Landon Donovan hasn't been worth the cost for LA Galaxy, but he might still be
On Sept. 11, Landon Donovan returned to the field for the first time in almost two years. He played seven anonymous minutes for the LA Galaxy, admitting as much after the match: "I came into a game where both teams were exhausted, and I was the slowest player on the field."
In the next month and a half, however, the former United States national team star worked his way back to full fitness, subbing on for 16, 24 and 33 minutes before starting the final two fixtures of the season. In the last game of the year, a 0-0 draw against FC Dallas on Oct. 23, Donovan went the full 90; precisely the sort of prep to get him in peak condition for the postseason, when he'll be needed most.
The midfielder returned to fitness in impressively quick fashion. When he announced his comeback, no one -- not even the player or his coach -- knew exactly what he would be able to contribute down the stretch run. The fact that the 34-year-old morphed from an observer -- who, in his first match back, said he had "much more impact today in the locker room and helping out a few guys at halftime" -- to a starter for a jelling squad speaks to the quality of player he was and is.
Still, while Donovan was on the field, he wasn't creating much in the way of offensive production. During his 233 regular-season minutes, he managed a total of one shot on goal. (The effort, an elegantly placed left-footed effort, found the back of the net.) The Galaxy went just 2-2-2 in those six matches, good enough to solidify their playoff position and host a first-round match, but not the kind of run they needed to catch the Colorado Rapids for second place in the Western Conference.
Donovan seriously figured in only two of those games, but one goal and zero assists in two-and-a-half matches' worth of minutes isn't exactly the kind of return the Galaxy hoped for when they signed Major League Soccer's all-time leading scorer. Furthermore, the team scored a single goal in the two regular-season matches he started.
According to salary figures released by the MLS Players Union, Donovan has the equivalent of a $456,000 base salary for the year, the maximum for a non-designated player. That makes him the fifth-highest paid player on the Galaxy, behind Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes, and ahead of stalwarts like Jelle van Damme, Alan Gordon and Robbie Rogers. More than $150,000 for a single shot on goal is a poor investment.
But the Galaxy didn't sign Donovan for the regular season. LA, more than perhaps any other club in the league, measures its success and failure by whether it raises a championship banner at the end of the season. Do so, as the Galaxy have done five times, and the season is a success. Fall short, as they did last year when they lost in the conference knockout round -- a defeat Bruce Arena blamed in part on lacking the kind of depth Donovan was signed to provide -- and it's a failure. With the Galaxy, the would-be Galacticos of MLS, there's no in between.
In that light, the money Donovan is making looks better. In two playoff starts, both wins for LA, he's played his two best games, adding a bit of attacking flair and, more importantly, locking down the right side defensively. The Galaxy, given their propensity to push forward, can get caught out, and Donovan's tactical acumen, field awareness and his not-quite-as-quick-as-before-but-still-quick-point-to-point speed help mitigate that deficiency. Across the two matches, he's posted nine recoveries, four interceptions and three clearances, a plethora of counting stats that back up the eye-test conclusion about his defensive effectiveness.
Against Real Salt Lake and Colorado, Donovan was also responsible with the ball at his feet. Just 10 of his passes failed to find their targets, and he earned a secondary assist on Gordon's goal against RSL. Although his efforts didn't result in any tallies in the match with the defensively stout Rapids, Donovan created three chances, giving him a total of five in his first four starts.
If that 1.36-chances-created-per-90-minutes figure held through the entire season, Donovan would rank 89th in MLS, sandwiched between the Portland Timbers' Darlington Nagbe and New York City FC's David Vila. On the Galaxy, he'd trail teammates Gerrard (2.35), Dos Santos (1.52) and Zardes (1.47), but sit ahead of many others, including Sebastian Lletget (1.12). Sacha Kljestan leads MLS with a ridiculous 3.4 chances created per 90 minutes.
The point is that Donovan is improving. He's not the offensive catalyst he once was, the type of player who dramatically impacted the proceedings every time he stepped onto the field, but no one expected him to be that player when he returned to MLS. (And, while he's well-compensated, he's not being paid as if he's that player, either.) He's a complementary piece, a spoke on the Galaxy's hub.
He fits well with Dos Santos, the pair's chemistry improving with each passing game. That's key. With all due respect to Gerrard and Keane, this should be the 27-year-old Mexican star's team. He's the Galaxy's best player, as his 14 goals and 12 assists attest, and their healthiest, most consistent designated player. Dos Santos and Keane haven't clicked; their battle to be the alpha male has been understandable but counterproductive.
Donovan, on the other hand, knows his role and plays it to perfection. He has also realized that he can be a leader in other ways, acting as a spokesman for the team during its playoff run and stepping up behind closed doors.
Halfway through the second round of MLS playoffs, it's abundantly clear that the Galaxy are an improved team since Donovan returned. LA has always operated with a different financial reality than the majority of the league. Spending money, however, leads to rising expectations, and Donovan's presence only increases that pressure. He may be a complementary piece, but he's the most famous complementary piece in league history.
While perhaps it's unfair, if the Galaxy don't hoist MLS Cup on Dec. 10, the entire experiment will have ended in failure. (Unless he plays next year, too. If so, we'll revisit then.)
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.