In the weeks after MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that Landon Donovan was not for sale at any price, he's stuck to his guns. Donovan remains, the right choice for the MLS.
There's been an uproar of protest from fans, as Donovan's prime melts away with each passing day.
It's difficult to argue against the Donovan supporters. Few big fish reach their potential in a small pond. All one has to do is watch Donovan play an MLS game to realize he's well beyond most of his teammates and opponents. European competition would challenge him much more.
Still, some further explanation on Garber's part could have softened the sting of Donovan's squandered talents. Instead all he has said is, "MLS needs soccer heroes, and we have a great American soccer hero playing for us in LA, holding the torch for our sport in this country, and that's very important. I don't believe that's something we can do without." But there is a method to his madness.
Garber is too media savvy to make his reasoning plain though. The U.S. doesn't need Donovan in LA. American fans will watch Donovan here, overseas, or with the national team. It's the MLS that needs Donovan.
Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, even Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and David Beckham (when they were playing in the MLS) can't keep the MLS alive without a high profile American player opposite them. Americans need a likable American athlete to support.
Not in any sort of American political-nationalist-zeitgeist sort of way, but Americans need an American headlining an American league.
Otherwise, we're back in the 1970's, watching foreigners enjoy our cities, date our moment, take our money, and perhaps put in an honest days work, but give fans a product that doesn't compare with European or even South American products. The domestic league needs a homegrown face to sell itself in a world-wide market.
That's the biggest difference between the MLS and all the other major American sports choices. Fans can change the channel to the best overseas match. So how does the league sell itself?
By being the place where American stars get their start. The problem is, if they don't have a current, concrete example then they can't sell themselves.
Part of the problem is the current situation with the national squad. The bulk of the team is young. The ones getting most of the playing time are already overseas, and there's not a tremendous amount of interest coming from major teams or leagues for up and coming players.
It's not 2003. Manchester United isn't looking at Tim Howard, and it's hard for defenders to be the focal point of a team, if not a league. You have to score to win, even if Italians would like to argue otherwise. Unfortunately for the MLS, the U.S. has one of its most stable lineups ever.
The U.S. is at least two years away from an American replacement, or replacements, for Donovan.
One of the most frustrating facets of being a U.S. supporter is the feeling that U.S. Soccer can never take advantage of its situation, and that's exactly what the MLS is trying to avoid. World Cup ratings were great. The national team had a positive run in South Africa, and the MLS product has improved dramatically. Without a high-profile American player to go with the domestic game, the league would drift aimlessly without an identity or goal at the worst possible moment.
The NFL has Peyton Manning and Tom Brady among a slew of others.
LeBron, Kobe, Dwayne Wade, etc. give the NBA a face to go with the name.
MLB had Mark McGwire,, Sammy Sosa, then Barry Bonds, and now A-Rod and Pujols.
These may be the best leagues with the best players, but every league needs an icon to hate or support.
Unfortunately, foreign players can't fill that role in the MLS. The structure of the league and its relationship to both the international game and world's more high profile leagues won't allow it. Until the next crop of future stars develop in the United States, Donovan's stuck here.
It may hurt to accept that Donovan's career might be stifled in the U.S., but there are some important points to remember.
First, the American game needs the MLS. The domestic game has been the primary reason why U.S. soccer has improved over the last 20 years. It's an integral part of the country's success. Having Donovan at home serves the greater good.
Secondly, Donovan made his choice when he re-signed with the league. He could just as easily offered his services overseas. Stuart Holden found a team. There is no reason why Donovan couldn't have as well. Even Jozy Altidore, a striker with potential, but the inability to score, still garners multiple team interests.
Not to mention that a number of past players have revealed the risks of re-signing with the MLS when there is interest overseas.
Taylor Twellman re-signed with the New England Revolution at the height of his career. A constant top-rated forward for the MLS, he cited the overrated idea of "security and stability" as the reasoning for signing a four year contract extension in 2007. Then Europe came calling. But just like Donovan, albeit on a smaller scale, the New England Revolution could not afford to sell their most valuable asset. His career has never been the same.
Donovan isn't charting new territory. The risks and the rewards were apparent well before he signed on the line. He's the only one to blame for this situation.
Finally, just because someone says they're going to reject an offer, it doesn't mean they will. Every year, a manager labels a high-profile player as invaluable and not for sale at any price, but like a bad parent that eventually gives in to a spoiled child, that player goes when the money is too good to be true.
Nothing is set in stone.
In the meantime, remember, the MLS is doing right for itself and for all the other players involved, and indirectly, for the future of the American game. Donovan will have his opportunities. Maybe it will only be through loan (until he's too exhausted or injured to take a team up on the offer), or perhaps only with the national team, but it's not the end of his career if he stays.
He got to where he is now by playing at home. For whatever reason, a comfortable situation, combined with limited world class competition makes it easier for him to succeed.
Plus, he'll be 32 by the next World Cup, and there's no telling what will happen to him in that time. He may lose his speed (integral to his game). He may sustain a career altering injury (like Roy Keane). A new coach, style of play, new teammates, or a combination of a number of factors may change his role on the national team.
Donovan won't miss out on the money either. Sponsorships alone will make up for a lot of lost revenue. His ceiling might suffer, and that's sad for him, but the domestic game will remain, and that's Don Garber's focus. Too bad he can't admit as much.
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