Donovan’s departure will be good for the MLS

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When asked about his MLS future in a pre-match interview before the All Stars game, Landon Donovan gave a very non-committal answer which gave the distinct impression that he might be looking elsewhere.
Now, the buzz is that he will leave for Everton before the transfer period closes down by end August.
“I would love to go back to Everton. I love the people there, I love the fans there, but that said I love being in America too, so we’re going to take everything into account and see where it ends up.”
This runs contrary to Don Garber’s thinking for the MLS to deepen its bonds with the US soccer fan, a player like Donovan has to be off limits.
“We need to deepen the connection between the American fan as an MLS fan first and a Premier League fan second,” said Garber.
“In order to do that, we need our best American players here. We need somebody like Landon, who has grown up in southern California, who is bi-lingual, almost like Captain America for our national team, somebody who is really inspiring a nation of soccer fans.”
Garber is looking at it from the wrong perspective. One needs to define, “Who is an American fan?” This is not one size fits all. The extant of the cultural and ethnic demographic that defines an American fan is wide and varied.
This is soccer, the world’s game after all- many Hispanic fans watched Cuauhtemoc Blanco because he is Mexican but they could easily give Donovan a pass. On the other hand, Thierry Henry is going to attract a wide spectrum of fans because he is a global superstar.
Garber is giving us a prescription for ” a So Cal, bi-lingual, Captain America type figure” conveniently forgetting that for soccer to grow we have to go beyond these labels- first, for many these are bits of cultural flotsam and jetsam and secondly, many fans have other icons in mind when they come to watch club soccer.
That is because soccer can’t be transported back 50 years to a Knute Rockne, all American hero era. The soccer heroes of today are an amalgam of the present demographic realities of this country. Local associations make much more difference when we talk about strengthening bonds between fans and their club. We need more partisans, more rivalries.
Garber’s statements are actually counterproductive because it suggests a familiar trap, the “one player makes the league” type of thinking which defined the David Beckham signing. We can’t weigh players down with these unrealistic expectations.
A growing league builds its connection on a two way traffic: On its imports and exports. Donovan, the public face of the MLS, has built his reputation in what can be considered a second tier league. It is a huge vote of confidence that a big European club wants him.
The fans want to watch this talent before they leave overseas- it drives up attendances and deepens the bond between the fan and his club. They can also look forward to Donovan’s replacement. A homegrown talent could step in or the MLS could go outside to sign a big name. Or Donovan could come back in a few seasons, now a true legend, to a transformed league and to an even wider audience.
Either way, it means that we are looking at a dynamic league, a league that will go on making inroads and deepening associations irrespective of whether a player even as singular as Donovan commits to an MLS future or casts his eyes across the pond. An Everton future means that the national team can benefit from an even better Donovan. It just comes back to this old CSNY song.

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