Crosshairs: Landon Donovan
By Liam McHugh
BORN: March 4, 1982 (Redlands, Calif.)
SIZE: 5'8", 148 pounds
KEY STAT: Two goals in 2002 World Cup
Stay or go? Quick as he is on his feet, Landon Donovan couldn't get away from "The Question" all summer. Currently spearheading the San Jose Earthquake's run to a second straight MLS Cup, the brightest star of the U.S. World Cup team is still under contract to German powerhouse Bayer Leverkusen. That means the club he left in 2001 after a miserable two-year stay has the last word on his immediate future. If the decision were solely Donovan's, the answer would be simple: stay here and play in the MLS. But on Jan. 1, Leverkusen can require him to come back for the second half of the German season. Tough break for Donovan if they insist, right? Maybe not. The real question is whether the bright light of USA soccer can get the chops he needs playing in the USA.
Just before signing with Leverkusen in 1999, Donovan -- barely 17 -- was in Germany scrimmaging with the team's youth team: "No one would pass me the ball. It didn't make sense." But it was a foretaste. In two seasons, Donovan never saw a single minute of action with the big club: "Part of me says they were thinking, 'You're an American, we're going to make it hard on you.'" What he didn't say to himself was, "Hey, I've got to pay my dues." Na´ve? Sure. Frustrated? Enough to contemplate quitting. When Leverkusen agreed before the 2001 season to loan him to MLS, he felt like he'd been sprung from jail. One catch: For two MLS seasons, he had to add two years to his German club commitment. Bummer.
OUTSIDE THE LINES
Top-grade U.S. booters typically come from suburban families with a new SUV for hauling kids to practice and an overbearing soccer parent (or two). Not Donovan. His parents divorced when he was 2. His mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, raised him, twin sister Tristan and older brother Josh in Redlands, Calif., a sleepy town 60 miles east of LA (that once billed itself as the Naval Orange Capital of the World). Money was tight: Other kids wore the latest cleats; Donovan a pair of Payless sneaks. But Kenney-Cash, a special ed teacher, made sure her children were well-rounded. Donovan played the violin and excelled in school. A quick learner, he picked up Spanish playing on club teams made up mostly of Latino kids, and now gives postgame interviews in both languages. (Real Madrid, take note.)
RITE OF PASSAGE
A single three-second highlight clip was all it took to show the world he was ready to star on a bigger stage. Early in the World Cup match against Germany, Donovan smoothly corralled a pass on the right flank, megged his defender, kicked on the turbocharger and launched a blistering leftfooted rocket destined for side netting. That German goalie Oliver Kahn made an impossible save was nearly irrelevant. Soccer insiders say Donovan combines degrees of skill, speed, vision and scoring instinct never before possessed by an American player. At 20, Donovan still isn't old enough to drink a beer legally in the U.S., but he's at the coming-out age for his sport. Michael Owen, last year's European Player of the Year, is 22. Ronaldo, 25, has already been named World Player of the Year twice. Ticktock.
Leonardo DiCaprio with thunder in both feet? Tobey Maguire with warp-speed acceleration? Whatever -- he's a sports marketer's dream come true. Already, endorsement and personal appearance money more than bridge the gap between MLS pay and what he could make from Leverkusen -- though that's just a guess, since MLS won't say what its players make. Donovan, a charismatic player with a dash of Brazil in his soccer soul, currently appears in Nike print ads ripping off his shirt, something he regularly does to celebrate goals. "He's a highly creative, fearless player," says Nike Soccer PR manager Monica Rigali. "And his body isn't tough to look at."
Landing Landon, if only on loan, was one of the best moves in MLS' short history. After going goalless in his first six matches last year, Donovan finished with a flurry, netting seven goals and dishing 10 assists in the regular season, then scoring a playoff-best five goals to help San Jose win its first MLS Cup and complete a worst-to-first turnaround. This summer, Donovan has been the catalyst of the league's best attack and has the Earthquakes primed for a return to the MLS Cup on Oct. 20. "I think things happen for a reason," he says. "And there was definitely a reason I was supposed to go to San Jose." But is there sufficient reason to stay?
AND THE ANSWER IS ...
A homesick Donovan spent much of his time in Germany e-mailing his sister. He missed her, his mother, the California sun -- and being the go-to guy on the field. So it's auf Wiedersehen forever to the Old World, right? Not so fast. The SoCal teenager didn't warm to German weather, German food, German culture or German football. (Fact is, the Bundesliga approach to the game, which is, highly structured and intensely tactical, quickly sucked the fun out of the sport for a freewheeler like Donovan.) But England or Spain, he's hinted, might be a whole different trip. Still, since his return ticket's on Lufthansa, he waxes eloquent on home, sweet home: "If the right situation comes in a few years, maybe. But for now, I don't want to leave." Note the key words: "for now."
This article appears in the September 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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