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U.S. star leaves Bayer Leverkusen after two frustrating years on the bench.

April 16, 2001
Soccer America Magazine

That Landon Donovan will tear it up in MLS is assured if all the hoopla and hype about America's most exciting young player is true.

“He's going to be a great asset to us and the league, and I'm sure he's going to be a bright star of the future,” said San Jose coach Frank Yallop at the press conference that officially announced his allocation to the Quakes.

“This is the first time in a good amount of time that San Jose got the player that San Jose was after,” says general manager Tom Neale.

That MLS was not his first choice won't mitigate the fact this should be the right choice. The Landon Donovan who went to Germany two years ago is not the same player unveiled by the Quakes.

He has yet to score a goal, or play a minute, in any professional league. He served a six-game suspension last fall for mouthing off during a reserve game in the German Fourth Division. A year ago, he bitterly complained about not getting a shot.

“Maybe I wasn't ready yet, a little inexperienced, not grown up enough as a soccer player,” Donovan said of the long months chafing on the bench at Bayer Leverkusen while playing games-some of them scintillating-for the United States. “It was worth it because I'm a better, more mature person for it. I'm a better soccer player, that's clear, but I'm a wiser person. I see things on a bigger scale now.”

STUCK AT ZERO. Nothing he's done for the U.S. moved the needle at Leverkusen.

The Golden Ball in New Zealand at the U-17 finals, a goal in the Sydney Olympics, a goal and assist against Mexico last October, full international caps against China, Colombia and Brazil this year-none of it made a difference.

“I believe playing anywhere would help me as opposed to where I was, not playing much or playing with the Fourth Division,” he said.

Frustration boiled over shortly after he returned to Germany after the Olympics. He acknowledges use of the f-word but insists the referee mistakenly believed he uttered something far worse, a degrading sexual slur that would set off punches if barked at an opponent.

“It's my word against his,” said Donovan. “They're not going to believe an American kid.”

MLS surely believes in him to capture headlines and publicity. The allure of having Bobby Convey, DaMarcus Beasley and Donovan in MLS along with a slew of national team starters is to be exploited by the league.

“In Landon's case it's particularly significant because he is a young player of the highest promise who chose to pursue his career overseas at a big-name club,” said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. “He's found that's not necessarily the best road to develop as a player.”

MLS controls his rights, yet the league needs the approval of Bayer Leverkusen if it wishes to loan him during the MLS offseason.

National team aspirations drove Donovan to MLS. He knows how stagnation at European clubs has impaired the U.S. careers of Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk and Jovan Kirovski.

What he certainly does not want to be is the New Millennium/MLS version of Kirovski, the brilliant wonderboy whose vast potential has dissipated as he's drifted among European clubs.

DELAYED DEBUT. A fractured rib suffered in the CONCACAF under-20 qualifiers last month will delay Donovan's MLS debut.

The Quakes are hoping he wears their black and blue-given their record, that's an appropriate color scheme-in the home opener April 14 against Dallas, but he's not likely to be an automatic starter regardless.

He'll miss about a month of the MLS season, starting in early June, to play for the U.S. under-20s in the Youth World Championships.

“We're not in a great hurry to push him into a situation where he doesn't look good or doesn't feel good,” said Yallop. “He's a proven player. We're going to have patience with him.” The Quakes have attacking options beyond Donovan, starting with the Salvadoran dynamo, Ronald Cerritos. A-League allocation Dwayne DeRosario and No. 1 draft pick Chris Carrieri are battling for playing time.

“I'm looking to play him up front where he can be dangerous,” said Yallop of Donovan. “He's a goalscorer, and goalscorers need to play up front.”

Yallop could play several of them at the same time in an ambitious attacking formation. He may have to, considering the Quakes were dead last in MLS with 35 goals last year. The leading scorer on that punchless team, Abdul Thompson Conteh (8 goals), has been traded to D.C. United.

“Breaking into a team is hard for someone like myself,” said Donovan. “At the U-17s, I always started. You have to learn the mentality of working into a starting spot. That's hard to learn, but that's something I gathered in the couple of years I was there.”

BOY AGAINST MEN. He's already scored five goals in four games against MLS opposition, if you count what he did for the U.S. under-17s in preparation games two years ago.

Those games weren't the real thing, of course, but he did score against Tampa Bay, Chicago and D.C. United. (The Crew managed to shut him out.)

Quakes assistant coach Dominic Kinnear certainly counts those goals. Two of them came against the Mutiny in a 2-0 victory for the under-17s in Bradenton, Fla.

Kinnear was one of the few Mutiny starters to play in that game, but still Donovan was a teenager up against older players. He scored twice in 21 minutes.

“I had heard of him, but I'd never seen him play,” recalls Kinnear. “Then he scores both goals against us. He's very elusive in the box. He's always knocking on the door. He has good pace, he's good with both feet. He has an uncanny knack for getting into great positions.”

That is the essence of Donovan: the imminent threat of a defense ripped apart, of tacklers left stranded, of a keeper floundering. His skills and timing are remarkable enough, but his predatory instincts set him apart. When a weak spot is found, it is attacked.

“It's something we need here and something the U.S. needs,” said Kinnear.

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney

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