Chris Donovan: The Union’s straw man

Photo: Ben Ross

The dogs came out this week when the Union faced off against Alianza FC.

No, not the dog that entered the pitch, bit the ball and became Concacaf’s latest representation of peak-ness. The dogs of Twitter were a-bark at the Union’s fourth-choice striker, Chris Donovan.

Donovan, a 23-year-old who was drafted 68th overall by the Columbus Crew in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft, is a local kid — a Conestoga High School Gatorade Player of the Year who played for Drexel University in Philadelphia and West Chester United. He was only with the Ohioan outfit for a month before signing with Union II and only spent six months there before signing a first-team contract with the Union.

Several months after that, he was playing in the MLS Cup Final.

Data, or the eye test

On Tuesday night, he reached another improbable plateau, starting the away leg of a Champions League match and going the distance. Unfortunately for him, in that cabbage patch of a field, Union fans found their straw man.

Despite the milestone, it wasn’t a great night for the striker — he missed one sumptuous chance, one decent chance and another half-chance that saw him leaving a trailing leg for a foul that never came (a veteran Concacaf move, just without the payoff). All three moments drew the ire of the Union ‘Twitterati,’ having seen enough of his meager contributions.

  • xG+xA of 0.34 (expected goals plus expected assists, a measurement of overall attacking contributions)
  • Pass completion percentage of 47.8%
  • Only one shot on goal

Fans watched an otherwise mediocre match and focused their frustration on Donovan’s subpar outing. Perhaps that was fair, perhaps not — though they didn’t have equally passionate qualms about 200 missed passes the Union played (yes, that’s the number), including one flubbed by the team’s MVP #10 — who then casually looked at the turf monster that must’ve eaten the ball before he kicked it, nor the complete lack of chances on target for the entire side on the night (there was only one).

No, the focus was on Donovan, and it was targeted.

They praised Donovan’s linemate Quinn Sullivan as having a great match, a standout performance. They also pined for the days of Cory Burke, now gone to the Red Bulls, as being a player who would surely have tallied at least once given the same chances — or Mikael Uhre, who did not feature on the night but, according to one observer, “would’ve had a hat trick by halftime.”

All memory is malleable

In the present tense, Donovan created more chances on the night than Sullivan. His xG+xA was higher than the Union homegrown’s, despite taking only a single shot. That doesn’t mean Donovan is better than Sullivan, simply that the eye test on the night didn’t tell the whole story.

In the subjunctive one, the universe in which “Cory Burke finishes that,” Donovan and Burke aren’t far off in their relative developments. While the latter was banging in a goal every third game in the Jamaican Premier League with Rivoli United by age 23, Donovan was doing the same with Philadelphia Union II in the MLS Pro Next league — or, at a slightly better clip than when Burke featured with a version of that team, Bethlehem Steel, several years down his developmental path.

That doesn’t mean that Donovan is better than Burke, simply that the memory of the departed Jamaican striker seems to be rosier than his performance might have dictated. Burke’s statistics in the City of Brotherly Love are these: 25 goals over five years of service.

Burke also missed large swaths of time due to injury, with visa issues, or simply not performing well — he was never a regular starter. He did score a goal nearly every half he played for the Union (a fantastic clip per 96 minutes), but wasn’t around half the time to do so. He did perform splendidly toward the end of 2022, finally showcasing a lot of the potential he had, but did so needing to take nearly as many shots in that campaign as he did the three prior years combined.

There is room to reminisce about Burke. It’s also fair to say that room might exist simply as a result of a cognitive bias called “rosy retrospection,” our tendency to recall the past more fondly than the present. Both things can be true.

As for Uhre, four years Donovan’s senior and before coming stateside the reigning Danish Superliga’s Player of the Season, he didn’t score in MLS until his sixth game, missing some tantalizing chances along the way. Donovan has made seven appearances with the first team including Tuesday night, missing his fair share of chances too.

Goals and good spots

Donovan hasn’t opened his first team account yet. Some suggest he might never do so, or shouldn’t even be in the position to try. Both arguments seem to miss the point.

The fact of the matter is he’s excelled at every level he’s played thus far — with the goals to show for it — and got into good spots on Tuesday night.

If the latter keeps happening, the former will too.

As for his development, if the phrase is, “In Ernst We Trust,” then it should apply to players like Jesús Bueno who is just seeing the field in his third season as a Union player — as much as it should Donovan.


  1. Donovan did not have a good match, and I don’t understand why Jim left him in and subbed out Quinn.

    But hell yes on the rose-colored glasses for Cory Burke. He played many, many games where he just couldn’t get involved at all. A lot more of those than good ones, in fact. He had a very good last season for the U, and I wish him this best (except that he’s playing for NY now so I really can’t), but backup striker has always been an issue for this club because it’s where it’s most difficult to play Moneyball.

    • pragmatist says:

      I remember Burke missing some very good chances over the years, as well. He was great last year and did a lot of the dirty work, as well as scoring some nice goals. But as much as I hated losing him from this roster, there’s a reason he was a backup.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I would bet it’s because he wanted to get Donovan minutes, knowing Sullivan will be gone for a lot of the season.

