Right around the time Landon Donovan scored The Most Important Goal in US History last month in South Africa, most of us figured we'd just seen the end of The (American) Soccer Jesus' career with the Los Angeles Galaxy. It all made sense: It was perhaps the goal of the World Cup up to that point, it showed off Donovan's massive skills, and it was seen by the entire world.
There was no way, we thought, he would ever play in the MLS again. We was wrong, of course, what with the drawn-out nature of the international transfer market, and as of now he's been back with the Galaxy for about a month. But now the rumors are really starting to fly. As almost everyone knows by now, Manchester City and manager Roberto Mancini want to add the Soccer Savior to their annual summer shopping spree.
If he's smart, Donovan won't go. Not now. Not to Manchester City.
Before we go any further, here's what this is not. This is not an MLS apologist clamoring for the Face of US Soccer to stay loyal and help grow the sport stateside. Nor is this a Eurosnob's plea to Landycakes to go east at the first opportunity, because the quality of football in Europe is, well, a hell of a lot better than it is in the states.
Hopefully this is a voice of reason.
Not that it's necessary, apparently. Take a look at this comment, used by ESPN.com.
"If you were to ask me how I would want to be remembered, it would be as someone who helped grow the sport in this country," Donovan said. "But for me, I'm doing what's best for me, and in the process I think that will inspire people. I don't have to make this decision here today that I'm going to help build the sport, or I'm going to help build Americans' profile in Europe. As long as I do what's best for me, people are going to know that's real and be inspired by that."
He's right, on all counts. There are several reasons for Donovan to move overseas, and there are several reasons to stay in America, but the only thing that matters is what's best for him. That might sound selfish, but it's not. As a player, Donovan has a limited window to accomplish what he can, play where he wants to play, and make the money he wants to make.
Right now, the money isn't an issue in MLS. During the World Cup, the MLS revealed that Donovan was making more than $2 million per year. That doesn't come close to competing with the major stars of the US's major sports leagues, but it does mean that Donovan makes a comfortable living. This means that, combined with his fine form at Everton and at the World Cup, Donovan is in a position of power. He's a great player who's near his prime and has already won everything possible in the United States. He's comfortable, but he's exploring his options. He doesn't have to go anywhere, but he can if he wants to.
That's why Donovan has to make sure he moves to the right club at the right time — if that's what he wants to do. But before that happens, here are a few things to keep in mind for everyone involved.
1. Donovan will soon be past the point at which playing in Europe will benefit the US on the field. That sounds weird considering he's only 28, but in international soccer, that's already on the down-slope of the peak. Right now, his body will allow him to play top-flight football for two or three more seasons. After that, his physical performance will decline.
That's important to MLS because the organization is so entwined with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). What's seen as good for one is almost always seen as good for the other. That may or may not be true, but that's the way they see it. So if MLS — which holds the rights to all players in the league, despite the questionable legality of that — sells Donovan, it will do so because it thinks Donovan's appearance in a European league will help the national team in the long run.
Based on Donovan's age, that won't happen — at least not when it really matters. By the time the 2014 World Cup (forget the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup, which are meaningless) begins, Donovan will be 32, and players that age rarely make a great impact on the international scene. Sure, it's happened before. Zinedine Zidane did in 2006, but Landon Donovan is not Zinedine Zidane, as much as we'd all like to compare their shiny pates.
If the MLS and USSF choose to let Donovan go, it should be because that's what he wants. He has, after all, earned that right.
2. No club can make a want-away player stay indefinitely. Consider the case of Andrei Arshavin, or even the ongoing saga of Cesc Fabregas. If a player really wants to leave, the club has to let him go or else risk an attitude-related dip in form or the potential to lose a hefty transfer fee, which can be reinvested in the squad. Again, Donovan has won everything possible in America. If he wants to leave so he can further his career, it's smart both financially and performance-wise to let him do so.
3. Now is the time. One way or the other, the must be resolved this summer, and the sooner the better. Donovan is currently in the middle of MLS's bizarrely-scheduled season, meaning that if he continues playing in matches much longer, he'll run the risk of extreme fatigue. Before the World Cup, he had a 10-week spell at Everton. Then he went through an emotional World Cup. Now he's playing for the Galaxy again. When the European season starts next month, he's going to be worn out — unless a deal is made immediately, giving Donovan time to recover before starting a new nine-month season.
But that's ignoring the most time-honored economic stategy known to man: Strike while the iron is hot. Donovan's performances at Everton and in the World Cup made him a hot commodity, one that a rich club like Manchester City will throw large sums at to acquire. The transfer window closes at the end of August and reopens in January, but by then it will be too late. And next summer is out of the question. If Donovan wants to go back to Europe, he needs to go now. If he doesn't, he needs to accept the fact that he'll probably spend the rest of his career in America.
4. But it has to be the right club. And Manchester City is not the right club. Just look at the squad — where, and when, will Donovan play? City already has a boatload of talented attacking players. Up front, there are Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tévez, a somewhat-over-the-hill Roque Santa Cruz, and even Craig Bellamy. On the wing, there's David Silva and Shaun Wright-Phillips, and in the center of midfield there's Patrick Vieira, Gareth Barry, Stephen Ireland and Nigel De Jong. In that crew, Donovan will struggle to get a match outside the league cup, and he'd probably end up returning to America yet again with his tail between his legs.
Now that's not to say Donovan isn't talented enough, nor that he shouldn't fight for his spot. He proved his quality at the World Cup, and he's no longer known as "Good for an American." But at the same time, plenty of good players transfer to big-spending clubs like City or Chelsea and rot away in the reserves. Anyone remember Scott Parker?
Manchester City is not the right club. Everton might be. But so could a number of clubs in Scotland, Germany or the Netherlands. As it stands, though, Donovan probably wants to play in England, and that's probably a good idea. It's the most famous league in the world, and the style of play there suits his just fine.
5. The question of legacy. Donovan is clearly aware of his place is history. Just read that comment above one more time. But with that in mind, the question remains: What does he want? Does Donovan want to be the face of US soccer and try to build the game here? Lord knows he's probably the most important piece in that puzzle, right now. Until a superstar of Hispanic or African American origin comes along in America — and inspires kids of those backgrounds to play soccer in America — he'll be The Soccer Savior.
If he wants that, fine. But if he wants to go to Europe and build the profile of Americans there, that's fine too. He's earned the right to choose.
Let's just hope he makes the right decision.