Landon Donovan, the most celebrated player in the history of American soccer, was driving home from a store this week in this industrial city in Central Mexico when he spotted a man on the side of the road selling pineapples.
The pineapples were two for 50 pesos — about $2.70. Donovan gave the vendor 100 pesos and told him to keep the change. As he drove away, Donovan saw the man cross himself and look to the sky.
It was a small moment, probably forgettable for most people, but it resonated for the 36-year-old Donovan. For him, it stood in sharp contrast to the venom that marked so many of his previous interactions with strangers in a country that for years reviled him as the living embodiment of its bitter soccer rivalry with the United States.
It was also the kind of benign, ordinary exchange Donovan has been reveling in since moving to Mexico, a country he visited regularly as a player over the course of two decades but, by his own admission, never really got to know.
It has been just over two months since Donovan was lured out of retirement by Club León, a storied team now lurking in the middle of the standings in Liga MX, Mexico’s top division.
In purely soccer terms, the move has been a test of patience: Donovan has spent most of the games since he arrived sitting on the bench. But with his wife, Hannah, and their two young sons in tow, it has also been a chance for him to reset his relationship with Mexico, a soccer-crazed country where he may be more widely known than in the United States — though also widely loathed.
For years, as the soccer rivalry deepened between the neighboring countries, Mexican animosity toward the U.S. team seemed to concentrate with laserlike focus on Donovan. He did not shy from this role, stoking the fires with provocative comments and once even urinating near the field at Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara before a practice, an act that was caught on video and has never been forgotten in Mexico.
During matches in Mexico, particularly at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, fans greeted every touch of the ball by Donovan with searing choruses of jeers and epithets, and they bombarded him with cups and coins, and sometimes far worse, as he set up for corner kicks.
In an interview in 2012, Donovan took some of the blame for this caustic relationship, admitting he had been “a punk kid” earlier in his career. “I ran my mouth a lot and I said a lot of stupid things and I was very ignorant and I caused a lot of, probably, hatred toward me,” he said.
But he was viewed by many in Mexico as a worthy adversary, with his playing prowess — and ability and willingness to conduct interviews in Spanish — earning him a grudging respect. Late in his career, perhaps in a sign of a softening in the relationship, Donovan appeared in a series of ads for the Mexican lottery that played off the country’s distaste for him.
“Mexicans hated him in a joyous way,” said Robert Andrew Powell, author of “This Love Is Not for Cowards,” a book about soccer and violence in Juárez, a Mexican border city. “They got a lot of pleasure out of hating him.”
Donovan has often said that he owes his career in part to Mexicans, specifically the immigrants and their children with whom he played soccer while growing up in Southern California. Had he grown up in a place where the sport was not a central part of the culture, he said, he might never have taken it up.
Still, despite all the times he played in Mexico as a member of the U.S. national team, he said, he never really saw or experienced much of the country beyond its airports and hotels and the infernal caldron of its stadiums.
The León offer, he said, was a chance to set aside a “pretty simple and easy” life of family and daily recreational tennis in California and really get to know the country in a deeper, more meaningful way.
“When this opportunity came up at first, it was a hard no,” Donovan said in an interview this week. But the team persisted, and in short order, Donovan was on a plane to León to check it out. He attended a match, met the team and the coaching staff and took a tour of the city.
“The only Mexico I’ve really known is Cabo San Lucas, where you don’t really leave the hotel, or Mexico City or Guadalajara for games,” he said. “So all I see is the hotel, a drive to the stadium where people are yelling at you, cursing at you. In the stadium, people are throwing stuff at you, booing you. That’s the only Mexico I’d ever known in a real way. So having the chance to just see it through a different lens was really enjoyable, even for just that 24 hours.”
With his wife’s encouragement, he signed a one-year deal.
Donovan quickly turned his decision into something of a political statement, taking an apparent swipe at President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall in a Twitter post.
“I don’t believe in walls, I want to go to Mexico, dress in green and win trophies in León,” he wrote, endearing himself to León fans and to Mexicans more broadly.
The León fan base — or a significant part of it — was quick to shelve its grievances and welcome him. On Jan. 15, he landed at the regional airport and was whisked to León’s stadium where, even though it was 9 p.m. on a Monday, more than 7,000 fans turned out to greet him.
In some quarters of the city, however, the club’s decision to bring an aging former star out of retirement, no matter how good he may have been, was viewed as a cynical act of marketing with only a marginal chance of helping the team’s performance.
But interviews with a range of fans outside the León stadium on Saturday evening, before the team’s most recent game, reflected a generosity of spirit toward Donovan, even if he has made only six appearances — all as a late-second-half substitute — in nine league and cup matches since joining the roster.
Alan García, 25, a León fan who works in a store that sells air compressors, said the news of Donovan’s signing “was like a bomb for us.”
“What us fans are asking for is that they give him more playing time,” he added.
But there would be none for Donovan that night. He remained a shadow on the bench in a 2-2 draw against Lobos BUAP, a team from Puebla, and avoided reporters by ducking onto the team bus afterward.
Donovan acknowledged some irritation at his lack of playing time in the interview days later at the team’s practice site, a bare-bones compound, with three soccer fields and a weight room, at the end of an unmarked dirt road.
“I just want to help, and that’s where it gets frustrating,” he said. But his maturity, he said, has helped to keep his frustrations in check. Instead, he has been trying to help the club in other ways, providing guidance to younger players and setting an example on and off the field.
At the practice site, he was unfailingly courteous to the grounds crew and other staff members, greeting everyone he encountered. An intern working for the team said Donovan, unlike most of the team’s players, frequently stopped by the offices to say hello to the staff before heading to the locker room.
His schedule has been relentless: He did not have a day off until last weekend, and he seized the opportunity to take his family to San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city popular with tourists. There, as with everywhere else he has gone, strangers recognized him on the street and greeted him warmly, eager to talk about the team and soccer.
“Had I come here to live as a U.S. soccer player, it’s different because they don’t view you as one of their own,” he said. But now that he had joined a Mexican team, he had, in essence, become a welcome part of Mexico’s fabric.
While Donovan and his family’s home is in a guarded residential enclave, he said they tried to live their lives as normally as possible, venturing out often to eat at the city’s restaurants and shop at its stores. Even his decision to take his family with him, rather than leaving them in San Diego, was a commitment to a fully immersive experience, despite his initial and very serious concerns about the country’s reputation for violence.
It’s also why his thoughts during an interview easily returned to the pineapple salesman, to the few moments of pleasantries exchanged at the roadside, to the 50 pesos left behind as a tip and a thank you. In a country that once cursed the mere mention of his name, Donovan is now revealing a kinder face, and receiving one in return.
“They’re hardworking, they’re nice people, they’re trying to do good, they’re trying to support their families,” he said.
“It’s a perception I would never have had if I had just gone to Mexico City, to the Azteca, back to the hotel and back to the United States. And now I have such a greater appreciation for all of it.”