Yesterday’s MLS Cup final saw the end of David Beckham’s MLS stay. The former England captain made the call in advance of the final so it was only natural for the attention of the day to be focused on golden balls himself. However someone else may be following Beckham out of the LA door, that would send bigger shock waves across the US. Landon Donovan is idolised by the LA and US fans. He is their David Beckham and has been the poster boy for US soccer for the last decade. A product of the US youth Soccer development program, Donovan has it all – the skills, the looks and the lifestyle. But in recent months Donovan has seemed out of sorts.
For most US-based players, when the regular MLS season ends at the start of December, they look towards loan deals to Europe for three months to keep their fitness levels up. Donovan has twice done this, going on loan to Everton in the English Premiership, and having impressed both times, David Moyes was keen to make it a hat trick. But Donovan rejected the approach saying instead that he would rather spend time with his family and travelling. A mid-life crisis for a player turning 31 next march? Maybe, but it’s also time for reflection for a player who has been through a lot in the past 10 years.
Donovan started his career in Germany with Bayer 04 Leverkusen, firstly in their second string team then breaking into the first team a year later. However he struggled to fit in and gain a regular place, so was loaned to San Jose Earthquakes for the next four seasons. Donovan impressed in San Jose, leading them to the MLS Cup championships in 2001 and 2003, scoring 32 goals along the way. His spell in the MLS helped to catapult him to stardom, becoming the pin-up boy for the league. Donovan won the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year three years in a row, the first player to do so which is a record he still holds today. He also made his full international debut for the US whilst playing for San Jose, the first of many. His success in the US led his parent club Bayer Leverkusen to recall him for the 2005 season. This time he would get playing time but only managed to play 7 times, twice as a sub before expressing his desire to return to the US. Bayer didn’t want to sell the young american as they realised his potential was there to be explored but relented and eventually sold him to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005.
His return to the MLS and LA in particular only helped to build the Donovan brand. In his first two seasons, Donovan scored 24 times and was the team’s star player helping the club to win the MLS Cup and be named to the MLS All-Time Best XI after the season. His personal life was going well too, finally getting married to Rules of Engagement actress, Bianca Kajlich in December 2006. But all that would change the following season with the arrival of David Beckham to LA. Now no longer the focal point and losing the captaincy to the new signing, Donovan struggled to get along with Beckham in the early days and the two had various public spats that only really effected Donovan’s poster boy image. The two have never really become close with Donovan saying that Beckham was a poor captain and leader in 2009 but they still formed a formidable partnership for LA as they pushed for success. In 2008, Donovan had probably his best season with 20 goals but off the field things weren’t going well as Donovan separated from his wife. To escape the US press, Donovan moved on loan to Germany with Bayern Munich but again found playing time limited to only 6 games. This would become a trend for Donovan as he tried to distance himself from personal events by going on loan to Everton twice in 2010 and 2012, again during the MLS off-season.
But after this season, things are different. Beckham is leaving, Robbie Keane is the new poster boy for LA and Donovan seems disinterested. Despite taking part in yesterday’s 3-1 victory and scoring from the penalty spot, Donovan looked to have his mind on other things. Questioned after the match on what his plans are, he was reluctant to out fans at ease and reassure them he would be back, as he has done time after time. So if he is to leave, what will he do?
Donovan is an accomplished striker with an international pedigree that David Beckham would be proud of (144 caps for the US and rising). But his options are limited. A move to the Premiership makes sense with several clubs, including Everton keen to take him. A native german speaker would make a move to the Bundesliga an option if it weren’t for his unsuccessful years there and his apparent homesick. Which leaves the MLS. Could Donovan leave LA to move to another team like NY Red Bull? Even that looks unlikely so it’s not certain where he will end up. He may just need time to get his head back in the game and return to LA to pick up where he left off. With Beckham gone, the chance to become the focal point increases but he will still have to compete with Robbie Keane and Beckham’s touted replacement, Frank Lampard for that honour. At only 31, Donovan still has a few good years ahead of him so he knows he needs to make the right decision on where he plays next.