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Original Issue

Trade Deficit

Star players like Landon Donovan are leaving MLS for Europe. Is this a disaster--or a sign that American soccer is coming of age?

If you're a Major League Soccer fan, it would be easy to bemoan Nov. 24 as a dark day for the nine-year-old league. San Jose Earthquakes striker Landon Donovan, the "face of MLS," as one official put it, announced he will rejoin Germany's Bayer Leverkusen (which owns his contract) after leading the Quakes to two MLS championships during a four-year loan. "We're humble enough to say the leagues in Europe are a little higher quality than MLS, even though we're closing the gap," said Donovan, the three-time reigning U.S. player of the year. "The day-in, day-out pressure to perform will make me a better player."

The 22-year-old Donovan joined several young Yanks who have left MLS for Europe this year, including U.S. national team regulars DaMarcus Beasley, 22; Carlos Bocanegra, 25; and Bobby Convey, 21. Yet those who blame MLS for losing its crown jewels are missing the point: This is how the soccer world works. "It's an example of the evolution of the sport in this country that the top European clubs are interested in our young players," says Richard Motzkin, whose company SportsNet LLC represents Donovan and Freddy Adu. "This is something that helps MLS gain greater worldwide acceptance."

Until MLS can finish building its own stadiums (two are done, and six more are on the way) and start turning a profit, it will continue being mostly an exporter on the international player market. (Beasley's sale to Holland's PSV Eindhoven earned the league nearly $3 million.) Still, Donovan stressed, his departure had less to do with money than his desire to compete at Europe's highest levels and show loyalty to Leverkusen, which signed him out of Redlands (Calif.) East Valley High at age 16. (Had talks begun, MLS commissioner Don Garber told associates, the league was willing to pay Donovan "twice as much" as Adu's league-high $500,000 salary, in addition to purchasing his contract for an estimated $5 million.)

For now MLS has to play its own version of Moneyball, investing in underpriced foreign talent (e.g., Caribbeans and Central Americans) while bringing home selected expats (Clint Mathis, of Germany's Hanover 96, may be next) and developing the next wave of American stars. "It's not easy to replace players like DaMarcus and Landon, but we have a tremendous development program that we're expanding to have a fully fledged reserve league next year," says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "We don't believe we've even managed to get our arms around the talent pool we have in this country." --Grant Wahl