CHESTER, Pa. – When Chris Donovan stepped onto the freshly laid pitch at Subaru Park last month, it wasn’t hard to figure out where his friends and family were sitting in the stands even on a night with a sellout crowd of 18,717 in attendance.
One of those voices yelling “Dono” from the stands as the 22-year-old Paoli, Pa. native made his Major League Soccer debut was a coach who has watched Donovan’s rise from college and amateur star to the top flight of U.S. soccer: West Chester United head coach Blaise Santangelo.
Santangelo was sitting near Donovan’s father in the stands and for those who don’t know them it might have been easy to confuse in the moment who was his dad and who was his former coach. That’s because Donovan’s unlikely rise has been so linked to the Santangelo and West Chester United since the striker debuted for them in the 2018 NPSL season.
A star at Drexel University during his four seasons of college soccer and the state high school player of the year during a senior year at Conestoga High School that saw him find the back of the net 56 times, Donovan’s pathway to the pros has also been aided in large part through the training and playing opportunities provided by West Chester United.
It was, in fact, the West Chester United badge he was wearing when he caught the attention of Union staff in several friendlies played between the club and Philadelphia Union II over the past year and a half.
This pathway to the pros West Chester United has been cultivating began with their entry into the NPSL in 2017 and has really come to fruition in 2022 with both Donovan and his teammate from that NPSL team in 2018 (and high school rival) Aiden McFadden also making his MLS debut back in March with Atlanta United. McFadden made his first MLS start just last week.
“The bucket is overflowing,” Santangelo said of Donovan. “I’m just so happy for him and for (Union Sporting Director) Ernst Tanner to believe in him and sign him.”
Donovan’s path to MLS had a brief stop in Columbus Crew after he was drafted 68th overall in January. The Crew waived him early in preseason and didn’t secure his MLS rights, which the Union acquired by paying Chicago Fire $50,000 in allocation money to move up in the priority waiver order.
The Union famously hasn’t used its draft picks since Tanner came to the club in 2018 and Donovan was not available when they passed on their only remaining pick at No. 82. But Tanner and his staff (Scouting Director Jon Scheer was first introduced to Donovan as a former assistant at Drexel’s conference rival the University of Delaware) were interested in bringing him into the organization and seeing what he could do training daily as a professional. They signed him to a second team contract shortly after he was released by Columbus.
“Everybody hears about our academy, and how much our academy does and how often those kids thrive coming through the process too, but I think everybody’s pathway can be very very different,” Philadelphia Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc said after Donovan signed his MLS deal. “Whether you come to the academy and you never go to college or potentially you’re a college kid like Jack Elliott or Ray Gaddis or Donovan, I think, if anything, it just further solidifies our process and what we do from developing from within.”
Donovan’s path follows that of Cory Burke, who impressed with the Union’s second team before earning a first team deal in 2018. In Donovan’s case, however, it only took a few months to show he could play for the first team.
“Certainly he’s worked incredibly hard and done it so quickly,” said LeBlanc, who coached both Elliott and former Union defender Gaddis at West Virginia. “But the second team is supposed to be a platform for guys who we have an expectation to either make it or have the potential to make it to the first team.”
Donovan made a five-minute cameo on June 18 against Gaddis and FC Cincinnati in a 1-1 draw. He made his road debut in MLS in a 24-minute appearance in a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire on June 29. He managed to register his first shot on goal at Soldier Field but is still seeking his first MLS goal. He has three goals and an assist in 12 games for Philadelphia Union II this season.
“Growing up here this was the team that I’ve always supported in MLS so it was just a dream to watch these guys for the past few years and to just be out there with them,” Donovan said of his debut. “It was a little bit surreal because it all happened so quickly.”
Donovan’s familiarity with the club and the area has no doubt aided his rise. Though he wasn’t part of the academy growing up he never viewed college soccer as the end of his professional dream.
“The college game is a little bit different, it’s a little more rough and tumble, and that’s something that I definitely needed to add to my game,” he said. “So college probably helped me in that respect and then playing with West Chester in the summer playing at some really high quality competition and experienced competition definitely helped me grow as a player.”
When the global pandemic was shutting down the college season and the NPSL and USL League Two along other amateur competitions, Donovan was able to continue with West Chester United playing in United Soccer League of Pennsylvania and other competitions. The friendlies against Union II illustrated his potential to play at a higher level, especially in a Union system that fits his ability as a goal-scorer who is good at applying high-pressure and fighting for the ball in transition.
Santangelo said the relationship his club has formed with the Union in setting up friendlies and communicating about the progress of players has been a key outgrowth of their program.
“It’s so big for our club, and it’s big for everybody that Chris has touched who’s helped Chris,” Santangelo said. “We had a really big part of Chris getting signed with the Union so we’re really excited to see what he’s able to do next.”
Though Donovan will still play in games with Union II, his signing means he’ll be spending the bulk of his time training with the first team, pushing weekly for first team minutes.
“The goal is to rise through the ranks within this team and earn a more consistent role,” he said. “Playing with this group of guys is great, I’ve learned over the last few weeks and it just feels great to be here.”