By Greg Oldfield/NPSL.com
Two weeks ago, Chris Donovan scored a goal he’ll always remember. The former West Chester Predator and current Philadelphia Union forward scored his first MLS goal, a game-winner against rivals New York City FC to earn a valuable home three points for the defending Eastern Conference Champions. Donovan has found the back of the net hundreds of times throughout his illustrious career: 56 goals at Conestoga High School, 30 at Drexel University, and countless others for West Chester, but this one had extra meaning because it was close to home.
“It feels great,” Donovan said after the game about his goal. “I was hoping that my first MLS goal would be here.”
Donovan, who hails from Paoli, PA, less than 20 miles from Subaru Park, gathered the ball in the 81st minute at the top of the box and played a one-two with Daniel Gazdag that ended with the Union forward forcing the defense into a mistake before burying the ball in the back of the net. The goal highlighted Donovan’s ability as a clinical finisher with MLS-level skill, instinct, and poise, all qualities enhanced by his time playing for West Chester in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
Following his freshman season at Drexel, Donovan joined West Chester for the 2019 NPSL season. The team went 7-2-1 then lost to FC Motown in the Keystone Conference Semifinals. In 2020, the NPSL season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while most NCAA conferences and amateur leagues shut down, Donovan and West Chester continued on training and playing before the NPSL resumed in 2021.
“Chris was freakishly athletic,” West Chester coach Blaise Santangelo said about his first impressions of Donovan. Santangelo remembered Donovan running past defenders with ease and scoring on his first touch for the team’s U-23 squad that first summer.
“He held our NPSL dreams in his hands,” he said. “A great story for a hometown kid, and he gives hope for the next hometown kid.”
One of those kids was Donovan’s West Chester and Drexel teammate, Kyle Tucker, who signed with the Union II earlier this month.
In 2022, Donovan impressed Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner during a friendly against West Chester but was selected by the Columbus Crew in the MLS SuperDraft before the Union could sign him. Though Donovan’s opportunity in Columbus didn’t work out, the Union scooped up his rights and added him to their second team. Early into the 2022 season, Donovan began tearing up the MLS NEXT Pro competition, scoring in bunches. He went on to score eight goals, adding three assists with Union II and earned his first professional contract in the summer, joining the first team. He made six appearances, including playoff minutes during the Union’s run to the MLS Cup Finals.
This season, Donovan has appeared in 11 MLS games and recorded his first assist in a 3-0 win over the New England Revolution in May. He scored his first goal with the Union in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 32 loss to Minnesota United, pouncing on a through-ball to pull the Union back 1-1 late in the second half. This past Wednesday, Donovan made his Leagues Cup debut in the Union’s 5-1 win over Queretaro.
“It’s always going to be tough when I’m up against really good players in the starting XI,” he said about his expanding role with the team. “But it’s all about hard work. For me, my game is really pressing oriented, hard work, win the ball, that kind of stuff.”
Santangelo has noticed Donovan’s growth since.
“Chris needed to add some tools,” he said. “Develop more, become a restart guy. I always wanted him in the box because he could outjump anybody. His finishing has improved, and his press has always been wonderful.”
The West Chester coach said the timing of his runs off the ball were getting better, as seen by his two goals this season.
Last year, while Donovan was earning regular MLS minutes, his West Chester teammates faced FC Motown again in the conference finals, where they lost in penalties. Motown went on to win the NPSL National Championship. This year, however, West Chester met their rivals in the East Region Finals and won 4-1 to reach their first NPSL National Semifinal where they host Apotheos FC, 4-3 winners over Georgia Revolution FC in the Southeast Region Final.
Qualifying for next year’s Open Cup with their win, West Chester is now on the quest for a national amateur treble within a year. They won the 2022 USASA Werner Fricker U.S. Open Cup last August then claimed the Hank Steinbrecher Cup in early June. An NPSL title would mean another star for one of the model programs in the country.
“It’s a really special group,” Santangelo said. “We have 42 players competing for 18 spots every game.”
Santangelo is proud to see his players moving on to the professional ranks, which proves the vision to provide players with an alternate pathway toward the country’s top tier is paying off.
“We’ve created a top competitive atmosphere twelve months out of the year,” Santangelo said. “Hopefully, we can stay at the top.”
Photo Credit: Carl Gulbish/PhiladelphiaSoccerNow