By Joe Meloni
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber made it clear this week that Los Angeles Galaxy captain Landon Donovan will play for the MLS side this season. Given the current popularity of Donovan and the Beautiful Game in the United States, Garber’s refusal is the right decision for the league and the game.
When European clubs came calling about Donovan in the past, Garber’s outright refusal to let the league’s talisman walk, bordered on selfish. His latest decision, while still selfish, just isn’t as important as the first few. Donovan’s performance in the World Cup was inspired, and, paired with successful loan spell with Premiership side Everton this year, silenced most of his primary critics around the world. Still, at 28, Donovan is quickly approaching his final few years of relevance. And by the time the next World Cup rolls around, he’ll likely be a shadow of his current self.
Donovan’s role with the U.S. National Team in 2014 will likely be less than it’s been for the last three World Cups, since he’ll be 32 when the U.S. manager – who ever it is at that point – selects the squad for Brazil. It may sound odd for most Americans, but 32 is considered old in the world of major competitive soccer. In recent weeks, European soccer pundits labeled the defection of former Arsenal star Thierry Henry to the New York Red Bulls of MLS as an attempt to see regular playing time as he approaches his final years as a professional. Henry is 32 as well, and his prime is long over.
Donovan will likely earn a place on his fourth World Cup team, but it’s unlikely the U.S. will advance if he’s expected to be the offensive leader again.
In the past, Garber’s stance on selling Donovan troubled some because the MLS has yet to prove itself as a league capable of producing truly great international players. Even now, as Donovan was clearly the U.S.’s best player in South Africa, he seems more like the exception than the rule. Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley, two of the U.S. regulars to feature in South Africa who spent most of their careers in MLS, were unquestionably its least effective starters – although Clark transferred to German side Eintracht Frankfurt. Donovan has always said the right things when asked about his time in MLS, especially after a pair of failed stints in Germany, but it’s never been clear whether or not he’s being entirely forthcoming.
“I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I could stay here and help grow this sport here,” he recently told the Washington Post. “Obviously I’ve taken criticism for that, but I love playing here, and I love this league.
“It’s a little bit difficult at times because clearly every player at some point would want a chance to play at the highest level, in this case being the [English Premier League]. So there is a little bit of a struggle there with me thinking about all of it. But at this point, there’s no need to worry about it. I can enjoy what I’m doing now and if something becomes a real possibility, that’s fine.”
On this side of the Atlantic, pundits and major sports columnists have praised Garber as he fights to make soccer an American game, and scolded Donovan for even hinting at a potential move. Some have questioned whether or not Donovan’s time at Everton represented any kind of progress worthy of permanent move. In 13 games with the Toffees, Donovan scored two goals.
Last week on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan dismissed his loan spell as unsuccessful because he “only” scored twice. Ryan – who is among the most respected American sports writers – demonstrated such a superficial knowledge of the game that it’s impossible to think soccer will ever be relevant in the U.S. Donovan contributed to Everton mostly as second striker or as an attacking midfielder. His responsibility wasn’t to score goals so much as it was to help his team sustain possession and offensive pressure. The goals he scored were more a result of being a good player surrounded by other good players rather than having to make plays because he’s the best player on the field, which he is every time he plays a game in MLS. With that also came the responsibility of picking up poorly performing teammates, which seemed like something Donovan was incapable of in years past.
“Playing for Everton was incredible because I was playing at a level I have never experienced before – and I was doing well and scoring goals,” Donovan said. “When I got to Goodison [Park – Everton’s home field] I was just hoping that things would go well. What actually happened was that I found that I had another level in my game.”
With the Galaxy, before leaving for his national team duty, Donovan led MLS with 10 assists, while teammate Edson Buddle benefited from Donovan’s excellence in playmaking and space creation with nine goals. Donovan scored three goals for the Americans in South Africa, but one came on a penalty and another by pouncing on a rebound – like many do for players like him. Simply put, Ryan’s claims are akin to diminishing a point guard who leads the NBA in assists because he only averages nine points a game.
During his career in sports writing, Ryan has established himself as one of the foremost commentators on basketball and most major American sports. Much like the U.S. as a whole, though, he just doesn’t understand how to watch, interpret or appreciate soccer or the people who play it.
