Donovan's return to Leverkusen not a foregone conclusion
Young U.S. star says he prefers MLS lifestyle to Europe
By Jay Hipps
San Jose, June 23, 2002 (CSA) — Don't buy those farewell gifts for Landon Donovan just yet. The U.S. and San Jose Earthquakes star may not be off to the Bundesliga after all.
While the agreement between MLS and Bayer Leverkusen gives the German giant an option to bring Donovan back to Germany at the conclusion of the MLS season, Donovan would prefer to stay in San Jose.
"I'd say, based on the lifestyle factor, I'd want to be here," he told reporters at a press conference Saturday night. "I don't think there's another team I would pick (to play for) besides this one."
Donovan, who started every match and played several different positions in the unexpected U.S. run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, originally signed with Leverkusen following his Golden Ball-winning performance at the Under-17 World Championships in 1999. He spent two years in Germany playng for Leverkusen's reserve teams but never appeared in their first-team lineup. It was an experience that makes him wary of a return to the often capricious world of European club football.
"If I go back to Europe, it's going to have to be the absolute perfect situation. I'm not going to go if it's not right and if it's not really what I want to do."
The young star will undoubtedly have a lot to think about. MLS salary cap rules currently place a limit of about $270,000 on individual salaries, which is a small percentage of what Donovan could make in a higher-profile European league. Donovan is also under contract to Nike, which may prefer to have Donovan playing in the U.S., where he could raise the profile of the sport and thereby give the equipment and apparel maker the opportunity to expand the U.S. market. It's also possible that MLS will find some other way to compensate Donovan, as they have reportedly done in the past with players such as Mexico international Luis Hernandez. All these factors may come into play should MLS decide to buy out Donovan's German contract.
Still, it's clear that money and European fame are not the top priorities for Donovan at this point in his career. In an interview with CSN's Keiran Downie prior to the U.S./Germany match, Donovan noted how much he loves playing in San Jose. He reiterated that Saturday night, saying that even while he was becoming a world soccer star, he thought frequently of the Earthquakes.
"I had a great time (at the World Cup), obviously… I'll never forget it," he said. "But to be honest, I really missed the team here."
He had nothing but praise for his San Jose teammates, whom he described as "very proud" of him after his cup performance. His ties to them are strong, and one of the reasons he'd like to stay in MLS.
"I know there are guys in that (locker) room that could have been on our (World Cup) team, that could have played at that level, and I want to show them that they're just as good and they can make it," he said.
Another element to be factored into his decision is the opportunity he has to contribute to the sport's increasing popularity in the U.S., which is something he may be able to accomplish more easily by playing in MLS.
"I think overall what you want to see is soccer grow… Obviously playing is the first priority, but (the opportunity to grow the sport in the U.S.) would be something that comes into my decision making."
He's gotten a taste of that already. Despite the fact that he essentially came straight to San Jose from Seoul, spending time in only airplanes and airports, it didn't take Donovan long after returning to the U.S. to see that he and his teammates had already done a lot to heighten the sport's profile in this country.
"I got to the airport and there were tons of people saying 'hi, congratulations, you did well, you made our country proud,' and that's part of our goal," he said. "We're not just going there to play -- we're going there to be ambassadors and turn people onto it, and hopefully we have."
He's overwhelmed by the response, which includes the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated and a scheduled appearance on David Letterman Monday night. "We didn't fully realize how much support we were getting until I got back and got to see. As far as the excitement, I hope it continues, I hope people come out and watch us, I hope it keeps growing."
Despite his cautious attitude towards a move overseass, there's still a chance that it could happen. Donovan joked with reporters who asked him about inquiries from other clubs, saying "I have a $100 million offer to go to Milan," then adding, "No, not yet. Hopefully, hopefully, but we'll see."
He's too much of a competitor to pass up a chance to play in Europe if the right situation should arise. If it doesn't, however, he's happy to stay in MLS -- and, at age 20, he can always spend a few more years in MLS so that he'll be more comfortable with the shock that would undoubtedly come with being a star in the soccer-mad cultures of Europe.
In the meantime, his own words sum it up best:
"I'm having fun. I'm going to just keep doing what I'm doing, and enjoy it."
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