This is an unfortunate moment for MLS. With David Beckham quietly trashing the league, either directly or implicitly, every time he opens his mouth, with Landon Donovan letting it be known that he'd prefer to play in Germany, with FC Barcelona withdrawing its bid for a Miami franchise, the league's image (at least in the eyes of foreign observers) has been suffering.
With the start of the MLS season just two weeks away, however, we are presented with some supposedly good news. We, lucky we, will be getting half a season of David Beckham. So be it. I very much doubt -- after all the shenanigans he's put us through, after he's made it insultingly clear that MLS and American soccer in general are not good enough for him -- that anyone cares whether he turns up or not.
I have decidedly different feelings about the other MLS refugee, Landon Donovan. This is Landon's third attempt to prove that he's good enough to play in the Bundesliga, and it has evidently ended the same way as the other two -- in embarrassing, if not humiliating, failure.
Yes, I'm a bit puzzled by that, because I do rate Donovan highly as a player -- I would rate him one of the best, if not the best American-born player I've seen. Maybe the Bundesliga is wrong for him. Maybe Spain or another of the Latin countries would be more suited to his style. I think that's quite likely -- but I suppose we'll never find out. When Landon returns to the USA this time, it will be for good, I think.
And I mean -- good. For Donovan's return will be good news for the league. This time, I mean real good news. He has been its most consistently lively player for quite a while now. Last year he certainly outshone Beckham at the Galaxy. He is a player worth watching, a player with style and ease to his game, a soccer artist, a goalscorer -- and a playmaker, too.
MLS does not have too many players like that, and the other ones are foreign-born -- Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Javier Morales, Christian Gomez and Dwayne De Rosario.
There are coaches who like to play down the importance of such players. Gary Smith at Colorado is one, he can see no value in Gomez and has happily traded him back to D.C. United. And Colorado, now without a playmaker, is going to play like Arsenal, Smith tells us. Right.
De Rosario is also on the move. He has been such a key part of the San Jose/Houston franchise's success -- an eight-year veteran with the club, a two-time winner of MLS Goal of the Year -- awards that tell you something about his ability to win games, to do the unusual, the surprising, the audacious. His departure for Toronto leaves Houston with an enormous problem.
I can't say I have ever exactly been wildly excited by Houston's playing style, but it has certainly never been dull. Plenty of vigorous action, an accent on offense, a good mixture of long- and short-ball play. All of that borders on the predictable, but it was prevented from falling into that category by the presence of De Rosario, who always promised excitement and originality. The beauty was that he seemed able to function well as a rather anonymous, but essential, team member -- and then to erupt into magnificent, and frequently game-winning, individuality.
Without De Rosario, the running and the effort will continue unabated, no doubt, but Houston will surely be a very predictable team. We saw just that in the two Concacaf Champions League games against Mexico's Atlante. No attempt has been made to replace De Rosario. The young Stuart Holden may play in his place, but he cannot play the same role; he is a straightforward sort of player, lacking the guile and cleverness that make De Rosario so special. De Rosario's presence should galvanize Toronto. His absence may well neutralize Houston.