About this time last year, the RSL community was abuzz with rumors of USMNT legend Landon Donovan signing with Real Salt Lake.
Donovan hung up his boots in 2014 but came out of retirement the last few months of the 2016 season to play for the LA Galaxy. It was an unusual move in this sport, but clearly Donovan had more to offer. His retirement in 2014 had surprised people as Donovan was only 32 years old. His long ties and close relationship with then head coach Bruce Arena made rejoining the Galaxy an easy move and an exciting moment in the league. When 2016 ended, there was a lot of talk about if it was, for a second, the end of Donovan’s career.
Multiple outlets reported that RSL and Donovan were in discussions that would see the player come to RSL on a two-year deal. While nothing was ever officially stated as to why the move didn’t happen, one leading theory is that the league killed the deal, but we may never know for sure. Donovan is often seen as the greatest ever American player. I ask the question, what would 2017 have looked like with Landycakes in an RSL shirt?
“The star is the team” has been a fitting mantra, as there haven’t been many huge stars in RSL’s history. Landon Donovan, the man who scored so many clutch goals for the US, in a Real Salt Lake uniform would have done a good amount to raise the profile of the club. It wasn’t perfect situation. It’s a little strange to see a player come out of retirement, play for a bit at their old club then move for a last season or two elsewhere. There’s an inherent implication that they couldn’t make it at their old club because the standard was too high (at this point the author will reminder any LA readers that RSL beat the Galaxy 6-2 in July) and so they’re going to a lesser team.
But problems aside, having one of the all-time greatest Americans at your club is not a bad thing. Was David Beckham past his prime when he went to LA? Yes. Was that a good move for LA? Also yes. Others followed Beckham to MLS. Attracting other high profile talent is easier if you already have one high profile player at your team.
Mentoring the youths
Donovan has stated that the only interest he has in coaching is youth soccer. Donovan coached the 2016 Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game in 2016, shortly before coming out of retirement. This squad included Danilo Acosta, Justen Glad, and Jordan Allen. He already had a relationship with some of our young guys. If we had a player like Allen learning from Donovan, this would have been the best thing for Jordan. Assuming he didn’t take on the same injury, Allen might have likely become the player we all hope he will be some day. The kid shows so much promise and a guy like Landon may have helped in unlocking his potential.
Besides Allen, RSL has a fantastic pipeline from the youth academy, to the Monarchs, to the first time. Many of the academy kids have seen time with the youth national teams. While players like Rimando and Beckerman have experience with the US National team, the understanding he could share with our young players is second to none.
On the field
In 2017, LD would not be as fast as he once was, but he showed his ability to finish in his first game back with the Galaxy in 2016. His intelligence for the game hadn’t diminished. RSL had good options on the wings, especially after Lennon returned and Savarino came on board so it’s unlikely we would have needed him there. He could have fit in well as a deeper striker, similar to where Silva played much of the season.
Donovan leads the league in both goals and assists. In 2016 he only played in 6 games, so it’s not entirely clear what a full pre-season and regular matches would’ve meant for his ability, but I’m willing to guess it would have been pretty solid. Donovan has always been a player who does well when he has something to prove and struggles when he’s bored. After he wasn’t called up for the 2014 World Cup, he lit it up for the Galaxy. A coming out of retirement, playing at a new team situation would have meant he needed to show he could still play. That would have been great for RSL.
It’s impossible to say the effect Donovan would have had if he signed a two-year deal with Real Salt Lake. I can say, without a doubt, that Landon would have helped RSL make the playoffs and probably win MLS cup. In addition to that, he wouldn’t have been content sitting by and letting Dempsey take (or tie with) his US goal scoring record. Since Landon is close with Bruce Arena, he’d have been called up during World Cup qualifiers, scored a hat trick in Trinidad, and won the World Cup. Thanks a lot, Garber.
Donovan could’ve helped RSL in a difficult year. The path RSL ultimately took was much more youth-oriented. I’m not unhappy that we were able to give so many meaningful minutes to young players, but I’ll always wonder what could’ve been with Landon Donovan on Real Salt Lake’s roster.