  2. pragmatist says:

    It’s tough being a striker. You have a job to do, and when you don’t put the ball in the net, people get frustrated. At the time of the game, I was one of them. Not just at Donovan, but Gazdag and others, as well.
    But when you watch that game again, there are valid reasons for the lack of production. That field was criminal. 200 missed passes seems like a low number based on my memory of it. They never got used to how slow the ball rolled, or the chunks that redirected the ball every time.
    For Donovan, playing with the mask is not an easy thing to do, either, and it can affect both confidence and vision. At 23, you’re more susceptible to that factor than a more seasoned veteran.
    We all love our rapid reactions, but everyone needs to take a deep breath and realize this was an outlier and not an accurate representation of anyone on the field (except for Martinez, who was ready to fight everyone from the second he stepped on the field).
    Let’s revisit Donovan’s performances in July or August. I’m pretty sure we’ll have a better idea of his capabilities and potential by then.

  3. There’s no way to paint his performance as good in any sense. It wasn’t even mediocre. It was bad. How much of that can be attributed to the field? Probably a bit… but it doesn’t excuse missing an open, unchallenged header. It doesn’t excuse going to ground and flopping to draw a foul that wasn’t there when he could have moved past the keeper and possibly set himself up to shank another chance.

    He had a bad game. Multiple players had a below average game, but when you have several chances squandered as a forward, it’s easy to point that out.

    It’s valid to be worried about our depth at forward when we didn’t have to worry about that last year. We’re an Uhre/Carranza injury away from Donovan being a potential weekly player. He’s not up to par. He’s a MLS Next Pro player at best. We need to start realizing that at 22 in many leagues, if you’re not playing at an average league level, you’re not good enough these days.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      But you’re making my point for me. He IS an MLS Next Pro player – he’s a year removed from college.

      He did miss a header. Didn’t Carranza miss an open net in the first match? It happens.

      His flop is not my style, but if he wins the foul everyone thinks he’s savvy. Because he didn’t, it’s foolish. But in Concacaf, why not try and steal a foul? Alianza certainly did.

      Uhre was scoring goals in the 2nd division in Denmark at only a slightly higher clip at his age than Donovan is now in MLS Next Pro. But by the same logic, Uhre was cooked and his teams should’ve moved on.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        The only problem with trying to earn that foul is that it was in the box so even if he gets the call initially, VAR will have the ref take a second look. In the VAR era it’s better to take a dive when you’re outside the box (and not in a DOGSO spot).

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        That’s a fair point for sure.

  4. I agree very much with the sentiment that fans need to give Donovan breathing room to grow. He’s young and needs time. And playing on a pitch like that is hardly setting him up to look his best anyway. We’re going to get to see him a fair amount coming on in the Cory Burke role of last year: 20-25 minutes late in games to see if his fresh legs can add something to the attack. It will be interesting to see if/how he grows into that. I always find it in poor form to criticize such young and new players by name on social media, and some of the comments about Donovan were sad to see.
    On a related note, I was surprised that the club, particularly with all the games we have to play this season, did not bring in a true striker as a replacement for Burke, which would allow Donovan more time with MLS Next Pro while also getting some first team looks. That’s easier said than done, of course. Strikers are expensive and don’t exactly grow on trees. But having Donovan as one of only three true strikers on the first team virtually ensures that there will be nights like this while he develops, where Donovan has to start in big games and will draw unfavorable comparisons to Carranze and Uhre, who for much of last season made scoring look easy (along with Gazdag, obviously). But obviously the club sees something in him, and they’ve been right enough times for us all to take a breath and give the kid a chance.

  5. The field was horrible and I’m fairly certain that mask was affecting him, it kept coming off or he was adjusting it. It looked much bigger & bulkier than other masks I’ve seen players wear. He definitely gets a break on this one. I hope he continues to get game time to see if he can be what Cory was last year. Also keep in mind Cory didn’t start to play well last year until the summer.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Let’s revisit this in May or June, when the season has progressed and I will assume we will have seen more of Donovan. I don’t think he played a good game, but I am certainly willing to see if he can atone… perhaps on a better field, with not a team full of backups. With that said, if the Union go shopping in the summer transfer window, it should be for a solid 3rd striker. Assuming no one leaves, this would be the only area I could see them upgrading. With this team trying to win multiple trophies, spending this year “hoping Donovan pans out”, is not a good idea.

  7. There’s no problem with Chris Donovan. Great points in this piece, Chris.

    The worry is that Burke is the one big loss from last year’s roster, probably the most significant impact sub and depth piece in the league last year, and the Union haven’t replaced him with someone with a proven track record. That’s OK in other seasons, but with the multitude of games and competitions the Union have this year and Uhre’s recent injury history, it looks like a risky choice.

    All that said, Ernst Tanner has been the league’s best sporting director for a few years now. I’m waiting to see if he has a summer signing on the way.

  8. Good points. Donovan looked better and at times pretty good in the match in the open cup. He scored and looked very good in the air. He could end up being a valuable piece and I trust the Union to evaluate him as they see him in training, matches, and the locker room.

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