Will Donovan leave MLS?
For Landon Donovan, life is at last beginning to return to normal. He's returned to playing with his club, the Los Angeles Galaxy. The whirlwind schedule of media appearances he's undertaken since his return from the World Cup, not to mention the tournament buzz itself, has finally died down.
Yet Donovan, as he has throughout his career, remains at the forefront of all things United States soccer. The latest buzz about the U.S. international is speculation over his next career move, as Donovan finds himself at a crossroads that will ultimately define his legacy. Put in the starkest terms, his choices are twofold: He can serve the greater good of U.S. soccer by remaining in MLS, nurturing the league's growth as the most recognizable player in the country. Or he can opt to maximize his talent and move to a European club.
The tug-of-war has already commenced. Donovan signed a four-year contract extension with MLS in December, giving the league considerable say in his future. MLS commissioner Don Garber even said Donovan is "a great American soccer hero playing for us in L.A., holding the torch for the sport in our country, and that's very important. I don't believe that it's something we can do without."
Granted, it's Garber's job to hype his most prized asset, but you have to believe that if a large enough offer comes in, MLS will allow Donovan to make his own decision. For now, he's content to bask in what's left of the World Cup afterglow.
"I would probably reserve the term 'hero' for people in other professions," Donovan said in a telephone interview. "What I would say is that we have all become a massive inspiration to the country. Nowadays, our society can be pretty fickle in a lot of ways, quick to move on to the next thing. And so it's nice that people appreciate what we've done and are proud of what we've done, and that they gave us the opportunity to inspire them. There's not many chances in anyone's life to inspire people in that way, so I think we're really proud of that."
Donovan's ultimate decision will depend on several criteria. The quality of any overseas offer, regarding both the monetary value and the club making the bid, will play a huge role.
But there are some less tangible factors as well. Does Donovan feel that he's promoted MLS to the point where it no longer needs him to be the face of the league? Or is there more work to be done? And how important is the legacy he wants to leave as a player?
Parsing Donovan's words, you get the impression that he feels he's played the good soldier long enough; now it's time to cash in while he's still near his peak.
"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."
Decisions and circumstances, of course, are rarely black and white. If Donovan left for Europe, it wouldn't mean he'd stop benefiting U.S. soccer. It's even possible that fans will be more anxious to watch the country's all-time leading scorer when he suits up for the national team, given that his club season would be spent abroad.
Yet Donovan also knows that a move overseas would make promoting the sport in the United States that much more difficult.
"It would be hard to imagine that if I'm in Europe, I'm going to be able to do even a small percentage of the things that I get to do now off the field," he said. "I guess I would do some of those things in Europe, but the reality is if you're not here in America doing them, people aren't going to pay attention as much. Certainly the opportunities to do things would be less. I would say the best way to continue furthering the sport in this country would be for me to be here. That doesn't necessarily mean that's the best way for me to improve professionally."
To that end, the market for Donovan's services is beginning to heat up. On Wednesday, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was in New York to promote his team's participation in the New York Football Challenge. Mancini indicated that a bid for Donovan was "possible." Donovan would only add that he appreciated that "a manager of [Mancini's] level would say that." But he also maintained that he isn't overly concerned about where his future lies.
"I don't worry about the long-term right now, I don't need to," Donovan said. "I can focus on every day and enjoy it. I'm enjoying myself being back home. If there is a real discussion to have at some point, I'll go through that process and think about it seriously. For now, it's very simple for me, and that's to continue doing what I'm doing and enjoy what I'm doing."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.