The news popped up in the past couple days that Landon Donovan might not quite be ready to retire (again). It's clear that he's not returning to the LA Galaxy and it's emerged that Real Salt Lake and an "Eastern Conference team" have offered a contract. In the second year of MLS free agency, there is finally a big name player that is stirring debate about possible landing spots.
Can confirm that Landon Donovan has also just been offered a deal from an eastern conference team in addition to RSL offer. #MLS— Julie Stewart-Binks (@JSB_TV) December 29, 2016
Donovan’s career machinations are making waves within the U.S. Soccer community. The best American men’s player is looking for a new home, and even in the twilight of his career, he’s drawing interest.
It's clear that Donovan is now past his best. He will be 35 years old by the time the 2017 MLS season starts (He'd celebrate his birthday on Crew SC's opening day). He can no longer effortlessly spring those runs from deep in midfield and break past a defense with metronomic regularity. He’s adapted his game well from one that utilized his speed and acceleration to providing contributions all over the field, but he’s not the explosive player he once was on a regular basis.
Despite the advancing years, Donovan can still be a valuable impact player in MLS and there is a reason that at least two teams are seeing if he's interested in prolonging his storied career. He has to pick his spots to make maximum impact, but many of his finer qualities remain. He's a smart player who will still pop up in the right spot at the right time to make a play, whether it's on defense or if he's springing into attack. His vision and passing aren't diminished and he still is able to sense the right time to make a run.
I've enjoyed watching Donovan play over his long career and even during his abbreviated return, he showed he still can make things happen in MLS. Selfishly, I'd love to see him playing on a regular basis (meaning MAPFRE Stadium), but that's not to say he's what the team is looking for.
Donovan does have one important tie to the team in head coach Gregg Berhalter. Berhalter played with Donovan between 2009 and 2011. Berhalter, like his mentor Bruce Arena, could be looking for the familiarity of a former teammate who could fill the spots in the lineup between where Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, and Federico Higuain play. Berhalter could get the ultimate utility player (much like Hector Jimenez, who played with Donovan in LA).
The case against signing Donovan is also pretty solid. His age is hard to get past. Older players can slow down quickly and even the smartest players aren't valuable if the body starts to go. He's also likely to command a significant salary that would dent the team budget for a player who has played 6 games after a year and a half of retirement. It's a significant investment with a real downside.
All of this is idle speculation based of a tweet that linked Donovan to an Eastern Conference team, but this speaks to the power of being the best modern American mens player. He creates instant interest, the first MLS free agent to really “move the needle”. He's already the biggest name free agent in league history, surpassing solid veterans Justin Mapp and Drew Moor. Odds are that he doesn’t land in Columbus, but Donovan is still changing the landscape in MLS.