MLS has made progress, but it's not a good place for top Americans

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It happens like clockwork. Every year, Landon Donovan's name is linked with some European soccer team.

The latest story had AS Roma interested in bringing Donovan to Italy. Boston investor Thomas DiBenedetto expressed interest in bringing Donovan and Michael Bradley to the team where he has gained a controlling interest.

Donovan quickly dismissed the rumor. His agent Richard Motzkin tweeted, "Appreciate the interest but why would @landondonovan leave MLS for the same salary?"

When asked about the Roma rumors himself by Adam Serrano for, Donovan responded, "Don't waste my time with that."

Why? Oh gosh, so many answers. Level of play? Level of passion? Level of importance?

It's the kind of question that has made Donovan-watchers crazy for years. Especially this week when an entire continent waits in anticipation of the Champions League final.

The answer to why any top player would leave MLS seems kind of obvious.

Donovan will turn 30 next year and his contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy -- a four-year extension he signed in 2009 -- runs through 2013.

When his career is finished, he will be considered by far the best American soccer player to ever play the game, to date. That he got there by playing in MLS is a testament to his talents, but shouldn't be perceived as a justification for his choice. Because we'll never know how great he could have been.

For years, MLS has done Donovan a disservice by keeping him in a gilded cage. Donovan picked his comfortable surroundings after leaving Germany in 2005. But MLS hasn't encouraged him to test his wings again. Well-paid and the face of the league, Donovan hasn't needed to test himself. He's played in Europe twice on loan, but the Galaxy wouldn't extend his loan to Everton and Donovan didn't play in Europe last winter. Now he's spending the latter part of his prime dominating MLS competition like Sporting KC and the Portland Timbers.

A decade ago, Donovan was touted as a breakthrough for MLS. Proof that great American players could choose to stay at home.

But the good news is that Donovan hasn't become a role model for other talented young Americans.

On the roster that Bob Bradley named this week for the Gold Cup, there are only a handful of MLS players. The best and brightest American players are playing in Europe, where they face tough challenges to make squads and get playing time but can be confident that they're truly testing themselves.

The quality of play in MLS has improved over the years. But it's still not close to what any American soccer fan can see any weekend when they turn on their television and watch Serie A, La Liga or EPL. Two decades ago, fans might not have understood the difference. Now they can answer Motzkin's tweet (and did) with knowledge. Why indeed?

MLS is a great launching pad for a player like 18-year old Juan Agudelo. It can be a safe harbor for a player like Charlie Davies, who is battling back from serious injuries. It can be a place to make a name, as in the case of Chris Wondolowski, the 28-year old San Jose Earthquakes forward who just got tapped for the national team.

But MLS isn't a top soccer destination in the world and it never will be. Sure, a great young American player can choose to stay at home. But he knows that he shouldn't.

The next Landon Donovan, whoever he might be, won't get caught in the same cage.