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Landon Donovan

Donovan Deal Could Have Killed MLS

Bayern Munich’s manager Juergen Klinsmann knows Landon Donovan well. After all both are Southern California residents and Klinsmann had spent much of his time before taking the Germany manager job advising the Los Angeles Galaxy on football matters. So it should come as no surprise that Klinsmann almost lured Donovan to Germany this summer.

Steve Goff of the Washington Post reports that Bayern Munich wanted to take Donovan on loan this summer with an option to buy the player. Klinsmann wanted to buy the player outright but the Bayern board, mindful of Donovan’s failure at Bayer Leverkusen was more cautious wanting to take Donovan initially on loan. In any event, MLS rejected the loan to buy offer as Donovan’s departure could render MLS almost irrelevant to hardcore US National Team fans (some of whom believe it or not have already checked out on MLS entirely, and who like myself have viewed USL’s superior results over MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League as a clear indication as to MLS’ lack of quality) in the current US national team setup which features a vast majority of regular selections that play their club football abroad.

The reality of this situation is simple. MLS is seeing fewer and fewer key contributors to the US National team in its league and in actuality a smaller percentage of the youth national teams are now also being made up of MLS players. Consider these statistics:

1998 World Cup: 17 of 23 US players were MLS based

6 foreign players were MLS based

2002 World Cup: 12 of 23 US players were MLS based

0 foreign players were MLS based

2006 World Cup: 11 of 23 US players were MLS based

4 foreign players were MLS based (All four were from CONCACAF nations)

Now midway through World Cup qualifying, Bob Bradley selects between 5 to 7 MLS players for each qualifier, making the league less and less relevant to US National team fans. In my other venture, CSRN’s American Soccer Show which is national team oriented we have reduced our MLS coverage and increased our coverage of Americans abroad because of this reality . If tracking the US national teams pool players is the goal of our coverage, MLS is simply becoming another league in the realm of Norway, Sweden and even Mexico as time goes on. The league is left with journeyman American players and players who are MLS lifers and who while being capped under Bruce Arena are less likely to see the field under a manager like Bradley who appears to have a clear bias towards players from European clubs.

While MLS may be less and less relevant to Bob Bradley and the national team, the best American player and the most marketable one remains in the league: Landon Donovan. A sale of Donovan would mean MLS would be left with US pool players who are either extremely young like Sacha Kljestan or at the end of the their careers after long spells abroad like Eddie Lewis. The league in no way would be able to represent itself as anything other than a retirement home or a developmental league. While from my perspective those labels would simply describe the league in a more honest fashion, that is not what MLS brass wants.

MLS has decided that charging a $40 million franchise fee for prospective expansion teams is an attractive investment. I don’t have the sort of cash lying around so I cannot truly asses the leagues values other than to state that on Forbes recent list of the richest football clubs in the world, only three MLS sides exceeded that value: one of course was the LA Galaxy which actually exceeded the $100 million mark.

In celebrity or non football circles, David Beckham makes the Galaxy attractive. However in American footballing cliques, which includes me, the interest in the Galaxy is simple: arguably the best ever American footballer plays for that club and plays in Major League Soccer. No doubt a move to Bayern Munich with a manager who understands the American player and Southern California lifestyle Donovan clings to would have been a marriage made in heaven, but for MLS’ viability and credibility the sale of Donovan may have represented a fatal blow.

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  1. guy

    June 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    The MLS pays its players about 25% of the revenue it collects. Compare that to about a 55-60% average for other American sports leagues and even higher for Europe’s premier football leagues. Pay the players what they deserve and they will help to bolster the overall level of play, and national team experience in our domestic league. This will make for better results in CONCACAF competition and improve the MLS’ image on the world stage.

  2. No Name

    September 17, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    And how come its never brought up as an option that the reason mls doesn't get many good players is because of all the stupid rules mls has. If I'm a free agent from Europe and I decide I want to sign with the MLS in Dallas I should be able to. However with the way stupid rules go I have to offer my services to the teams in a patricular order. If somebody wants me before I get to my desired team thats who I'm stuck with if I want to go to the MLS unless I can get my team to trade with my desired team. Look at McBride, he wanted to go to Chicago but had to go elsewhere because they had first shot at him. In the end Chicago had to trade big for him when he should have been able to just go there and sign in the first place. Can you imagine in Europe ronaldo hits the end of his contract and decides to go elsewhere. He wants to go to Real Madrid but can't because several other teams get the opportunity to sign him first. What a croc. Plus the whole salary bit and the recent bit where they wouldn let the USL player be signed because the leauge felt the team was offering too much for a player from a lesser league. Seriously MLS has to stop acting so stupid if they ever hope to have a better reputation.

