Landon Donovan Retires a Champion as MLS Must Begin New Chapter Without Its Face

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterDecember 7, 2014

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Landon Donovan is taking his ball, and his trophy, and going home. Forever.

In the 111th minute of a sloppy, grind-it-out MLS Cup final, MLS MVP Robbie Keane slotted home the cup-winning goal for the LA Galaxy, who defeated the New England Revolution 2-1 in extra time, earning the Los Angeles franchise its record fifth league title.

A jubilant home crowd unfurled its banners and tributes, celebrating another title with the class franchise in MLS, with the class player of a generation.

"Party at Donovan's," one banner read. I have a feeling the Galaxy will bring the cups.

Keane's extra-time goal did more than just win another cup for the Galaxy and send Donovan off into the sunset a six-time champion. The goal—and the win, the cup and all the celebration that comes with winning another title—signified the end of an MLS era.

"This is incredible. When you look around and you see this it's amazing," Donovan told Monica Gonzalez of ESPN. "There is lots of excitement around this league. I'm glad to have been a part of it. This is just the end of the playing part. I'll still be around."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The timing seems more than coincidental that MLS will begin its 20th season—the first without Donovan in a decade and a half—by rebranding itself with a new logo, by expanding into Orlando and New York City, with more expansion plans two years down the line, and by signing a new television deal. The league hopes the TV deal will bring a renewed interest in American professional soccer to those who have been waiting two decades for MLS to become more than a stepping-stone league for young American talent and a retirement league for aging Europeans.

For anyone who has taken the time to watch the development of play in MLS over the last 19 years, it's probably a bit of an unfair characterization to still think of it as a retirement and/or developmental league. There is a good class of soccer being played in MLS—perhaps the 2014 MLS Cup final notwithstanding—and a lot of that was thanks to Donovan.

Speaking to ESPN at halftime of the MLS Cup, Commissioner Don Garber talked about Donovan's lasting legacy with the league.

"When you think about where soccer in America is today, when they write that book, the chapter on the rise of our country as a soccer nation was driven by Landon coming into our league in 2001—that decision to make us a league of choice," he said.

A league of choice is Garber's go-to phrase for trying to grow his brand of soccer around the world, first keeping homegrown talent within MLS while also trying to attract international stars that help the league gain notoriety overseas and abroad.

When it became en vogue for players to leave the United States to make a name for themselves in Europe, Donovan decided to return to MLS and stay. When his career could have greatly benefited from taking an extended stay in Europe after one of a few successful loan spells, he continued to make MLS that league of choice. Eventually, others followed him, as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have come back to the United States to play professionally.

Without David Beckham, there would have been no Thierry Henry, no Robbie Keane, no David Villa or Frank Lampard. But without Donovan, there may not have been a Beckham, and there most certainly wouldn't have been the pipeline of American talent that has consistently called MLS home over the last 14 years.

And now he's gone. And MLS has to begin this new era of American soccer without the most recognizable face the league has ever known.

The 2015 season will be the start of something completely different in MLS, which is precisely why the 2014 MLS Cup signified much more than the end of another American soccer season. This match—this moment—signified the end of an era.

Nobody, not even Garber, can be quite sure what version of American professional soccer reinventions we're up to at this point. One might suppose it depends on how far you go back in terms of initial inventions, but from an MLS-only perspective, the professional American landscape is changing for at least the third time since 1998.

"Landon comes in, we are down to 10 teams, and that's 2002," Garber told ESPN during the MLS Cup final. "Here we are with 20 teams, soon to be 22 with New York City FC and Orlando. I don't think we're still fully grown out. We're still going through that growth phase.

"I don't know when that full growth will come," Garber continued. "I've said that by 2020 we'll be at 24 teams, and we will be if not sooner than that."

It's no secret that the existing media deal for MLS has been atrocious, as evidenced by the fact the MLS Cup was held at 3 p.m. ET on a Sunday during the NFL season.

Ratings will surely be down for this year's game, despite the fact that two major-market teams with stars like Donovan, Keane and Jones were prominently featured in the match.

The new TV deal with ESPN, Fox and UniMas should be—must be—more favorable for the league to showcase its top teams in consistent television windows. MLS hopes to build the same kind of weekly destination viewing as the Barclays Premier League gets on weekend mornings, and an entirely revamped crop of stars—household American names like Dempsey, Bradley and Jones—must collectively reestablish themselves as the face of the latest domestic reboot.

While Sunday's final became a swan song for Donovan's remarkable career, MLS isn't just at a crossroads after losing the best American to play the game. Henry has announced he is leaving MLS as well, and despite an excellent run for the New York Red Bulls, the French star never truly made the impact someone like, say, Beckham did across the country in Los Angeles.

