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Donovan still a soccer prodigy Quakes forward a sensation at 19

If it is a burden to be a 19-year-old legend, Landon Donovan doesn't buckle even a little. Donovan has been the subject of hyperbole and expectation for nearly half his life, but he appears to carry the weight with more ease than most of his age-group peers can lug their book-filled backpacks around a college campus.

Donovan represents not only the future of the San Jose Earthquakes franchise, one that he has helped brighten so considerably during the past six months -- most recently with two goals in the Quakes' opening-round Major League Soccer playoff victory Saturday -- but perhaps the fate of the United States' World Cup aspirations for at least the next 15 years.

In many ways, he knows it.

"But all I can do is play," Donovan said. "I like to read the things that people say about me, but I am able to separate that from when I step on the field. To me, you see it or you hear it and you take it in, but it's a completely different part of your life."

Donovan's poise is as much his hallmark now as are his prodigious skills.

"He's not a big head, he's a confident boy, and that's why he's a good player," Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop said. "He's got a little arrogance on the field, but you'd rather have that than someone who is scared to play."

Donovan's goals Saturday came in the Earthquakes' first playoff game since 1996, a 3-1 road victory against Columbus. He will no doubt receive a warm reception Wednesday when the Quakes host the Crew at Spartan Stadium in San Jose in the second match of their best-to-5-points series.

The forward from Redlands (San Bernardino County) scored seven goals to go with 10 assists in his first full regular season in the MLS.

But Donovan is no rookie. He has more soccer miles on him than half the professional players in the league. He had barely entered adolescence when he began traveling the world to play in international tournaments. He hadn't even gone to his junior prom when he was offered a chance to play professionally in Europe. He was 17 when he made his debut with the U.S. National Team, 18 when he played in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, 19 when he decided that it was time to come back home and play in a place where his family could come and sit in the stands.

"I have been given a once-in-a-lifetime experience for an American," Donovan said. "Part of me would like to be in college right now, indulging in that experience, but I think I'm a better person for what I've gone through."

Donovan's obvious gift for this game has been apparent nearly all his entire young life.

He has been playing soccer nearly for as long as he has been able to walk, kicking the ball around with older brother Joshua at only 9 months old. He began playing organized soccer at age 5, on a team with 6- and 7-year-olds.

His talent stuck out even among bigger kids: He scored seven goals in his first game.

Donovan found himself on the youth-soccer fast track. He was courted to play on traveling select teams, opportunities that involved large commitments of both time and money. His mother, Donna, didn't have it to spend. She was a single mother raising three children, a special-education teacher without the means to keep up with the club fees and travel expenses.

As it turned out, Donovan had little trouble finding a sponsor for his spot on those teams. Plenty of coaches were out there willing to help him get to tournaments around the country -- and eventually around the world.

Soccer turned out to be more than an extracurricular activity by the time Donovan reached high school. He was 16 when, after playing in a tournament in Europe, he became coveted by German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen.

He was flattered by the opportunity to play in Germany and wanted to go. His mother, however, was against it. But ultimately, in a decision that took nearly a year, Donovan won. He took a high school proficiency exam and, at age 17, boarded a plane to begin life as a professional soccer player on another continent -- and become one of the youngest players in U.S. soccer history to sign a contract overseas.

It turned out not to be the life he imagined. He sat more than he played, a situation made worse by living alone thousands of miles from home.

"I knew I wasn't going to start, but I thought I was going to play a little bit," Donovan said. "For a long time, I was not on the roster to play. I was playing with the fourth-division team. That's not what I went there for."

He spent two years and eight months in Germany. As he neared the end of that time, he was both unsatisfied and unhappy.

"It wasn't as if I had made mistakes," Donovan said. "I felt like I was not getting a fair chance."

Donovan wanted to come home, a decision that elated his family. German club officials agreed to release him from his contract and let him play in the MLS. Donovan signed a four-year deal with the league.

He was allocated to the Earthquakes in March to the unabashed delight of the team.

"I think we knew he was going to immediately impact this team," said Earthquakes defender Jeff Agoos, himself an offseason acquisition. "Maybe we didn't know how great, how important a piece of rebuilding this team he would be. But he certainly has been that."

Donovan is content in San Jose. His mother travels up from Redlands to attend nearly every home game. His father, who was not an active part of his life until he was a teenager, goes on road trips and offers guidance.

Donovan has played himself into a larger role with the U.S. team. With the national team shorthanded because of injuries, Donovan got his first start Sept. 1 in the World Cup qualifier against Honduras. While he did not score, he earned praise from national team coach Bruce Arena -- and Yallop as well.

"He can handle anything," Yallop said. "A lot has been thrown on his shoulders. He played his first World Cup qualifier for the U.S. and was probably one of their best players. It was a tough situation, and that says a lot for the kid."

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