Thursday, December 11, 2014

Donovan ends his Galaxy Quest as MLS moves on

Landon Donovan exits the American stage, followed by Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Chivas USA


Major League Soccer closed its doors for another season on Sunday when LA Galaxy won the MLS Cup, beating New England Revolution 2:1 at their StubHub Center stadium in California.

MLS.While the Revolution lost their fifth MLS final, the Galaxy became the first MLS team to win five titles since the league's inception in 1996 and have bagged two of the last three.

Robbie Keane, the league's player of the season, scored the winner in extra-time. At 34, Ireland's record marksman (65 goals for Eire) hinted he may call it a day in MLS after three seasons in California. This campaign he bagged 19 in 29 games.

The Galaxy's Robbie Rogers, who in 2013 became the first openly gay sportsman in the US' major leagues, also became the first to win a trophy. The fact this was an almost forgotten footnote to the MLS Cup was a good thing, and it proves how all sports now have no excuses for not growing up on this issue.

Thierry Henry, after five seasons and 51 goals for the New York Red Bulls, has certainly played his last MLS game. He and Keane were paid $4.3 million, making them the highest-paid MLS players.

Englishman Bradley Wright Phillips finished the league's top gunner with 27 goals in 32 games for the Red Bulls while DC United's Ben Olsen won coach of the year.

MLS.Yet this season will probably be remembered for being Landon Donovan's swansong.

After the bitter disappointment of being dropped by US coach Jurgen Klinsmann for the 2014 World Cup, the all-time leading goalscorer for MLS (143) and the US national team (57) left at the top domestically.

Despite his shining achievements for club and country, including memorable World Cup goals, the other side of Donovan's career recalls a struggle to adapt to the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, an ongoing battle with depression and a falling-out with Klinsmann after Donovan took a sabbatical from soccer altogether in 2012.

Two successful loans to Everton late in his career though proved how much he had matured as a footballer and how he belonged at Premier League level. He retires as the best American footballer yet.

The average MLS attendance across the 20 clubs was 3% up on last season and the highest yet at 19,149, edging closer to the psychological barrier of 20,000.

Seattle Sounders' 43,734 was still almost twice the next largest, Toronto's 22,086, while Chivas USA, in their final season before folding, registered a meagre 7,063.

Next year, New York City FC and Orlando City SC join the league. NYCFC will begin sharing 50,000-capactity Yankee Stadium while their adjacent home is being built, and as club actually located within New York City, as opposed to New Jersey, they could conceivably steal future fans from the longer-established New York Red Bulls.

City, who will sport Manchester City colours with reference to their common ownership, have Frank Lampard and David Villa as their 'marquee' stars.

Orlando City is MLS' third attempt to crack the Latino stronghold of Florida, after the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny folded back in 2001. Brazilian legend Kaka is their headline signing, and while their 20,000-seat centrally located stadium gets ready for 2016, the club will kick-off in the 65,000 capacity Citrus Bowl, a venue for five games at the 1994 World Cup.

The league's team of the season is still notable for its fading Euro-stars and while the infamous salary structure continues to loosen and wages rise, MLS still cannot hold a candle to the big five European leagues.

Seattle's capture of USA captain Clint Dempsey in 2013 was a bonus for the domestic game, but though the returning hero took a while to catch fire, scored 16 in 36 games in 2014, a worthwhile return. Yet heading in the opposite direction from Seattle to Tottenham went DeAndre Yedlin, ten years Dempsey's junior and an upcoming star.

While the US national team enjoyed a summer of hysteria across America in the World Cup, MLS is stuck in the conundrum of translating that potential fanbase into season-ticket holders while the US’ stars
are playing overseas.

Jermaine Jones, another World Cup hero and one of Klinsmann's German-born Yanks, was a popular recruit to the Revolution after 13 years in Europe but aged 33 is not a face for the future like Yedlin.

Klinsmann, as both national team coach and technical director, wields extraordinary power amid an association apparently in awe of him.

He has been less than enthusiastic about MLS' progress, actively encouraging young talents to move abroad and openly criticising Dempsey and Michael Bradley for coming back to MLS.

His recent US selections have been eclectic, featuring overseas-born Americans and players from the second division NASL and college soccer. Klinsmann has been adamant he will cast his net as far and wide as he can, which means MLS cannot count on his full support.

Despite a feel-good World Cup, the two major American soccer organisations have cleaved apart this year as MLS club owners who had invested in academies are now openly slating US Soccer for following Klinsmann's pro-Europe agenda.

Increased player salaries, 13 soccer-only stadia and the wider growth of soccer in American consciousness mean the bigger picture remains optimistic, but the growth of the beautiful game in America remains stuttering rather than soaring.

The latest MLS-only ground, San Jose's new 18,000-seat
Avaya Stadium, will open its doors next Spring.

MLS Team of the Year: Bill Hamid (DC), Chad Marshall (Seattle), Bobby Boswell (DC), Omar Gonzalez (LA), Lee Nguyen (New England), Landon Donovan (LA),  Diego Valeri (Portland), Thierry Henry (New York), Robbie Keane (LA), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York), Obafemi Martins (Seattle).

-Sean O'Conor

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