England / Los Angeles Galaxy / MLS / World

Free Landon Donovan!

Landon Donovan needs to go back to England, and MLS needs to let him.

I was going to write a column about this until I realized I already wrote one — eight months ago. Amazingly, it all remains relevant today, so I’m reposting it below. All that’s changed is that Donovan proved what was predicted.

  • He proved he can play in one of the world’s best leagues and star for one of its better teams.
  • He’s now a household name in the U.S., and our one soccer superstar needs to be given the chance to pave the way for others like him.
  • The transfer fee will never be higher than now for a 28-year-old World Cup star. His $10 million-plus transfer fee could equal the total cost of a designated player for each MLS team.

Don Garber’s pronouncement that Donovan isn’t for sale is hopefully just a negotiating tactic to hike his transfer fee. Yes, casual fans might go to a Philadelphia Union game if Donovan plays, but one Donovan visit a year to Dallas won’t change that franchise’s problems. Regular fans are more likely to have a residual distaste for MLS’s refusal to let a great player grow and its missed opportunity to reinvest on a broader basis.

MLS must show it won’t trap promising players. (See Twellman, Taylor.) Otherwise, the Stuart Holdens and Danny Mwangas of MLS will plan to leave as soon as their rookie contracts expire, because they’ll be trapped later. That in turn could force MLS to sell them well before they peak — which means lower transfer fees — or get nothing when they leave on free transfers, as happened with Holden (and possibly now Jonathan Bornstein).

Donovan needs to go abroad. Here’s why, as first published here on Dec. 6, 2009:

Donovan to Europe — the best thing for MLS

A successful Landon Donovan move to Europe would be good for Major League Soccer.

Yes, I said it. No, I haven’t spent the day doing bong hits.

Picture it: Donovan moves to a mid-table team in Spain, France or England. He gets regular playing time and produces. He doesn’t need to be Christiano Ronaldo. Simply matching what Clint Dempsey is doing at Fulham would suffice for now (though Donovan can do much more than that).

A successful showing in Europe would speak volumes about the improved quality of play in MLS. Yes, we have plenty of players moving back and forth across the pond, but Donovan is the American soccer superstar right now – or the closest thing we have to it. Most MLS players move to Europe before they hit their primes, so they’re not as well-known when they go. Donovan is already the face of American soccer. If he succeeds in Europe, it won’t sneak up on people, like Michael Bradley’s run in the Dutch league last year. People will follow Donovan closely from Day 1.

As he said before the Mexico game, “This is me now. This is how I play.” Swine flu aside, Donovan was the best player in CONCACAF during World Cup qualifying. As he showed with his beautiful goal against Brazil and in a solid showing against Spain, he not only can hang with the world’s best, but he can change a game.

He hasn’t hit in previous tries in Germany, but that wasn’t his time. This is his time. For years, he was a young guy with too many expectations upon him. Now, he’s old enough to handle the burden of being the America’s best soccer player, and it’s easier to carry now with players like Dempsey and Tim Howard standing out in the world’s best league. He’s grown up. He’s ready.

Donovan told ESPN’s Bob Ley last week, “At this point, it’s probably 50-50” that he’d sign in Europe. (View the full interview below.)

What he needs to do is find the right situation. (i.e. Not Germany.) He needs somewhere where he can get out in space and run, and it needs to be someplace he can get on the field immediately. People may worry Donovan will get stapled to the bench like Oguchi Onyewu at AC Milan and not be match-fit, but the MLS off-season would keep him out of regular matches till late March anyway, so that’s not much of an argument. Plus, there’s simply no way Donovan doesn’t get playing time at a mid-table team unless the coach is an idiot (which I suppose is possible, since they let guys like Raymond Domenech coach national teams). Pick some place like Birmingham, Getafe, Paris Saint-Germain, someplace you’ll play.

When he succeeds (yes, WHEN), top players around Europe will increasingly look at MLS as more than just a retirement home. For those of us who eventually want to be able to see the best soccer players playing for U.S. soccer clubs, sending our league’s best player away is the best thing we can do for our domestic league. There’s nothing left for him to do here.


  1. Donavon has been part of an uprising in American soccer and it is fair to say that he has worked hard, plays hard, and deserves a chance at higher levels. Whatever the case, America has prospered in the realm of soccer because of players like Donovan.


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