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U.S. Soccer: All Landon Wants Is to Play


Landon Donovan is critical to the U.S. U-20s' hopes for success in Argentina and he's made a convincing case that he belongs on the national team. So what's to be done about Bayer Leverkusen?

Landon Donovan has never lacked confidence.

''I think I should be on every roster,'' he says, quickly adding a ''no, just kidding.''

The topic is the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifying campaign that kicks off Feb. 28 against Mexico in Columbus, and, no, Donovan isn't kidding. He believes he should be there, and he's offered persuasive evidence to that fact twice now, adding a strong performance in the Americans' victory over China - two days after his proclamation - to his superb debut against Mexico last October.

''I think I've done OK,'' he says. ''I've certainly held my own, but we have some good forwards in this country, and it's going to be a battle.''

That's what U.S. coach Bruce Arena says, too, at least publicly, listing Donovan among six forwards - with Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore, Ante Razov, Josh Wolff and Chris Albright - he's considering for his Mexico roster. Arena won't say much more, but every minute Donovan spends on the field makes it clearer he'll contribute sooner than later.

It should make for a busy spring for the 18-year-old Californian, who's already penciled in for the U-20 qualifying tournament next month in Trinidad (and, providing the Yanks advance, the World Youth Championship, kicking off June 17 in Argentina).

Oh, and there's Bayer Leverkusen, of course. Donovan's German club is more cause for concern than anything else these days. Berti Vogts may understand the enormity of Donovan's potential, but it's not about to get him any time with the first team, not when he's away so often.

HIGH SCHOOL EQUIVALENCY. And so Donovan languishes in one of the German Fourth Division's regional leagues, where Leverkusen's reserves take on teams that ''are probably the equivalent to my high school team, believe it or not.''

It's not a situation that pleases him, nor Arena.

''I agree it's a problem,'' Arena says. ''I do think it's important he gets a club this spring and he's playing on a regular basis.''

Richard Motzkin, Donovan's Los Angeles-based agent, set up a meeting for early February with Leverkusen officials to talk about his client's immediate future.

''I'm not going over with any expectations aside from trying to have open, honest discussions with the understanding that all options should be discussed,'' Motzkin says. ''I trust they'll be open-minded as well.''

What Donovan wants - what Donovan always wants - is to play, against the best competition possible. That means Bundesliga, not Fourth Division.

''I play all the time with the reserve team, but I'm not going to get better [with them],'' Donovan says. ''I train with the first team, and that's helped me a lot, training with those guys every day. But sooner or later, I need to play [with them]. ...

''I've heard [Vogts] says he likes me a lot, wants to integrate me into his plans and whatnot, but I haven't played, so I mean ... I'd rather him hate me and I played every game.''

The options, Motzkin says, are ''staying at Bayer Leverkusen, going on loan somewhere else - Germany or the States - or getting bought by somebody.'' MLS is attractive because ''the schedule is created in part around the national team schedule.''

Leverkusen is unlikely to divest itself of a young player with so much potential, and MLS policy is to not accept on loan young Americans who have signed elsewhere. And why should Leverkusen include in its plans an 18-year-old with so many international commitments?

''That could hinder me, and it could help me, depending on what the end resolution is,'' Motzkin says.

Donovan's hope? ''I don't really care, as long as I go somewhere and play. If it turns out I could play at Bayer, that would be ideal, but if not, I need to be somewhere playing. I don't really care.''

'CHEATED.' The only certainty, barring injury, is that Donovan will be a pivotal part of Wolfgang Suhnholz's U-20 squad. The team's foundation is the group Donovan led to fourth place at the U-17 World Championship 15 months ago in New Zealand, and he's itching to get back on the field with his friends.

''I was in camp in San Diego with the [national team], and a lot of them were there [at a U-20 camp],'' Donovan said. ''I wanted to play with them every day. I miss them a lot.''

Suhnholz's preparations have gone on without his best players - Donovan, forward Conor Casey, and midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey - and neither Donovan nor Casey (Borussia Dortmund) will join up until the team gathers for the March 18-22 qualifiers against Costa Rica, Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago in Tunapuna, Trinidad. Two World Championship berths are available to the group.

''It's very hard to plan,'' says Suhnholz, a former German pro who was Sigi Schmid's assistant at the '99 World Youth Championship in Nigeria. ''I have to plan in three different directions. One plan is totally without them. Then I plan with them. Then I plan with maybe just two of them. It's very challenging.''

Complicating matters are injuries to attacking midfielder Brad Davis, one of the captains, and defender Alexander Yi. Davis, who has a pelvic injury that requires rest, won't return in time for qualifying; Yi (broken toe) might.

''On paper, we're as good as anybody in the world ...,'' Donovan says. ''I think as Bobby and Beas and Conor and I and whoever else come in, the team is going to get better. ... I can't wait because I feel we got cheated in [New Zealand] - not cheated, but we didn't do as well as we should have. So I'd like another chance.''

'KEEP IN THE POOL.' Donovan won the Golden Ball in New Zealand, where the Americans fell to Australia on penalty kicks in the semifinals, and he was a key reserve with the U.S. side that finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics. He's impressed every step he's taken, exhibiting savvy beyond his years. He has terrific vision, makes intelligent runs, is a fine passer and has a knack for the goal that can't be taught.

''His best stuff,'' Arena says, ''is the last 30 yards to goal, which is an absolutely unique quality for an American player. And that's where he shines, and when you get him the ball at those points on the field, he's outstanding. And that's what it's all about, trying to get goals or create chances.''

After the China game, Arena said he had been impressed with how Donovan withdrew into midfield and distributed the ball, with how he created chances. ''Obviously, he's a forward [and] had three quality chances. He should've put one of them away, but that's a positive. ... I thought for the most part he had a solid game and continues to be a player we need to keep in the pool.''

A few minutes later, Donovan was asked how he saw his chances.

''I think I should be on every roster,'' Donovan said, repeating the answer he gave 48 hours earlier. This time there was no ''just kidding.''

by Soccer America senior editor Scott French

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