Catch the right Galaxy game, and the atmosphere at StubHub Center is worthy of one of the league’s most prestigious teams. Amid a captivating dusk of the Southern California summer, one of the league’s more fan-friendly atmospheres highlights a generation growing up with Major League Soccer. Despite its market’s competition, the four-time champions have gained staked out a place in complicated sports market.
But the significance of that place is about to be tested. Even in the absence of David Beckham, the local profile of the Galaxy brand has diminished. Now, with the impending departure of its biggest star, the team will have to embark on a makeover. No matter whom AEG brings in, nobody will replace Landon Donovan.
[ RELATED: Landon Donovan to retired at end of 2014 season. ]
Not that LA doesn’t have other stars. Robbie Keane is one of MLS’s best players, and as the face of a team, there are few U.S. stars that have the potential of Omar Gonzalez. With an open Designated Player spot, Los Angeles has the profile to bring in the game’s bigger stars; potentially more, if the new Collective Bargaining Agreement gives them more ways to stock up. The team that takes the field next spring may turn out to be more talent than the one Donovan leaves this fall.
But is there another player who can make the same connection as Donovan? An American star that allows fans to be conflict-free between their club and national teams? Is there somebody good enough to be an icon but young enough to grow with the next generation of fans? Is there another player with a local connection who, even if he’s played elsewhere in his career, will allow Los Angeles to embrace him as their own?
One look at the national team says no. A deeper look at the next generation sees talented players who lack the overall package. For LA as much as MLS, Donovan was a truly unique star.
As much as losing a great player and leader, that will be the hardest part. Nobody can replace Donovan, the spokesman. Los Angeles is very much a Lakers town, one that’s swinging even farther towards basketball with the Clippers’ growth and UCLA’s historic success. For the older generation, the Dodgers are the area’s iconic team, while both USC and UCLA football have dominant presences in the absence of the NFL (which still sells a lot of Raiders gear in the area). While the NHL’s Kings and, farther south, the Angels and Ducks all have some of the pie, LA’s sports market, as peculiar as it may be, is defined by a few, clear icons.
When LA had David Beckham, it would break into that sphere, with the exploits of a global icon able to wrestle away time on the local news. With only Donovan, the attention has decreased, though his presence has allowed LA to stay on the map. A local media with a short attention span has that focal point to reference whenever soccer becomes important.
[ RELATED: For Donovan the man, it’s time to move on. ]
But what happens come 2015? Keane and Gonzalez aren’t enough. LA can be expected to bring in bigger stars, but it took somebody like David Beckham to make an impact before. Even well into his retirement, few players have a Q Score to match Beckham, who may still be Los Angeles’s most popular soccer player.
The Galaxy could go out, find two more Robbie Keanes, and win a fifth (perhaps sixth) title, but unless one of those stars can replace Donovan’s appeal, they could have trouble making progress in that market. As evidenced by the Kings, whose two Stanley Cups have failed to recapture the local relevant of Wayne Gretzky’s era, star power is important. Only brands like the Lakers and Dodgers can get by on winning alone.
Go to StubHub Center on a weeknight in summer, and you see the line the Galaxy walk. Life in Carson, Calif., is often an anonymous one. Have an 11:30 a.m. kickoff on a Saturday? The crowd will thin out.
The team lives a precarious life on the edge of the SoCal sports scene. Without Donovan, they’ll have to find a new way to keep up.