Stronger for the journey
Donovan's experiences overseas make U.S. success all the sweeter
By JOE HAMELIN
Separated by 5,500 miles, nine time zones and a deep blue sea, Redlands' Landon Donovan and his twin sister, Tristan, stayed as close as green stays to grass -- through the Internet. "It was every day sometimes," said Donna Kenney-Cash, mother of America's best young soccer player and his soccer-hating sister, who discovered in the span of two difficult years what each meant to the other.
Now 20 and a member of America's World Cup team that begins play Wednesday against Portugal in South Korea, Donovan dropped out of Redlands East Valley High School to play professional soccer in Germany. He signed a contract, against mom's advice, during his junior year, a month shy of his 17th birthday.
But he wasn't exactly ready for the Bundesliga. In many ways, he was just a kid.
"He wore soccer clothes to (high) school every day," said Tristan, now a student at Riverside Community College. "He walked around with a soccer ball. All day long. Our old babysitter, Connie, who was like our second mom from age 2 to 10, gave him a stuffed soccer ball the size of a regular soccer ball. He slept with that. He might still have it."
His mother did her best to keep him home.
"I basically dug my heels in for about a year," she said. "He knew how I felt, that he was too young, and really needed to think about the decision. About what he was giving up, versus what he was going to get from it."
The prom. High school. Friends. A diploma from Redlands East Valley. College. And home . . .
All that versus fame and fortune in a faraway place.
Alone with a computer
In Germany, in a place called Leverkusen, playing in one of world's elite leagues -- or rather, not playing at all -- the soon-to-be soccer star quickly discovered what real loneliness was.
"He was up all night on the Internet," Tristan said. "It usually was, like, 3 in the morning there. I mean, his whole life was the computer while he was there. There wasn't much else to do.
"He was very lonely. I have a lot of respect for him doing that, because I would not have survived, alone at 16. No way."
"Tristan is everything to me," said Landon, who admits to having been "young and immature" when he made his decision.
"All I wanted to do," he said, "was play soccer."
The past two years, he has played in America's Major League Soccer with the San Jose Earthquakes, on loan from the German team. He has done spectacular things, scoring four goals in last season's All-Star Game and leading a previously undistinguished San Jose team to the championship.
"Landon," said Colorado defender Marcelo Balboa after that All-Star Game, "is the future of American soccer."
Wrestling with decision
Yet even now, Germany keeps him awake nights.
He is legally bound to return at the end of this season to play out that contract, which has two years to run.
Donovan's quandary: whether to try to negotiate his way out of the deal and live in America, where soccer is less appreciated, making $500,000 a year, tops . . . or to return to Leverkusen and play the game at a higher level, in a better league, where a superstar can command $10 million.
"It's a question of what's more important," he said, "being happy or taking the money. And it's something I think about constantly. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't."
At 15 and 16, he was already a star of America's Under-17 team, playing in places like France, Italy, England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Jamaica, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago.
But in Leverkusen, playing with pros, he spent two years as a reserve, never playing a game. It was nothing like he thought it would be.
In Germany, the driving age is 18; Landon's California license wasn't valid. That first winter, in temperatures well below freezing, he pedaled a bicycle to and from practices.
"I could tell he wasn't happy," said Donovan's agent, Richard Motzkin of Los Angeles, "and I said, 'You know what? This kid needs to come home.' "
So Motzkin negotiated a two-year "co-sharing" deal with the Germans, who view the MLS the way major league baseball teams view the Class A California League. When that second year is done in October, said Motzkin, "I'm confident we can sit down with the parties involved and figure out whatever's in Landon's best interests."
"I don't think money was ever really the issue," Kenney-Cash said. "It was whether to be an international star or play in the U.S. It could have changed things quite a bit, I think, if he'd been playing a lot over there."
On fast track again
With the Earthquakes, Donovan has played virtually every minute of every game, putting his development as a player back on track.