  3. Ben

    September 16, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Here's a comment from Germany.

    I may not know a lot about US football, but I do know that in order to keep talent in the league, the salary wages need to change big time. I have seen the the Galaxy wages list the other day and just could not not stop laughing. Paying Donovan $ 900.000 is as rediculous as paying the average young player $ 100.00 or even less. No wonder talented kids go to Europe where they can earn a 10 TIMES!!!!! higher salary, or 5 TIMES higher wages, even if they are drafted to a club playing in the second Devision.

    The wages that are paid in Argentina or Brazil are actually pretty good. Neves i.e. who decided to go with HSV this summer was even offered a higher wage in Brazil than in Germany.

    As long as Beckhams earns 5.5 million a year while young players get close to nothing, problems regarding “talent drain” are gonna stay the same.

    P.S. Please stop calling football “soccer”. You guys are making a fool out of yourself :-). If you get confused with American football, just go with “futbol” instead.

  4. Bob

    September 16, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Landycakes is a coward, to afraid to pull the trigger in international play for fear of looking bad and who has scored a disproportionate number of his internal goals on penalty kicks and/or against the weakest of the competition faced by the men's national team.

    He completely and utterly disappears against top competition (hence his previous failure in European club play). If he's the best American player, I weep for American soccer.

  5. Migz

    September 13, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Oh, I forgot to comment about Donovan…I'm not sure I preferred either of the two options for him. On one hand I worried that MLS would die without him, but on the other hand I think MLS would have been given some credibility if he did well…but that's assuming he does well this time!

  6. Migz

    September 13, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I've been an MLS fan for a few years now. It's REALLY hard to stay excited about the league when I can only see one MLS game per week. Sure, I can fork out big bucks for some cable package, but I'm broke and not willing to fork out lots of money for MLS just yet. Also, the media makes it harder to follow by not covering the sport at all. ESPN is getting better about it, but much improvement is still needed. But still, I'm hanging in there. It's growing fast, which means we are in serious need of lots of good talent, but I'm of the opinion that most of MLS's problems are understandable. We're not even 15 years old yet.

  7. Mark

    September 13, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    The USL vs MLS comparison is a waste of time. Dumb vs Dumber. Garber vs Marcos. As I said dumb versus dumber.

    As far as this article is concerned I happen to agree that the lack of marque of American players in MLS is a problem. Truthfully a big failure of the MLS was the lack of quality Americans besides Ricky Davis and Perry Van Der Beck. Sure the quality of Americans is improving but when guys like Hunter Freeman and Clarence Goodson feel they can make more money abroad, the league will always be seen as second tier and minor by American fans no matter how many Beckham and Blanco's sign.

  8. Ash

    September 13, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Dovonan has been in Europe before and the league didn't implode. That's the only data point we have regarding your premise, and it doesn't support it.

    Regarding the percentage of MLS players on national teams, the decline is simply an indication that American players are improving and gaining respect worldwide. This is a good development, not a negative. You may have noticed that all those great South American teams are composed of players who mostly play in Europe. That doesn't seem to have hurt their domestic leagues or their national squads. I think we would welcome the day our situation resembles Argentina's, not whine about it. Like most domestic leagues, MLS is never going to compete against European leagues for top players unless god comes down and miracles soccer into the most popular sport in America. Not holding my breath.

    As far as MLS vs. USL: I suggest you use all available data for comparison rather than cherry-picking a couple of results from a single tournament. Since MLS was formed, the USL has won the US Open Cup once out of 12 or 13 years. And this is in a tournament that MLS squads rarely take seriously until the finals, while USL sides take it very seriously. Using that information, it's clear that while USL sides can sometimes achieve great results, MLS is much higher quality overall.

    Would you use this same approach on English soccer in some year that a Championship squad wins the FA Cup? I doubt it. Like any sport, upsets are rare but they do happen.

