site not seen for Leon since Mexican great Rafael Marquez signed with Leon in 2014.

“I’m very excited, I did not expect that, it was amazing, now I just want to play and be on the field,” Donovan said in Spanish at a news conference. “It is Monday and very late and people are here. Now I need to talk to the coach to set a plan because it’s been over a year since my last professional game and I will need time, but I’m motivated, I want to win championships.”

The 35-year-old Donovan arrived in Mexico last week while rumors swirled about a possible comeback. He announced Friday night he was coming out of retirement to play in Mexico for the first time in his career.

“I don’t believe in walls, I always wanted to play in Mexico because I grew up in California playing with Mexicans since I was like 8 or 9 years old,” said Donovan, who’s the career scoring leader for the U.S. team and in the MLS.

Former U.S. players Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda have played for Leon. Currently, William Yarbrough is the starting goalkeeper for a Leon team that has won seven league titles.

“I spoke with Marcelo Balboa about the city and also with Omar Gonzales (who plays for Pachuca) to know more about the country,” Donovan said. “I also spoke a lot with (former Puebla player) DaMarcus Beasley because I wanted to know as much as possible. I know that the league is different to the U.S. and to England, I think the style of play suits me, I used to play with Mexicans so my style is more Latino and I think I can be successful. That’s important for me”.

Leon reached the quarterfinals last season and will be a stronger side for the Clausura tournament after signing Giles Barnes (Orlando City), Emanuel Cecchini (Malaga) and now Donovan.

Despite not playing for nearly two years, Donovan has created a lot of expectation. The main sports networks in Mexico devoted plenty of air time to the move, and Donovan’s jersey sold out at the stadium before a game against Toluca on Saturday.

“I think it’s a good move, he’s a very skilled player, just remember how he used to made life difficult for us when he played for the U.S. team against Mexico,” said Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti, who briefly managed the Mexican team before the arrival of Juan Carlos Osorio.

Donovan returned to the LA Galaxy of MLS in September of 2016 following a 21-month retirement and appeared in nine games. He hasn’t played professionally since Nov. 6, 2016.

Donovan played in three World Cups: South Korea and Japan 2002, Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. He also played in six Gold Cups and won four titles. He scored 57 goals playing for the U.S. team and 145 in the MLS.

Donovan has done broadcast work since retiring and was rumored to be considering a run for U.S. Soccer Federation president. Donovan announced in November that he would not seek the position.

Landon Donovan unveiled by Club Leon

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Landon Donovan was unveiled to Club Leon fans at Estadio Leon on Monday night.

The former USMNT star and longtime LA Galaxy forward came out of retirement for the second time to sign with the Liga MX side this past weekend. Leon finished 7th in the Apertura table, losing to Tigres in the first round of the playoffs. They currently have a perfect six points through the first two Clausura matches, sitting second in the table with a +3 goal differential.

Fans were allowed into the stadium for free, and they packed the lower stand on one end, waving USA flags and holding large “L” and “D” cutouts, and the fans faced a massive board on the field that read “I DON’T BELIEVE IN WALLS.” Chants of “U-S-A” rang out through the stadium before the unveiling.

ESPN reporter Tom Marshall pointed out that the last time the club had such a large event to welcome a player, it was in January of 2013 when the club brought Mexico captain Rafa Marquez in from the New York Red Bulls.

Donovan will don the number 20 for Club Leon.

Landon Donovan is back; What it can mean to Leon, USA

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Saying “I don’t believe in walls,” United States men’s national team legend Landon Donovan came out of retirement (again) this weekend to join Club Leon in Mexico.

Donovan, 35, scored one goal in nine matches during his first comeback bid with the LA Galaxy in 2016, and was an MLS Best XI member as recently as 2014.

There’s little to no risk for Donovan, who’s not the sort of character who’d care about public perception, anyway. Again, he’s a legend whose name is on the MLS MVP trophy (which does seem an honor that could’ve waited given recent news). And the potential rewards are high, but there is a question of why.

[ MORE: Martino, Wynalda USSF alliance?!? ]

We imagine that this past season had to have Donovan frothing for several reasons. Clearly there’s political impetus given his aforementioned “walls” line, but there’s likely so much more to it.

Donovan was mentioned as a potential candidate to run for the vacant United States Soccer Federation presidency, and the American legend was steamed when his Yanks failed to qualify for the World Cup.

He’s also watched Clint Dempsey join him atop the USMNT goal scoring charts, his Galaxy struggle for the first time in ages, and a number of longtime friends — Bob Bradley, Tim Howard — return to MLS (Pure speculation but maybe, just maybe, Donovan will use Leon as a buffer before another MLS stint with LAFC? He has, after all, played for both of the Cali Clasico rivals).

And the Swansea City advisor now has two sons who can enjoy ‘Dad’ back on the playing field. For Leon, the decision is easy, as there’s more depth in salary south of the border and the American is going to sell enough jerseys and garner enough buzz to justify the move before considering his potential to do special things on the field.

Donovan will be teammates with USMNT-capped backstop William Yarbrough on Los Panzas Verde, as well as longtime Houston Dynamo attacker Giles Barnes and Mexican national teamer Luis Montes.

Largely, though, it’s likely Donovan just missed playing the game at a high level, and will welcome a new challenge. He’ll also give us a bit of a measuring stick for the gap between MLS and Liga MX, although that’s fraught with analytical challenges.

Liga MX is the fourth domestic top flight for Donovan.

WATCH LIVE: Tigres, Pumas battle; Tijuana faces uphill battle

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The Liguilla-Apertura quarterfinals continue on Saturday night, as two sides will ultimately punch their tickets into the competition’s final four down in Mexico.

First, Tigres and Pumas will go toe-to-toe at the Estadio Universitario as the two clubs look to create separation and advance into the semifinal round. The two sides currently sit level at 2-2 after an enticing first leg in Mexico City, which saw Fidel Martinez’s second-half finish give Pumas a solid chance coming into the second match.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Liga MX coverage ]

The evening’s second matchup will require a massive turnaround from the hosts as Tijuana looks overcome a 3-0 deficit against Leon. Including Wednesday’s first leg meeting, Leon has won three of the last five meetings against Tijuana.

WATCH LIVE: Club Leon vs. Sinaloa in Liga MX finale (Live Stream)

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Club Leon seeks second-place in the Apertura when it battles Liga MX bottom feeders Dorados de Sinaloa at the Estadia Leon on Saturday night (Watch live, 9 p.m. ET on NBC Universo and En Vivo Extra).

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USMNT players William Yarbrough and Miguel Ibarra are both on the Club Leon roster — Yarbrough is the No. 2 keeper while Ibarra has played sparingly as a sub — for a match with top-end implications for their side and relegation danger for the visitors.

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The playoff field is yet to be decided, with a cluster of teams needing wins on the final day.