As for the MLS as a whole, it’s current attendance figures paint a very conflicted picture. On the surface, attendance has increased by 8.79 percent league wide this season, according to MLS’s most recent statistics. However, there are aspects of these numbers that seem more anomalous than like legitimate trends. Firstly, the expansion Philadelphia Union currently average just under 23,000 fans per game. This number will likely drop next year, but the incoming of the Portland Timbers will likely result in further growth in terms of the league’s attendance. However, these numbers are in a World Cup year, sustaining them beyond 2010, when Donovan’s influence fades, will be the true test.
Garber can push his league and point to massive youth soccer registrations as evidence of the game’s success in the U.S. all he wants, but it’s difficult to conclude whether or not MLS can be the driving force in soccer’s U.S. growth or a placeholder between major international competitions.
Soccer is popular in the U.S. – certainly more than it’s ever been. Using Henry’s debut and ongoing tours of various European clubs have helped the game maintain its current interest levels. It seems as though more is to come in terms of older European stars heading to MLS, as well. Current rumors of players likely to follow Henry defecting to the States include AC Milan midfielder Ronaldinho and Manchester United captain Ryan Giggs. Obviously, Ronaldinho’s name carries more weight, but a player like Giggs would likely mean some visits from the countless United fans in the U.S.
Still, both of these players are past their primes, which means more people will turn out even as they’re watching the same level of soccer on the field.
At the moment, MLS levels of play are noticeably lower than the Premier League, La Liga and most other top leagues in Europe. However, it has surpassed some of the continent’s lesser leagues. Along with the improving level of play, a number of teams around the league have built their own stadiums, and it appears as though more are to come. The Boston Globe recently reported the New England Revolution are considering purchasing a piece of land in Somerville, Mass., just outside of Boston, to move the team closer to a number of demographics more likely to attend games. The Revolution currently play in Gillette Stadium about 40 minutes west of Boston in Foxborough, Mass., which it shares with the New England Patriots of the National Football League. Furthermore, the expansion Philadelphia Union opened PPL Park on June 27, and other clubs are in talks to do the same.
Garber recently told the Washington Post, he believes MLS can be among the world’s best leagues. Within this statement, there are a number of issues Garber either isn’t accounting for or just believes they’ll figure themselves out one day. Not the least of which is the youth development system in the U.S., which like most American sports is based on drafting collegiate players. European clubs instead have well-established academies, which provide players as young as nine years old with schooling and world-class training. Unlike American youth sports, practice time is encouraged to develop skills and a commitment to conditioning. Whereas American youth sports of all types are focused heavily on games and tournaments, which do not properly develop the skills of young players so much as the egos of their parents. In fact, not until these players begin playing college soccer – if they aren’t already hurt from playing too much or tired of the game altogether – do they spend more time practicing during the year than playing games.
Beyond Donovan and a few others, there is a clear lack of quality among American players. One thing certainly not lacking within the U.S. National Team is determination. Players like Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra have pieced together successful careers in Europe simply by knowing the game and trying as hard as they possibly can. During the World Cup, ESPN commentators Ruud Gullit and Steve McManaman lauded U.S. manager Bob Bradley and most American players for playing within a system and winning on intangibles rather than quality, which is fine. However, until there are players aside from Donovan and Clint Dempsey who demonstrate the traits of world-class players – namely a seamless first touch and the ability to play with the ball at their top speed – the U.S. will remain an international side that experiences peaks, like it is now, and valleys, like it did following the embarrassing showing in Germany at the 2006 World Cup. And there is the ultimate issue with Garber’s plan.
This summer proved, if nothing else, a successful and likable U.S. National Team is key to the success of soccer in the U.S. The catch for Garber and U.S. Soccer chief Sunil Gulati is that it’s necessary to send U.S. nationals abroad to become the best players they can be, which is the only way to consistently field a team capable of moving out of the World Cup’s Group Stages and winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup every two years – these, ideally, should be the primary goals of the U.S. National Team. Garber’s deals and rulings in recent years have poised the MLS to maintain the game’s popularity during non-World Cup or Gold Cup years. Still, his insistence on taking the MLS to soccer’s actual major leagues may prevent the national team from reaching its true potential.
In the end, it won’t be Garber who suffers as the MLS retains its rightful place as a quality second- or third-tier professional soccer league, nor will it be the record number of Gatorade-stained brats in suburbia aimlessly wandering around a field chasing a ball on Saturday mornings. Only people like Landon Donovan will suffer as they’re forced to be the face of a league driven more by vanity than popularity and a national team held back by the same people charged with moving it forward.
Joe Meloni is a writer and contributing editor for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.