Landon Donovan’s Future and the Heart of Labor’s Discontent

Eyes are about to be cast on Donovan's future, with his MLS return to put his Everton future at the mercy of labor negotiations. (Photo: ZumaPress)

Landon Donovan has impressed David Moyes and the Everton FC brass enough to justify a purchase, though the Toffees’ gaffer is resigned to losing the American star when the player’s loan expires this month.

Once the Galaxy star returns stateside, the precarious labor situation could put Donovan’s Liverpool future on hold indefinitely, regardless of whether Everton is willing to meet Major League Soccer’s demands.

When Donovan comes back, he is unlikely to be sold back to Everton before the beginning of the next Premier League season. There is, after all, a reason MLS wanted their second most marketable player back to train before the start of the season. However, with their apparent intent to continue using Donovan as a marketing tool – at least for the start of the 2010 season – the timing of a future move becomes precarious in light of labor uncertainties.

In my opinion, the odds of MLS and the MLSPU making it until August or September without a collective bargaining agreement or work stoppage is pretty low. If the players were willing to let the terms of the old bargaining agreement dictate their employment for an entire season, we would probably have some sort of a deal in place. Also, player leverage because incredibly high if they can use the potential World Cup-boon as well as the months before the start of football to their advantage.

If a work stoppage were to happen over the summer, would Donovan be able to complete a move to Everton (a move that is starting to look move inevitable)? Better still, how would the mechanics of such a sale work?

While a second loan deal seems like something the two sides could come together to allow, the options surrounding a permanent sale are muddied by labor uncertainty.

Donovan's contract extension with MLS was questioned in light of his professed desire to explore Europe again, but MLS's options for upcoming seasons made signing an extension a logical decision. (Photo: ZumaPress)

Landon Donovan is not only under contract to Major League Soccer, but the league holds his registration – a very important detail when it comes to soccer players. While a strike would typically mean a worker could be employed elsewhere while no agreement was in place, that does not mean Donovan’s registration would be released by Major League Soccer.

Without this release from MLS, Everton would not be able to complete a Donovan acquisition, even if the attacker and club wanted to complete a deal. Just because the CBA governing Donovan’s contract loses relevance when a work stoppage is enacted, MLS is not obligated to release the player’s registration.

Whether FIFA would step-in and allow the move: that’s an open question. This idea of “strike” or “lock-out” is pretty new to international soccer. There is not a lot of precedent for such transactions.

And this registration issue is not unique to Landon Donovan. We have no idea whether the governing bodies will respect MLS’s registrations in the face of a player’s attempt to move to another league.

Even if Major League Soccer wanted to complete a deal – perhaps use some of the rumored-to-be £7 million offer (about $10.5 million U.S.) to augment loses from a strike – would the Union acquiesce and allow a sale? Even if it is in the best interest of Donovan, it would not be in the best interest of the remaining players to line the owners’ pockets at a time when the players are walking a picket line.

The easy solution, should there be a work stoppage, would have Donovan go to Everton for a second loan stint. Whether that would be amenable to the Toffees is uncertain. They may have other buying opportunities in the summer, and without the option to buy their preferred player, they may opt for the security of acquiring a second choice permanently rather than wait-out the turmoil in MLS.

And all this assumes Major League Soccer would even consider letting Donovan go. If a work stoppage happens and MLS needs to engage in a new marketing blitz to regain some of the league’s lost market share, it’s difficult to image a better fulcrum to that campaign than Landon Donovan.

It is reasonable to think that Donovan and Everton want to make the deal happen. In quotes, each have been respectful of MLS’s rights, but neither have refrained from exulting their mutual admiration. And Donovan, of course, spent much of last season’s second-half openly discussing a potential move back to Europe, alluding to a confluence of factors (performance, contract, personal life, point in career) that made this the right time.

However, Major League Soccer has its own set of motivations.

Donovan signed a new contract with the league this offseason, but few fail to remember that the league held the option on him for 2010 (and 2011). Given the option of fighting (the perceived) good fight or taking a pay raise and some security, Donovan made the logical choice, signed the deal, but again handed his future over to MLS, who had all the leverage in the negotiations: “You can sign this new offer, or we can keep you here until you’re almost 30 but just not pay you as much.”

But now Donovan is about to come face-to-face with the downside to that money. Whether he wants the deal to happen has become irrelevant. Major League Soccer now needs inducement to let him go, and while $10.5 million is more than a fair price objectively, objectivity is pointless here. Major League Soccer has to look out for itself. As such, they will exert their control over Donovan however suits them best – which is their right.

Though there are few other players who are in Donovan’s situation, the core issues that could inhibit a move to Everton – a move that could cement his career’s legacy – are the same. Major League Soccer has set-up an entity that seeks to keep stability through controlling labor. The players union sees rights granted to domestic athletes and foreign soccer players and wants a step toward equality.

Even when the acclaimed best player of a generation has a chance to embark on a small piece of U.S. soccer history, Major League Soccer will be able to exercise that control.

The need for control (or, conversely, the need for more freedom) is the heart of this struggle, and caught up in it is the future of the generation’s iconic player.

It’s March 1st.  There’s no collective bargaining agreement, and Landon Donovan is about to return to Los Angeles with questions surrounding his season and career.

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