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Success is a wake-up call for Landon Donovan

By Matt Massey
Special to The Seattle Times

Ever since the U.S. men's national soccer team made its run in the 2002 World Cup last month, star forward Landon Donovan has taken over as the face of soccer in America.

Excuse Donovan if his normally fresh and smiling 20-year-old face owns a tired look. He's a man in demand, and it's a pace not even the speedy player can match forever.

The game's youngest rising star has been on a nationwide promotional tour for the U.S. team and for the game of soccer since the United States bowed out of the World Cup quarterfinals to Germany on June 21. His tiresome schedule has taken him on photo shoots, autograph signings and television and radio appearances across America ever since.

Donovan landed in Seattle on Tuesday night to rejoin his San Jose Earthquakes teammates after a whirlwind tour of three promotional stops in three days.

"I'm a little tired, but it's actually fun," said Donovan, whose Earthquakes faced the Seattle Sounders last night in a loser-out, third-round game in the U.S. Open Cup tournament. "It's good for the game. I'm happy to do it. I think we need to take advantage (of promoting the game) while it's fresh in people's minds.

"They need to know we're here to stay."

Last night it appeared Donovan would be a mere sideshow as he entertained the crowd by trying to help a Quakes teammate score a goal against opposing mascot Sammy Sounder. But when San Jose fell behind midway through the second half, Donovan was sent onto the field by Earthquakes Coach Frank Yallop.

Rising a 3:30 a.m. or earlier has been the norm over the past four weeks for Donovan. Sunday he was in Long Island, N.Y., for a photo shoot. Monday he flew to Minnesota for an appearance and autographs. Monday night he was in Calgary, Alberta.

Tuesday, Donovan ventured to Banff, Alberta, for a Nike photo shoot, and by that night he settled in Seattle for some long-awaited sleep.

"There's been a lot going on," he said. "I just need to get back to a normal sleeping schedule."

Promoting the game has Donovan focused more on public relations and less on his soccer skills right now. He'd rather be fully immersed in the Earthquakes' rise to prominence in Major League Soccer, but he's just grateful that Yallop and his teammates accept his comings and goings.

"Fortunately, these guys make it easy," Donovan said, pointing to his teammates and coaches at the team's hotel yesterday morning. "I'm far more comfortable with this team than any other team. We're together almost every day. We go through everything together.

"It's like going back home and seeing your family. It's never awkward."

Donovan recently announced that he'd like to remain solely with the Earthquakes instead of returning to Bayer Leverkusen, the German Bundesliga club that signed him as a 16-year-old in 1999.

Bayer Leverkusen was expected to recall Donovan after the MLS season this fall, but the Redlands, Calif., native wants to be around when U.S. soccer takes off for the big time.

"It's just a matter of time," said Donovan, who spent two disappointing seasons in Leverkusen's training program without playing a single match. "Now is the time for U.S. soccer and MLS soccer to thrive and I want to be part of it."

Donovan's statistical numbers would be much more juicy if he concentrated his playing with just one team, but last year he split his time between the U.S. team, Leverkusen and San Jose. The cat-quick 5-foot-8, 158-pounder put up 36 points on 12 goals and 12 assists in 2001, catching fire with five goals and two assists in the playoff run to the title. In just 10 games in 2002, Donovan has seven points on three goals and one assist. Travel with the U.S. team and promotional stops have taken its toll on Donovan.

"At the end of the day, if you don't play or if you're not doing well on the field, nobody cares anymore," Donovan said. "I hope people understand if I'm not completely performing my best these couple of weeks that they understand why.

"There will be kids out there who have never seen me play. You feel like you have to perform, but they don't understand that I've been up at 3 a.m. every morning. It's difficult. It's just the rest factor."

Well on its way toward defending its MLS Cup title, San Jose started the 2002 season with a league-best 10-6-2 mark and 32 points to lead the Western Conference standings.

The 2001 MLS Cup title came on the heels of a last-place finish in 2000 as San Jose turned a 7-17-8 mark into a 18-8-6 championship club. Donovan's development has aided the surge.

"Last year, we were more of a take-it-as-it-comes team," said Donovan, who two weeks ago got to meet former NHL great Wayne Gretzky, one of his childhood idols, at the ESPY awards for ESPN. "Now we're a team that wants to strive to be the best every time we play. Now winning is not just possible, it's important."

Yallop hopes to have the full-time services of Donovan soon, but then there's a possible GQ magazine photo shoot next week for the handsome cover boy of U.S. soccer.

"I'm not sure if that's going to happen," Donovan said. "My coach is not too excited about it, which is understandable. My coach ... has been fantastic with all this (PR) stuff. I missed two days with the team here (in Seattle), and he was great with and said, 'Just go do it. Have fun. Enjoy it.'

"At some point I need to get back and just be here every day playing with the team."

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