When he retires at the end of this MLS season – and after the October 10 USMNT friendly in which he will feature – Landon Donovan will be shrouded as the greatest American soccer player of all-time. While some soccer historians and fairly recent players may have a say in that argument, undoubtedly Donovan has made the biggest impact on the growth of soccer in the U.S. From his World Cup goal against Algeria, to his play for both San Jose and Los Angeles, he has put eyes of the casual soccer fan on the men’s national team and MLS.
However, his greatest legacy may be for something he didn’t do – return to Europe.
While his time in Germany was a dud, Donovan’s stints with Everton were more successful. The first 10-week loan saw Donovan perform well enough with the Toffees that then-manager David Moyes publicly stated that the club wanted the attacker to return. MLS was not so keen on the idea, and when the dispute with the player’s union was resolved the loan ended. He went back for two more months in 2013 to face-off against Clint Dempsey and Fulham, but that loan was more defined. Overall he finished with two goals and nine assists in 22 appearances in all competitions, as well as respect from the Premier League media and coaches.
Going back to that first loan, Donovan had an opportunity in 2012 to play for a few more years in Europe having enhanced his reputation. While we can speculate as to what drove him back to MLS, undoubtedly the league gained legitimacy by keeping the best American player in the top domestic league. But, as we’ve seen, Donovan can be stubborn. What if he would have forced a move or a longer loan?
I think what we would have seen is a slow down, if not a longer delay of the new phenomenon of national team players coming to MLS in their primes. Donovan was fitting in at Everton and, even if he would have not been a star, he could have carved out a few years of solid play that would have opened his options to stay with Everton or even play with another mid-table side. It is tough to say if his game would have improved playing against better competition, but it certainly would have kept him sharp. It also may have helped his national team career, as he would have been playing against top talent in a top league which undoubtedly would help his standing with Jurgen Klinsmann.
Donovan would have returned to MLS eventually, maybe even after a couple of years, but that would have made a huge difference. He would set the example that players in their prime should strive for the best competition, and while his national team teammates may not have all followed the example would be there. MLS would suffer as it would have to try harder to get the likes of Dempsey and MichaelBradley to come back, but the national team would benefit from having its players play against better competition. As for the Galaxy, they would be without a very marketable player but somehow they always seem to cope anyway.
Donovan had a chance to alter the trajectory of Major League Soccer, and the way he chose ultimately benefitted the league but may have hurt his own career in the process.