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Donovan may cut MLS career short

04-06-02
www.cnnsi.com

By Greg Beacham, The Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. Major League Soccer could lose one its marquee attractions if Landon Donovan accepts an offer to return to Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga after the World Cup.

Donovan, a member of the U.S. national team and an All-Star forward for the MLS champion San Jose Earthquakes, has been one of the top American league's biggest stars since leaving Leverkusen in March 2001 to play in his native California.

Leverkusen, which signed Donovan to a four-year contract in 1999, agreed to the loan to get more playing time for its fleet-footed forward. Donovan never got into a league match during two frustrating seasons in the club's reserves.

But now that the 20-year-old Donovan has blossomed into one of the world's most dangerous young forwards, Leverkusen wants him back for the start of the new Bundesliga season in July though Donovan said the club left the decision up to him.

"I know it's a good opportunity for me to go back, but I'm a very loyal person, too," Donovan said after his assist keyed the Earthquakes' 2-1 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday. "San Jose has done everything for me in the last year and a half. ... Either way, it's a decision I'll have to make."

Leverkusen (20-5-5) leads the Bundesliga by seven points after beating Cologne 2-0 on Saturday. The MLS season began two weeks ago.

When he arrived in San Jose last spring, Donovan was sharply critical of Leverkusen's decision to keep him out of its lineup. But after meeting with new coach Klaus Toppmoeller last December and speaking with team representatives last week in Germany, Donovan seemed interested in considering the move.

"I'm fine going back now," Donovan said. "I know it would be a different experience now. Now that I have more experience, I know they'll give me a chance. I'd ask them to be honest with me. If they're not going to have me at least on the bench, it wouldn't be a good idea."

Donovan had seven goals and 24 points for the Earthquakes last season, also scoring four goals in front of his home fans in the MLS All-Star game. Donovan came alive with five goals in six playoff games as San Jose captured its first MLS Cup.

"It would be kind of jerky for me to say 'Thanks!' to San Jose, and then just leave," Donovan acknowleged. "This is a great place to play."

But Donovan's MLS coaches and teammates are under no illusions about Donovan's talent or his opportunity. The competition, the worldwide exposure and the pay are much greater in the Bundesliga.

"It's a decision he'll have to make, and we understand what it's about," San Jose coach Frank Yallop said. "It's a great opportunity for him."

In the Earthquakes' latest match, Donovan was the focus of New England's entire defense. The Revolution deployed defender Rusty Pierce solely to shadow Donovan all afternoon.

The strategy worked until the 78th minute, when Donovan corralled a pass near the goal box, fought off two defenders and passed back to Ronnie Ekelund, who scored the winning goal from 15 yards out.

After weeks of constant travel between the Earthquakes' early season events and his national team duties, Donovan admits to a bit of physical and mental fatigue. He plans to rest for several days this week and speak to Yallop before thinking more about the Bundesliga.

"I've barely even thought about the World Cup," Donovan said. "With the hotel rooms and the flying and everything that's going crazy, I haven't had time to sit down and think that this has been my one dream."

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