As the MLS semifinals begin on November 23rd, two of MLS’ greatest stars look set to move on. Well, one is for sure heading to retirement, while the other has been more opaque about it. Landon Donovan announced months ago that this would be his final season. His farewell tour kicked off with a semi-manufactured “Landon Donovan Send-Off” friendly vs. Ecuador. Then he said good-bye to the LA Galaxy fans in his final regular season match. Now he needs a win against the frightening Seattle Sounders to reach yet another MLS Cup final.
Thierry Henry’s future is less clear. Many believe he is moving on after these playoffs, perhaps back to his beloved Arsenal. At 37, Henry is nowhere near his prime, but has shown he can still contribute more than intangible leadership.
Both of their MLS careers have been impressive in their own ways. Donovan started with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001, moved over to Los Angeles in 2005, and became widely regarded as the best MLS player ever. The stats back it up. He’s the all-time league leader in goals and assists, while picking up five MLS titles. This season, he tallied 10 goals and 19 assists, not exactly the numbers of a player who needs to retire. They were partly boosted due to the fact he played 31 games (about seven more than his average) this season, because he wasn’t invited to the World Cup by a certain German. Still, Donovan’s productivity remained uninhibited, even though he’s 32 and clearly over this whole soccer thing.
The Frenchman Henry signed on as a Designated Player with the New York Red Bulls in 2010. He only played 11 games that season, but his next four campaigns would prove that, while he had certainly lost a step, he could still impact games. Recording 15 goals in 2012 earned him an MLS MVP finalist spot (the award went to Chris Wondolowski). Like Donovan, his highest assist total (14) actually also came this year. The remaining hurdle for Henry is playoff success. Until a week ago, his Red Bulls had been knocked out in the quarterfinals every postseason since 2010. It would be pretty rough on his MLS legacy to never even make it to a Cup final.
Even if that were to happen, it doesn’t change Henry’s positive influence on professional soccer in the United States. Although many love to point to his presence as proof that Major League Soccer is just a “retirement league”, more objective eyes can see that the league has made significant gains in the last several years, harboring a group of legit talents, young and old. Henry raised the Red Bulls’ average attendance numbers immediately and they haven’t really gone down since. In his mid-to-late-thirties, American soccer fans were still treated to a massive talent who had already won some of the biggest trophies in world football.
Donovan’s MLS legacy is unimpeachable. Many love to criticize him for not giving it more of a shot overseas, but he was happier living in beautiful California and making great money as the face of the MLS. Can you really blame him for that? There’s also a certain pressure that comes with being the face of both your national team and its professional league; Donovan usually handled it with aplomb. The league will miss him more than any other player that has left before.
So do either of these legends have a good chance to hoist the MLS Cup in early December? Of the two, I would put my betting dollars on Donovan’s Galaxy. Not only are they a more complete team, but Donovan is on a tear. He just submitted a hat trick in the second-leg of their first-round series vs. Real Salt Lake. Against Seattle, they do have the tougher semifinal matchup, but it’s almost difficult not to see Donovan go out with a final MLS victory. With four assists, Henry has also played extremely well through three playoff games. He will need to keep doing so if the Red Bulls want to advance past the New England Revolution.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider who will replace these guys as two of the league’s most experienced and recognizable stars. Clint Dempsey is still around, as is Michael Bradley. Other USMNT names include Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, and New England’s Jermaine Jones. Even without Donovan, the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane will continue playing like he’s got a fever and the only prescription is putting the ball in the back of the net. Same with Bradley Wright-Phillips in New York after Henry departs. Finally, we can’t forget about NYCFC’s incoming aged stars, Frank Lampard and David Villa.
It’s tough for the MLS to lose two brand name players, but both Donovan and Henry certainly leave with the league in a much better state than they found it.