Yesterday evening, the Associated Press ran a story where MLS commissioner, Don Garber, basically said that MLS will not field offers for U.S. World Cup star, Landon Donovan. Garber stated, “Landon is in my view the greatest player of our generation and an incredibly valuable part of our history but also of our future. He proved in England last year on loan and he proved in South Africa that he’s a world-class player and he’s also proved that he loves our league and really has accepted the mantle of really being one of the leaders of the sport. It is my hope and my expectation that we have him for the rest of his career because I think the contributions that he makes are invaluable to our future success.”
While not accepting offers for Donovan makes perfect sense for the league, why get rid of the most recognizable U.S. soccer player, it doesn’t make sense for U.S. soccer. U.S. soccer needs its best players to play abroad where the competition level is higher and where they will become familiar with the players and teams they will face in international competitions. MLS needs to allow the best players to leave to go to better leagues. Period! By not allowing those players that prove themselves internationally to play in Europe, MLS will never get better as a league. This might sound counter intuitive, as keeping the best players should mean the level of competition would get better; however, US players will simply not sign with MLS if they know that the league is going to block a potential more to the more lucrative and more competitive European leagues. Smaller European nations don’t keep all their best talent at home (see Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Serbia) and countries in other parts of the world keep virtually none of their best talent in domestic leagues (Australia, most African countries). Many of these countries’ best players play in one of the Big 5 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Italy, German, France). It should be the same with the US.
Some might argue that it would be better to keep talent at home than have them sit on the bench in Europe (see Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and others). While I would agree in principle, I think many U.S. players go about their entry into Europe in the wrong way. I believe that players should follow the path that Michael Bradley has taken in moving from MLS. He first moved to a more competitive league in one of Europe’s smaller countries (in his case the Netherlands) and then on to a team in one of the Big 5 leagues (he now plays for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany). Following his standout performance at the World Cup, there are rumors that Bradley could be moving the EPL, the league for many that represents the pinnacle of soccer competition. Under this model, MLS would have players in their early career, helping to develop the skills needed to compete. Fans would get to see the next generation of USMNT stars and would develop rooting interests in them. After a bit of seasoning in MLS, the players most ready to move to Europe should move to leagues in countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, or Greece. Hopefully, at clubs in these countries American players would develop further as players, learning a more technical style to go along with the unmatched fitness that is the hallmark of the USMNT. After proving their worth in these smaller leagues, players could then move to a bigger league where the competition level would be even higher and where skills could be further sharpened. If U.S. players followed this formula, I believe that we would produce far more top-level soccer talent and that both MLS and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) would benefit.
The simple fact is that U.S. players need to compete on the highest level to truly give the USMNT a chance to compete internationally. MLS needs to get on board or get out of the way.
UPDATE (7/21/2010): Manchester City’s boss, Roberto Mancini, has stated that he is interested in adding Donovan. I’m not a huge fan of a potential move to the Eastlands for Donovan, as Man City already has a ton of wing/midfield options. I’m not sure that he will get the playing time he needs. I still think a move back to Everton would be the best option. More on the rumor here: http://www.mirrorfootball.co.uk/news/Manchester-City-transfer-news-Landon-Donovan-interesting-Eastlands-article502305.html