Donovan may help Galaxy, but not MLS

If you’ve heard of the law of diminishing returns, know that I don’t take as much pleasure in sports as I used to. Only recently have I come to grips with sports as an addiction, like heroin or the music of U2. I often find myself watching sports not because of love as much as a function of the autonomic nervous system. I watch because the feeling of “must do” overrides the feeling of “ought to do.”  

For those rare occasions when an athlete does something truly thrilling, I love the guy for that fleeting moment of reintroducing the love of sport. This was the last time I honestly lost my composure watching a sporting event.

So know I love that Landon Donovan, who retired too early in my opinion, returned to the Los Angeles Galaxy last week and played in his first game Sunday in a 4-2 victory over Orlando City SC.

Overall, though, I have a sinking feeling this is a bad idea for MLS. The reason is that the league, while telling us repeatedly about its improving quality of play, rarely acquires an elite soccer player who is still in his physical prime. Indeed, there is a global reputation of the league handing out golden parachutes to international players who want a final decent paycheck before bowing out.

Consider that Donovan is currently the greatest American-born player. He isn’t the most recognizable player in MLS history. That would be David Beckham, who joined the Galaxy at age 32. Beckham’s arrival rang in a rule change for a league that was known for being miserly — the designated player rule. Basically, it’s a financial workaround to bring in a limited number of free agent talent. And other teams responded by bringing in international superstars that were a bit past their prime, such as the New York Red Bulls did with Thierry Henry, who was 33 when he signed.

Orlando City SC and NYCFC made multiple designated player moves to excite a fan base for their first seasons in 2025. Orlando signed 32-year-old Kaka. NYCFC added David Villa, 33, Andrea Pirlo, 36, and Frank Lampard, 37. Lampard’s ballyhooed arrival last year fizzled thanks to age-related injury.

Even when the league debuted, it touted as one of its main draws Colombian star Carlos Valderamma, who was 35 at the time.

Understand, I haven’t much of a clue how to make MLS on the same level as Serie A in Italy or the Premiere League in England. Heck, I wouldn’t know how to lift MLS past Liga MX.

But signing players on the downside of their careers isn’t a solution. If you name your MVP award after a guy, you shouldn’t ask him to play again and expect it to work.

On a personal level, as a fan, I’m glad Donovan is back.

But what’s left of my sports-fried addicted mind knows that this is simply the latest hit of bad heroin.

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