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American idol: Landon Donovan's star keeps rising
World Cup opens rare opportunities for soccer's golden boy


Landon Donovan has become America's soccer sweetheart.

Even he knows the juxtaposition in that phrase is odd: America's soccer sweetheart?

"We only have the World Cup every four years. It's hard for fans to correlate the national team and the MLS," Donovan said. "Soccer is unlike any other sport in having to do that, and that's how Americans are -- it's how I am."

Donovan, who was here yesterday as his San Jose Earthquakes battled the Seattle Sounders in a U.S. Open Cup third-round match at Interbay Stadium, saw his star rise at last month's World Cup.

He starred for the U.S. national team that advanced to the quarterfinals in South Korea and Japan, the best U.S. showing since 1930. Donovan scored a pair of goals, led the national team in minutes in the World Cup and made the cover of the June 24 issue of Sports Illustrated.

He hopes that his fame will lift a sport that has seemingly been "on the verge" for more than a decade.

"(Soccer) is now, it's here. It's fresh in people's minds," he said. "I hope we're here to stay."

Handsome and articulate, Donovan now has the sport on his 20-year-old shoulders, as a whirlwind promotional and media tour waited for him to return to the United States after the World Cup.

"When we were over there (at the World Cup), I'd get various e-mails saying, 'You're all the talk back home,' but until I got here, I had no idea," he said, shaking his head.

In the last week, Donovan has attended the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, done photo shoots in Long Island and Alberta, played in Dallas and Minnesota and logged thousands of frequent-flyer miles while signing autographs and making public appearances.

"Landon's success has helped this team a lot," said Earthquakes teammate Ian Russell, who played at West Seattle High School and the University of Washington. "We walk through an airport now, and everybody knows him and wants everybody's autographs. It has also motivated me -- I want a shot at the national team and overseas clubs."

Donovan played for Bayer Leverkusen -- a team he signed with at 16 -- in Germany's top league, the Bundesliga. But Donovan has said he does not want to return to Europe, instead opting to promote MLS.

"Now is the time for U.S. soccer to thrive and for the MLS to thrive, and I want to be a part of that," he said.

While boosting his team's popularity, Donovan's celebrity also is taking its toll on him and the Earthquakes.

"I haven't slept past 3:30 in the morning since I don't when," he said. "Opportunity knocks early."

Next up for the Southern California native is a GQ photo shoot. He smiles as he reveals this information.

"My coach isn't too excited about that," he said.

He has seven points -- three goals and an assist -- in 10 games, starting eight, with the Earthquakes.

He has also chatted with his idol, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, sat next to David Letterman, thrown out the first pitch at a Giants-A's game and made the boy band-worshiping crowd at MTV's Total Request Live swoon in Manhattan.

"At some point, I need to get back here and play. At the end of the day, if you're not on the field and don't play well, no one is going to care anymore," he said.

The Earthquakes lead the MLS with a 10-6-2 record, and coach Frank Yallop is easing his star forward back into competition. Yallop will need to rely on Donovan's offensive skills during the season's stretch run as San Jose seeks its second consecutive MLS Cup.

Donovan, who entered last night's game late against the Sounders, described his limited playing time as "not a day off, but sort of."

"It's tough, because for some kids, this might be the only time they get to see me play," Donovan said. "I hope they understand that I'm not at my best. It's just the rest factor."

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