How the league welcomes its newest star

by Michael Lewis

Whether it was players, coaches, owners, front office and league executives or broadcasters within the Major Arena Soccer League, everyone agreed that Thursday was a red-letter day for the league.

The San Diego Sockers' signing of former U.S. soccer international and legend will boost the 17-team league on and off the field for the rest of the season. The Sockers announced Donovan's signing on Thursday.


Here's just a sampling of the reaction across the league:

Kansas City Comets head coach Kim Roentved called it "fantastic for the league."

"I just think its a win-win for the MASL all the way around," Florida Tropics Chief Operating Officer and co-owner Chris Economides said.

"Landon will have a massive impact on the league both internally and externally," Utica City FC forward Joey Tavernese said. "He’s one of the best players in American soccer history."

"I also believe he will bring much needed attention to our game," Baltimore Blast head coach Danny Kelly said.

"With the sellout crowds and World Cup ratings for Landon and our national team in the recent past, this is like Pele coming to the NASL in a new media era," said Sam Fantauzzo, owner of the Rochester Lancers, who play in MASL 2. "This could be the start of something huge."

The league certainly hopes so.

"Quality signings like Landon and Dwayne De Rosario bring an entirely new level of professionalism and recognition to this league and to arena soccer as a whole," MASL commissioner Joshua Schaub said. "It’s an exciting time for the MASL and we’re very lucky to have him.”

Luck has had very little to do with Donovan's career. Most of it has been through talent, skill and hard work. He brings to the league an iconic player who established standards for club and country. In Major League Soccer, the 36-year-old midfielder-forward retired as the league's all-time goal-scoring leader (145) and assists leader (136). He has won a record six MLS Cups and was a league MVP (2009) and a seven-time member of the MLS Best XI.

At the international level, Donovan is tied with Clint Dempsey for the most goals (57) and is the all-time assists leader.

"The fact that he is world-class player with great pedigree will help boost the league not just as a promotional view but also the quality player he is," Tropics defender JP Reyes said. "As professional that he is, I think this is a great signing for San Diego not just as a publicity stunt, but as a tremendous asset for the fact that he's a proven goal-scorer."

Tavernese, whose Utica City team is second place in the Eastern Division, said he had received countless messages and calls asking when his team plays San Diego. Due to the schedule, that won't happen during the regular season because the Sockers play most of their games against Pacific Division foes.

"I told them it would be sometime in May when we are hopefully playing each other for the Ron Newman Cup final," he said about the MASL championship game. "My brother loves Donovan, he said he’s booking a ticket to the final if we play them. I have already seen the bottom line on ESPN covering the news. It’s great for the league and happy to have him be a part of it."

Tavernese was keeping his fingers crossed that will become reality.

"I am hoping to have the opportunity to play against him," he said. "It would be really something to say your team beat Landon’s team in the final of a professional league. In terms of his play in the league, I imagine he is going to be a class goal scorer as he has been throughout his outdoor career. If you give him 10 chances, I’m pretty confident he’s going to bury at least nine of them. And if he has trouble with it, he can ask [Sockers teammate] Kraig Chiles for some pointers, seeing as he is one of the league’s best goal-scorers."

This is the third time Donovan has made a comeback since he retired in 2014. He returned to the LA Galaxy for the tail end of the MLS season and playoffs in 2016 and played for Leon in Mexico in 2018.

Of course, he is no spring chicken. Donovan will turn 37 on March 4, but no one doubted that his skills and fitness boost the San Diego resident through the rest of the season.

"Even at 36-years-old, I don't see him not being physically prepared for what he's getting into," Kelly said. "It will take him a little time to adjust to the nuances of the game, but his skills, mindset and mentality of what made him what he is still there. So, do I think he can play at a high level? Absolutely."

Tacoma Stars player-head coach Nick Perera noted that he has several older players "who are performing at the highest levels."

"It’s not my place to speculate on how well he will play," he said. "What I can say is, he’s the best soccer player to ever represent the United States."

Reyes had similar sentiments.