With America's team, he has played quality minutes in each game of the 9-4-1 season leading up to the World Cup.
"We're not scared of anybody," said Donovan, who was non-starter among younger players at the Sydney Olympics, scoring a goal. "We don't feel there's a team in the world we can't beat."
"His first touch is tremendous, he's got very good vision, he's a good passer, a good finisher," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "If there's any knock, it's that he's inexperienced, and that physically he's not where he needs to be."
Donovan is only 20. At 5-foot-8 and 148 pounds, he still has some growing up to do, physically and in other ways.
"He's a talented player," Motzkin said. "I've told Landon, 'You don't need to make any decisions today about Germany.' But if he had to, I have a pretty good idea what it would be."
Fortunately for all concerned, Kenney-Cash isn't the type to be saying I told you so.
"I wanted him to finish high school," she said, which was easy enough to understand. Kenney-Cash is a teacher at Fontana's Oak Park Elementary.
"It was really hard, really hard," she said. "We'd been looking forward to his getting a scholarship to college. I'm sure he would have gotten one."
But college soccer in America isn't the path to the big time. This U.S. World Cup team is composed of 12 players from European leagues and 11 from MLS. Not one college guy.
Route to stardom
In the United States, if you play soccer well enough as a little kid, someone will suggest you try out for an Olympic Development team in your area. Eighteen make it, most don't. Somehow, the parents come up with the money. The camp fees can run to $1,500 or more.
Make the local team, and there's the state-level team, and after that the regional team, which takes in 13 states. Make that, and you can try out for the national team.
That's how it was for Donovan.
At 15, he went off to Florida to live and to train.
"I actually enjoyed it," he said. "As a kid, I just wanted to be outside playing sports. In Florida, we'd go to school, train, have workouts and then play tennis or go to the pool. It was great -- and there were 17 other guys who felt the same."
It wasn't so great for his mom, though.
And it was even tougher to handle when the German scouts came around later that year, wanting to sign him.
Rather than put her foot down, she made some inquiries and finally contacted Motzkin, who counts among his clients Alexi Lalas and the World Cup coach, Arena. Saying "no" would have been the easy thing for Donovan's mother to do. But she understood this much about him: he's unique.
"He's done everything ahead of time his whole life," she said. "He walked at eight months. He's always ahead of the game. But I think gifted kids always are."
She remembers his first soccer game, vividly.
"He was 5 years old," she said, "and he was on a team of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds. Skipped the kindergarten league. And he made about seven goals in the game . . .
"And I thought, Oh my goodness!"
He made his first international appearance on Feb. 13, 1998, playing for the Under-17 team at the age of 15 years, 11 months and 9 days.
He made his debut with the U.S. national team against Mexico on Oct. 25, 2000, at 18 years, 7 months and 21 days. Naturally, he scored a goal.
But he didn't just play soccer, his family is quick to point out. Donovan had other dimensions. Just none so consuming.
He played one season of Little League baseball, at 6. He played basketball. For a couple of years, until mom's divorce and the move from Ontario to Redlands when he was 11, he played the violin.
And, of course, he chased girls.
"He loves the women," Tristan laughed. "When he was 5, he had a crush on this little girl named Kristen, and he was chasing her, y'know? And he ran smack into a pole on the playground. Had to get, like, eight stitches in his forehead.
"People have to realize he's a normal, annoying guy."
Only a little more athletic. And brighter.
"He got his GED (high school equivalency diploma) as a junior," Tristan said. "Landon is very, very intelligent. I think he knows more than most people who've been through four years of college."
There is this to be said about the two years in Germany: They were educational.
"I think it built some character," Kenney-Cash said. "I guess it was worth it. He seems to have matured a lot -- but I don't know what he would have been like had he just stayed here and finished high school and gone on to college. It worked out well in the long run, I think. It made him really appreciate family."
If he never returns to Germany, that could explain it.
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