Landon Donovan’s self-imposed exile from soccer has often been described as unprecedented or unusual, but this is hardly true. There is a rich and compelling history of surprising celebrity sabbaticals, with a wide variety of outcomes.
Some stars return from their time off to tremendous success (Bob Dylan, director Terrence Malick); others return to find that it might have been better if they had stayed away (actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, comedian Dave Chappelle). Still others, of course, do not really come back at all (J.D. Salinger).
The common thread through nearly all of these unexpected breaks, including Donovan’s, is the public divide on whether the sabbatical is necessary, appropriate and worthwhile.
Certainly that schism exists here. As the US national soccer team gathered in Colorado this week for the first of two critical World Cup qualifying matches add — the first coming Friday vs. Costa Rica — a large part of the focus is on Donovan — a player who is not in attendance.
Donovan has not played in a match, taken part in a practice or done any significant soccer activity since December, save for what looked to be an enjoyable pickup game with children on a recent trip to Cambodia.
To some, that departure feels like an abandonment, of both the US team and the Los Angeles Galaxy, Donovan’s Major League Soccer club, which has begun its season without him. To others, it is a reasonable and necessary break for a player who was a part of the first full-time residential academy for US soccer players in 1999 and has essentially helped grow the sport in this country ever since, in the process becoming the national team’s career leading scorer.
Whatever the spin, the reality is this: Donovan, 31, was determined to step back.
Todd Dunivant, a teammate of Donovan’s with the Galaxy, said the fatigue was obvious.
‘‘If he didn’t take the break, it would have been unhealthy,’’ Dunivant said. ‘‘It wasn’t just that his legs were tired. It was everything.’’
After the season ended — with Donovan helping to lead the Galaxy to a second consecutive league title — Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena hoped Donovan would reconsider.
With soccer temporarily out of the picture, Donovan did things that ‘‘he hadn’t been able to do for the past 15 years,’’ his agent, Richard Motzkin said.
He reconnected with family.
Jurgen Klinsmann, who took over as the US team coach in 2011, has been reticent to elaborate on his thoughts on Donovan’s situation. As expected, he maintains that Donovan will be considered for the team if and when he returns to top playing form.
Donovan initially planned to extend his break until the middle of 2013. After discussions with Arena and Motzkin, among others, though, he revised his schedule.
Barring a last-minute change, he is expected to make his first public appearance with the Galaxy early next week at the White House, when the team meets President Obama. He will then train with the Galaxy in the Washington area the next day.
Will he be ready for the Galaxy’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal in early April? Will Klinsmann call him in for the three World Cup qualifiers in June? To those close to Donovan, specific issues like those are less important than the larger concern of whether the time away has an effect on his mental state.
‘‘I’ve never seen him happier,’’ said Dunivant. ‘‘He’s in a better place. He’s relaxed.’’