Jason Redmond/Associated Press

Henry routinely showed his class on the field, and became more of an ambassador—and less of a reluctant apologist—for the league than most ever thought he would. And yet the Red Bulls never truly became the team people expected, even with the addition of other world-class talent like Tim Cahill and, for better or worse (read: worse) Rafa Marquez.

Red Bull Arena is a great facility for MLS, but it's impossible to get to for New Yorkers, or even most people in New Jersey, and the "New York" MLS franchise has never taken over the city like the league had hoped. With rumors swirling that the ownership group has lost interest in MLS and may be more reluctant to put money into the product with Henry's departure, per Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, this new era of MLS is finding a new New York tent pole, this time one actually in one of the five boroughs.

There has been a palpable New York void in MLS that the Red Bulls could never fill, which is why NYCFC now exists, and will begin playing just as soon as the new uniforms (read: old Manchester City uniforms) are lettered.

Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

Exit Donovan. Exit Henry. Enter David Villa. Enter Frank Lampard. Enter…Kaka.

Did you know that Kaka, former Brazilian superstar turned European professional journeyman, is one of the new stars entering MLS in 2015?

Did you also know that Kaka's contract with Orlando already began this season and, according to the salary information the MLS players' association released in September, he made more than $7 million dollars this season…to not play for a team that isn't even in MLS yet?

Kaka reportedly made more than Donovan and Keane ($4.6 and $4.5 million, respectively, for Los Angeles), as well as Henry ($4.35 million), Dempsey ($6.7 million for Seattle) and Bradley ($6.5 million in Toronto)…and the entire Chicago Fire roster ($3.77 million) in 2014.

While salaries of aging superstars may not mean much to fans of the game on the field, the disparity between designated players in the league and the average bottom-of-the-roster talent is a huge issue in the next iteration of MLS.

MLS can survive by underpaying young players who are just happy to make a living playing professional soccer in America, especially if you remember that two decades ago, this opportunity didn't exist and less than a decade ago—in the early Beckham days—the salary floor for a bench player was under $18,000. Today, the salary floor is double that number, with many more MLS players making six, and even seven, figures than ever before. Those numbers are sure to rise with the new collective bargaining agreement, but the fight will be how much the average player makes, especially in comparison to those designated players making millions upon millions outside of the salary cap.

During his state of the league address last week, Garber suggested publicly that both the league and the players could, if needed, withstand a work stoppage, which was sowing the seeds that, despite the new television deal that is providing MLS an enormous windfall of revenue, and despite record attendance in the league's stadiums, the league isn't just going to hand over all this new money to the players.

As good as Garber has been for the league in ushering MLS out of its nascent existence, the set-up for this new reboot seems confusing at best, disingenuous at worst.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The league is great and the players are awesome and the new TV deal is amazing and everyone is super excited about the new teams—and the new franchise fees—coming into the league. At the same time, Chivas USA has imploded, nobody has any idea if Beckham's Miami project will ever take shape with all the red tape and politics of trying to get a stadium built ruining the buzz of that announcement, the owners are all crying poor and the league is possibly headed for a work stoppage.

In May, we heard all the details of this television deal which, per various media reports (via Jonathan Tannewald at Philly.com), will reap unprecedented revenue from ESPN, Fox and Univision:

The three networks combined will put $90 million on the table each year. That's more than triple the current rights revenue of $27 million per year. As Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl  pointed out on Twitter, that is $7 million more than what NBC is paying for each year of its historic deal with the English Premier League.

Garber is well aware of what that kind of money can do to boost MLS.

'It's a partnership that's going to elevate the domestic game to unprecedented heights, something that all of us have been working so hard to achieve,' he said. 'All these networks share our vision that MLS can become one of the top soccer leagues in the world, and that our men's national team can join the women's national team to regularly compete for World Cup championships.'

Granted, some of that money will go directly to U.S. Soccer, but that's still a lot of new money coming into the league. Which leads to Garber's statements this week in advance of the MLS Cup. How does this math work, exactly? According to The Associated Press, via Philly.com:

MLS Commissioner Don Garber says the league is not performing as hoped financially and its franchises are combining to lose more than $100 million annually. 

Garber attributed losses to player acquisitions, stadiums and spending on league infrastructure. The update about the league's finances came with the MLS and its players' union beginning negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. 

'I can say without doubt that our owners did not expect that by this time we'd still be needing to invest the level of money that we have been investing, and that's just the reality of where our business is today.'

On one side, the league is doing well, fan interest is at an all-time high in the stadiums and the new television deal could triple media revenue.

On the other, the league is doing poorly, with owners losing money hand over fist.

So which is it? Or can it be both?

Whatever happens in the future for MLS, one thing is for certain—it wouldn't have been possible without its past, and much of that credit has to do with the man riding off into the Los Angeles night one last time as a champion.

Party at Donovan's. It's going to be one hell of a retirement bash. 

 

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