  9. undrafted

    September 13, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Considering how most countries have promotion, I'd question how irrelevant second divisions are most anywhere. Take away

    In 2004, 2 Costa Rican teams made the final of the CONCACAF tourny. In 2005 their 1 entry in the main tourny made the final. In 2006 2 teams edged MLS teams by 1 goal each. In 2007 the Dynamo edged their 1 entrant (not Saprissa or Alajuense). In 2008 (the spring version), Saprissa made the final and knocked off a Mexican team. Their top 2-3 teams are very good. Historically MLS teams have gone their preseason and have not gotten results. Puerto Rico did well and got a draw there. That's still a sample size of 1.

    MLS scouting isn't perfect and the cap limits MLS depth. I'd say take away the top 16 players on any MLS team and there's rarely anyone better than a good USL player. So what? USL has done some good things. But they've also left a trail of debts unpaid (Rochester, Virginia Beach). The PDL is great. Montreal, Portland, and others are building something special. But in the end, other than a scouting ground for MLS and local games for a few midsized US markets, USL doesn't offer that much reason to be paid attention. I've seen each team at least a couple times on FSC but USL is pretty far down my radar compared to UEFA Champions' League, the EPL, La Liga, MLS. Why? Because MLS has former, current, and future USMNT players. Neither MLS or USL are going to match the quality of a good handful of leagues out there. USL deserves respect in several areas but it's rightfully considered mostly irrelevant by anyone not living in a pro USL city.

  10. Jeff

    September 13, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Let me correct the record on Puerto Rico. The accomplishment was not that they advanced on a water log pitch at home, it is that they got a draw in Costa Rica. Kartik doesn't seem to point that out here, but I assume that's what he means. MLS sides have nine losses in nine matches in Costa Rica, while the first USL trip resulted ina draw.

    Nobody sane would argue USL is better than MLS. But what can be argued and should be argued is that the MLS snob fans that act as if USL doesn't exist, which is most MLS fans I interact with are doing themselves and the game a diservice in this country. They are more fans of a league than the game. MLS teams traditionally have second rate scouting operations and I know of several players that ended up in USL because of this and also because of the salary cap in MLS. Thus USL has a lot more quality than a typical irrelevent second division.

  11. Jeff

    September 13, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    From MLS official website. Makes your point:

    Former U.S. manager Bruce Arena once made it part of his player selection doctrine: those prospering and getting minutes in MLS would be favored ahead of European bench riders.

    Now, with ever more Americans earning their paychecks abroad — even if they aren't necessarily getting into the starting lineup, or even getting on the field for their league sides — current manager Bob Bradley seems to have moved off that platform. He seems more concerned with retaining lineup consistency — essentially using the same players, whether they are starting for their European clubs or not — and less concerned with finding players in peak form and fitness due to league play.

    Hard to argue the results, with the USA just halfway through second-round qualifying and sitting pretty with three wins in as many matches.

    But neither is the evidence difficult to assess. For whatever reason, players from Major League Soccer just haven't had the same influence in terms of occupying starting spots. Four years ago, in the first three matches of second-round qualifying, Arena deployed five starters from MLS clubs in each of fixture.

    This time around, Bradley used four starters from MLS sides in the opening match against Guatemala, then put three on the field in subsequent matches against Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago.

  12. undrafted

    September 13, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Consider this lineup for the US:

    Cooper – Donovan
    Rogers – R Clark – Mastroeni – Klejstan
    Borstein – Conrad – Parkhurst – Hejduk

    bench: Ching, Twellman, Gibbs, C Marshall, Beckerman, B Davis, E Lewis
    upcoming talent: Lambo, Shea, A Ibrahim, Wallace, Seitz

    not to mention the foreign talent in MLS

    and that just this summer MLS produced Altidore, Edu, & Guzan to Europe

    try comparing that to USL or any CONCACAF league. Or make a case that these guys minus Donovan are irrelevant to US soccer. I'll take the Altidore/Edu route to Europe over the Scandinavian route. The list of current US players who didn't start of in MLS is rather small – Onyewu, Pearce, Cherundolo, Spector, Feilhaber. 14 of 18 players in the squad against T&T started their career in MLS (not counting Donovan). There's nothing wrong with being a developing league for teams worth hundreds of millions a dollars. It's a bit absurd to think MLS could be anything else right now.

  13. undrafted

    September 13, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    That Costa Rican team was missing most of its prominent starters against Puerto Rico. And lost on a pitch waterlogged by a huge storm. That wasn't football.

