Its finally official, Landon Donovan will join Everton on loan in January. Donovan will return to MLS in time for the season opener on March 27. This move is great news for Donovan as he comes into a side that can and will use him. The move is great news for our World Cup hopes because Everton plays all the top teams during Donovan’s stay and he will get on the field experience against opening foes England. Despite this very positive step, Donovan is unlikely to ever make a permanent move to Europe because it’s hard to imagine a big club willing to meet MLS’s valuation on a 28-year-old attacking midfielder that is the only American star playing in America.
Everton Manager David Moyes worked hard to secure Donovan’s services for his side ravaged by injuries and stuck in the wrong half of the table. Moyes is looking for “players to come in and hit the ground running, not need a month or two to get ready,” so it looks like he intends to get Donovan on the pitch early and often. Donovan’s pace, experience, and versatility should allow him fit in pretty well with Everton’s other players; I can see him adding the attacking midfielder to compliment Tim Cahill the Toffees have been lacking since Mikel Arteta went down with repeated knee injuries.
But this move is very clearly only temporary, with MLS understandably unwilling to allow its two most marketable stars play abroad through the World Cup. And so we return to the age old debate about whether Donovan will ever fulfill the potential many believe he has and establish himself with a big European club.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that Donovan’s time at Everton is a success and the US team impresses at the World Cup, getting out of the group stage and perhaps threatening a deeper run. That would likely put Donovan at the peak of his marketability to European clubs preparing for the 2010-11 season. But just how much should we expect him to command on the open market?
By the end of the World Cup, Donovan will be 28, closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He is remarkably fit and driven, so his decline should not be a precipitous drop, but it would be unrealistic to expect him to perform at his highest level beyond 31 or 32. So at most, a team would get four years out of him and more likely three.
Then you have his past experience in Europe, one disastrous and one anonymous sojourn in the Bundesliga. Good play in England and South Africa will help overcome that, but it won’t erase it from team’s minds, especially if they are committing to Donovan long term. It would surprise me if a big club came in with an offer of £10 million, and more likely something like £6-8 million ($10-$13 million).
The question then shifts to whether MLS would accept that offer. Historically, MLS has been very reluctant to sell any of its American players, like Dempsey, Twellman, and Altidore. Yes, two of those players did ultimately leave MLS, but neither Dempsey nor Altidore approaches the star power and marketability of Donovan. It would be hard for MLS to lose by far the best American player of his generation who has been among the most recognizable players in the league for close to a decade. Without Donovan, MLS would have no American stars, unless you count Ricardo Clark or Jonathan Bornstein.
If MLS has been reluctant to let lesser players go, I can’t imagine they would be eager to see the American face of the league depart. I think MLS would ask around $20 million (£12.5 million), or about what Gareth Barry cost Manchester City and just £2 million less than the Premier League’s leading scorer (26-year-old Jermain Defoe) cost Tottenham. Now those aren’t superstars, but realistically, those players are probably rated higher than Donovan even if the next seven months go better than anyone hoped.
I could be wrong and a team like Everton or Sevilla or even Marseille might come in with £12 million. MLS would be fools to turn that down. But I think the far more likely scenario is that Donovan has a good run with the Toffees, performs well with the US team, and then returns to the Galaxy after the World Cup. He may go out on loan again next winter, but a permanent move to Europe doesn’t seem like its in the cards.