"I do think that Landon can still play at the high level of 36," he said. "There's MLS players now at the age of 36. I think it’s a different game from MLS or outdoor but I think he is one of the few players who can develop like DeRosario who can continue to play and learn the game because it's very different than outdoor."

Doug Miller, coach of the Lancers, was MISL MVP at the age of 43 in 2013, Economides said, adding that Cleveland Crunch indoor greats Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic played to almost 40-years-old.

"At 36 he has a lot left," the Tropics COO said. "He will have an impact off the field, but also on the field."

Added Tavernese: "Age is just a number. There are plenty of guys who are in their mid/late 30’s and even into their 40’s who are still top players in this league. He will find his feet and help an already extremely strong team make their run at the final. I can see it now already. Chiles to Donovan. Goal!!

Donovan's impact is expected to be felt off the field, giving the league publicity in places -- newspapers, websites, TV and radio -- outside of its 17-team markets.

"He just gave the MASL more audience, more views," said Comets defender James Togbah, who came off hat-trick performance in a home win over Utica City, landing him on the MASL team of the week. "People will tune in to look at us and look at games, check on what Landon Donovan is doing, but check on the MASL. And there you go. I think that's great. That's awesome. From the league's growth perspective, that's really good."

Added Economides: "I think it's going to give the league some much needed PR. .... He's going to be very, very marketable. He's a marquee player."

Fantauzzo, who has covered the U.S. men's and women's national teams since 1994 on radio and cable TV programs, remembered when he walked into Toys R Us "and seeing a giant soccer ball display with Landon on it,."

"I said to my grandkids, soccer has finally made it.

"Several players from our women's team have crossed over to main stream. Landon is the only men's side player to establish himself with the non-soccer fan."

Donovan and De Rosario weren't the only high-profile names that have ventured to the great indoors before.

After the 1994 World Cup and prior to the kick off of Major League Soccer, U.S. national team goalkeeper Tony Meola performed for the Buffalo Blizzard in the National Professional Soccer League. He also tended goal for the New Jersey Ironmen in the now-defunct Xtreme Soccer League (2007-08).

"The Buffalo Blizzard did exactly what San Diego is doing now," said Brian Ackley, who noted that the National Professional Soccer League team signed Meola during the 1994-95 season. "He was clearly one of the biggest names in U.S. Soccer then, and the signing indeed had the effect the Blizzard and league were hoping for.

"Crowds increased significantly. In his first game, on the road in Dayton, Ohio, the Dynamo had only their second-ever sellout. The Blizzard had almost 2,500 more fans for Meola's first game than they had been averaging to that point of the season. Harrisburg had over 2,000 more for a game there, and the Baltimore Spirit outdrew their season average by 1,500 fans when Meola and the Blizzard visited."

Ackley, the Tropics play-by-play voice for the past three seasons who covered the Stallions in original Major Indoor Soccer League, was a Blizzard broadcaster for four years.

"Newspaper coverage of teams went from the back of the sports pages to the front of the sports pages both before and after games in which Meola appeared," he said. "Many cities hosted their own press conferences when Buffalo was in town featuring Tony.

"He got to be a pretty good goalkeeper in the time he was there."

Ackley said Meola lost his first game in Dayton in late December, 13-1, when most goals were worth two points in the NPSL. A few weeks later, Meola shut out the Dynamo at home, 22-0. Meola finished the season with a 5.32 goals-against average with a .747 save percentage. When Meola didn't play, Rob Marinaro guarded the net, recording a 6.88 GAA and a .652 save percentage.

"As a footnote, he didn't actually complete the season," Ackley said. "In early February, he left to be the lead in an off-Broadway production of Tony and Tina's Wedding. The team, as I recall was very aware this was a possibility because he had been wanting to land that role for a while, so he had a contract provision that allowed him to leave in this circumstance."

At the moment, we don't know of any pending off-Broadway productions pending for Landon Donovan, so you can expect him to play the rest of the season for the Sockers.

That might not necessarily be good news for San Diego's opponents, but very good news for the MASL.