    Quality is more than technique. Athleticism, strength, etc actually matter towards winnning.

    It's not laughable that MLS is charging $40-50 million is 8 groups out there are prepared to pay up.

  14. FC USA

    September 13, 2008 at 11:52 am

    While the headline is somewhat sensational and the premise of the article flawed to an extent, I must agree with the author about USL vs MLS.

    BOTTOM LINE: Puerto Rico went to Costa Rica and got a result when MLS teams have gone there like 10 times and never gotten a draw. In fact typically MLS teams get beat 3-0 or 4-0 down there. I'm shocked that Yankee Hooligan impugnes the author's knowledge of MLS while not knowing Puerto Rico Islanders who beat one of the favorites in the Champions League is a USL side.

    Back to the post itself. Losing Donovan is a problem if MLS was still marketing itself around American stars. But the league had adjusted to the problem you explain: that young U-17 and U-20 players are signing directly in Sweden, France and elsewhere. So now the league is marketed around foreigners and due to that a good opportunity exists to use any transfer money for Donovan or Edu, etc and apply it to buying attractive foreign players.

    You've editorialzed before that you don't like MLS new found reliance on foreign players. While I'd agree it is not ideal, it is the reality of the times.

  15. Kartik

    September 13, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Also an MLS side won largely because the final was at RFK. If MLS cannot achieve consistent results over a second division (USL) and the two USL clubs in the preliminary stages of the CL both advanced and MLS teams didn't, what can we infer from that.

    I have maintained for years that the former A-league/USL is under rated and under covered by US soccer journalists. MLS on the other hand is a league whose quality does not even measure up to most leagues in Central America IMHO. When you watch those leagues you see better technique on the ball and better shape/structure from their sides. Dom Kinnear's clubs are notable exceptions to this theory of mine but watch the Costa Rican league sometime and compare it to MLS.

    The fact that MLS fans compare it to the mexican league is about the biggest joke going. Part of the reason I write for this site is because I want MLS and USL to succeed in this country but feel most of the soccer media terribly over rates the product and takes the league generated propaganda and spins it to make MLS look more competitive than it is.

  16. Kartik

    September 13, 2008 at 11:12 am

    Puerto Rico isn't in the Champions League?

    I've been watching MLs since 1996, I know the league and know how the average MLS apologists over rates the leagues.

    My point is now a days you are seeing more and more kids from the U-17 and U-20 setups going directly to Europe, even to second or third tier European leagues than MLS.

    The fact that Garber/Gazidis feel a new franchise is worth $40 is laughable. This is a league whose two teams in the qualifying lost while USL's two teams won. Aleujense who PR beat has won 4 two lef ties versus MLS sides in the past and never lost. From my vantage point that is a superior result.

    Did you forget PR, or like most MLS do you assume USL doesn't exist?

  17. TheYankeeHooligan

    September 13, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Wow, how you can discuss a league you know nothing about. First of all, there is only one USL team in the CONCACAF Champions League (Montreal) and they didn't play an MLS team. You probably meant the US Open Cup. But an MLS team won that, too. So I'm not sure what your point is. As for hardcore US national team fans, most don't even like LD (you are in the minority), but I hardly think his absence from MLS would hurt the league. He's not the guy who sells tickets on the Galaxy anyway. While I believe the criticism of LD is much too harsh, it is debatable whether he is still the best player on the national team. Your statistics concerning MLS national team members are misleading as well because many of the foreign-based players began in MLS. It is a reflection of the growing respect of the league that European clubs are shopping for players over here. Plus, Bradley's selections of Euro-based players such as Eddie Johnson have been widely panned. And a few formerly European-based players are coming back (Lewis, Jaqua, Wolff).

  18. don

    September 13, 2008 at 10:39 am

    all the fact that every world cup fewer American nats are playing in MLS proves is more Americans are getting chances overseas. That actually proves MLS is doing a good job producing talent.

  19. undrafted

    September 13, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Since when has it been anything more than a developmental league for US players?

    The idea that it would have been a fatal blow is silly. If Donovan did well at Bayern, it'd elevate the leagues reputation. Anyways, the next Bradley, Altidore, Adu, Tim Howard, etc are all around the corner. MLS has an important role to play in developing US talent and the loss of Donovan would have been negligible. He's completely overshadowed in starpower by Beckham anyways.

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