As Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry depart, MLS must identify successors to their stars

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Some three months before the start of its 20th season, Major League Soccer has a bit of an identity crisis on its hands. With the retirement of American soccer legend Landon Donovan and the departure from New York of world superstar Thierry Henry, MLS is set to lose a great deal of its character and notoriety this offseason.

The absences of Donovan and Henry will only be felt, though, because the unlikely duo gave so much to the league over the last 14 and four and a half years, respectively.

In many ways, Donovan helped build the league into what it is today when, in the pursuit of his own day-to-day happiness, he chose to devote the majority of his legendary career to MLS. No shortage of current MLS players — many of whom were barely teenagers when Donovan returned from a brief stint in Europe at 19 years old — were among the many to share messages of thanks and congratulations via social media following Sunday’s MLS Cup triumph, his sixth league title and the conclusion of his professional career.

Henry, on the other hand, opened the door for a number of players already established as stars in Europe and elsewhere, showing them that MLS had become more than a “retirement league” or a final destination to collect one last payday. Players like Robbie KeaneObafemi Martins and Jermain Defoe never take the perceived “step down” from European riches to MLS “obscurity” without Henry’s validation of the league’s worth.

While MLS is still nowhere near the level it desires, as “one of the world’s top leagues,” a very publicly stated goal of MLS commissioner Don Garber, the gap closes a bit more with each and every transfer window and another of Europe or South America’s stars join the likes of Donovan, Henry, Keane and Clint Dempsey stateside.

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Thierry Henry

There’s no doubt that Donovan and Henry’s contributions will have a lasting effect in the long-term, with an entire generation of youngsters shown the way as future MLS fans and players. But here’s where we find ourselves now: wondering whether or not players of Dempsey and Keane’s clout can push MLS further into the spotlight, enlisting the league’s next wave of stars domestically and globally, the way Donovan and Henry did for a number of years.

Upon taking just 30 seconds to listen to the departed stars speak of the game and their upbringings, you’ll immediately realize that folks possessing their drive, vision and wisdom don’t come along every single day. Donovan sees a new way forward where players are thought of as people first and foremost, while Henry has an understanding of the game and way of explaining and imparting a fraction of his vast knowledge onto those who seek to be enlightened.

Beyond being great players on the field — and they certainly were: 144 goals, 136 assists for Donovan; 51 goals, 42 assists in 122 games for Henry — the two of them were characters that not only garnered the spotlight on a daily and weekly basis, but brought about intrigue and became topics of discussions that were worth being had.

There’s no doubt that whomever the league turns to now, with arguably its two brightest stars freshly departed, has a greater task than simply replacing Donovan and Henry’s names upon the marquee, but carrying forward a league with even greater aspirations than than their predecessors ever felt.