From the moment he was excluded from the U.S. World Cup roster, Landon Donovan faced a critical choice. He could accept, map out the rest of his playing career, and begin to work on his post-playing options. Or he could fight back, showing the world that his exclusion was long-term a poor choice for how the U.S. would create a new soccer structure. He chose the latter, but now with the U.S.’s World Cup behind them, he needs to make another choice that will determine long-term what will be the legacy of Landon Donovan.
During the World Cup, Donovan did his best to remain relevant in the U.S. soccer conversation. He starred in videos mocking his exclusion which went viral. He was an analyst for ESPN’s coverage, although that did not go quite as well. He offered an opinion with every microphone put in front of him, brewing up controversy (un)intentionally by admitting to cheering against the U.S. initially in a friendly after he was cut then questioning the tactics Klinsmann deployed against Belgium. During this time, the U.S.’s results were mixed, meaning Donovan has informally established himself as a leader of the anti-Klinsmann viewpoint.
Where, then, does that leave Landon Donovan’s soccer career? This may be the most interesting fall out of the U.S.’s World Cup run as there is no clear path to how he will remain completely relevant in the U.S. soccer structure.
In terms of his playing career, Donovan is wedded to MLS. Freed from being the face of American soccer, he could force a move overseas to once more try his hand at a higher level of soccer. However, because of his age and failure to play exceedingly well anywhere but Everton, his options may be limited for top flight soccer. Additionally, if Klinsmann is particularly vindictive, a negative recommendation or two could close even more doors. Donovan may be reduced to playing in a second division league in a top flight country or top league in a second tier country, which would help his soccer-playing legacy potentially but not keep him in the public eye. There are worst things then spending your last most productive days playing for Fulham or Milwall, but this has not been consistent with his modus operandi.
That means remaining in MLS, and likely retiring with Los Angeles. He could try to move to another team but few markets offer the advantages of location and media attention as the Galaxy. He could play anywhere – I suspect no team would turn down a chance to sign him – but depending on his post-playing career few offer the options that the LA scene does.
There is a further complication, however, that remaining in MLS holds. If the league continues to go all-in as marketing itself as the league that supports the national team (and having players like Jermaine Jones come into the league suggests this is the long-term strategy) then having the face of the anti-Klinsmann camp as your face of the league becomes problematic. I am not suggesting Klinsmann or the U.S. Soccer Federation would pressure MLS to stop marketing itself with Donovan, but the longer he is away from the national team and the more critical he is of the system being built, the less incentive there is to have him front-and-center on the website, emails, and billboards.