MLS’ Donovan Conundrum

The post-match analysis on websites, blogs and even maybe satellite radio will linger for a few days, but MLS has had its “Hollywood moment” where its much-ballyhooed star won a title, at home in front of a full stadium (including celebrity screenshots) and a national TV audience.

Now some reality will have to settle in. Maybe not so much to MLS HQ, but some for of the pundits and the league’s fandom (or critics). MLS appears to be on the ascent, albeit begrudgingly if you judge by major media trends.

But how steep that climb gets from here, and what the view will look like, is another matter.

During Saturday’s telecast, Alexi Lalas questioned MLS Commissioner Don Garber about paying to make America’s best talent as “designated players” (i.e. Beckham Rule types) and keep them at home rather than be lured to Europe.

Garber quickly defended MLS by pointing to Landon Donovan as a designated player.

But, unfortunately, Donovan epitomizes the conundrum MLS faces.

Donovan is arguably not only the best American player of his generation, but the best talent the United States has ever produced.

His exploits have pushed his club teams (San Jose and Los Angeles) to domestic glory, and the United States to heights unimaginable 20 years ago.

But because he chose to play in MLS, rather than in Europe, he has been derided: mocked by some as “Landycakes” and not given his full due by others.

Not to slight Clint Dempsey, but many see him as the United States’ best these days simply because he plays in England. But to those who felt the United States struggled during the most recent World Cup qualifying phase, ask yourself whose absence most greatly impacted that performance.

Dempsey’s case is not lost on young players who want to make sure they not only capitalize financially on their talents, but also achieve as much recognition for their ability and achievements. Dempsey, and other U.S. national team regulars who ply there trade overseas, are viewed more favorably by some — and get far more credibility by some writers/bloggers/commentators — than Donovan because of the belief that is so much harder and better in Europe.

Watching the U.S. national team over the past decade or so, and especially the past year, one has to wonder how deeply that mindset is/was entrenched in Bob Bradley and Juergen Klinsmann and their predecessors. Steve Sampson clearly made that case 14 years ago, but MLS was nowhere near the level it is now.

So while Garber and MLS may try to match the money offered by European clubs — and might actually do that in some cases, there is still an intangible factor it will be unable to equal. Call it the “Not for All the Tea in China Factor.”

And if MLS insists on keeping the youngsters, does it risk not only bankrupting itself by overpaying market price, but face a backlash from U.S. fans for “stifling” the development of America’s best talent.

All the money in MLS wasn’t able  to keep Dempsey, or Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley, or Geoff Cameron…

And it likely won’t be able to keep Juan Agudelo, or Graham Zusi, or Omar Gonzalez or…

I don’t think this issue is lost on Garber or his brain trust on Fifth Avenue. But with others seemingly unaware, Garber has to make sure while walking on these eggs, he doesn’t hop.


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