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Donovan's priorities are right

Landon Donovan always has been a special kid.

We just didn't know how special.

We understood he could play soccer like nobody's business. And perhaps like nobody in the history of the country. The planet saw that during the World Cup last June when he scored two goals and was an electrifying presence on the U.S. team.

What we didn't know is that the brightest star in the national soccer firmament

-Remains so unimpressed with money that the idea of giving up more than $2‚million (!) in salary the next two years doesn't faze him;

-Is so attached to family and friends that he is ignoring the counsel of those who insist he must go abroad so that he can stay close to the people he cares for;

-Is a 20-year-old who loves America so much he can't bear to leave it again;

-Is so concerned about the future of U.S. soccer that he wants to stay and help Major League Soccer succeed.

Well, slap my back and call me Judy. What's next, Kevin Brown telling the Dodgers he doesn't really need to use the corporate jet five times a year?

It takes a few minutes for all this to sink in. The degree of selflessness involved in an era where mercenary athletes constantly remind us that it's all about the money … when it's not all about the athlete.

OK, it's sunk in. Wow.

Here's the deal: German club team Bayer Leverkusen, which signed Donovan out of Redlands East Valley High School when he was just 16 years old, and still owns his rights, wanted him to come back to Germany, where he spent most of 1999 and 2000.

There were compelling reasons for him to return. Soccer sages maintain Americans' talents stagnate unless they go to Europe. Also, in global terms, Germany's league is New York City to the MLS's Peoria.

And there was the not inconsiderable matter of money. Perhaps $1.5‚million per year of salary with Bayer Leverkusen that Donovan turned down for no more than $400,000 each of the next two seasons with San Jose of MLS.

But Donovan instructed agent Richard Motzkin to find a solution that would mollify Leverkusen and allow him to stay home.

Why would a guy do that?

Well, we asked his mother.

``I don't think money has ever been that important to Landon,'' Donna Kenney-Cash said Tuesday night. ``It doesn't go into his makeup. Once you're, like, over $100,000, how much more do you need?

`'Other things are much more important to him.''

To wit:

-Playing where friends and family can see him. ``I don't think he really has fun playing unless someone he knows is watching him,'' Mom said.

-Staying in the U.S. of A. ``He has a great appreciation for this country,'' Kenney-Cash said, `'especially for someone his age. He thinks there's nowhere on Earth like here.''

-Boosting MLS, the domestic league that continues to hover one hiccup above life-support. ``I think he'd like to see soccer get a lot bigger in the U.S.,'' Mom said. ``If he can help in that, it would make him feel really good.''

If all of this sounds too good to be true, you can cite a couple of facts to support that argument.

At 20, Donovan isn't exactly closing the door to playing in Europe by committing to MLS for two seasons. And, we would concede, there might be domestic endorsement possibilities more tangible for a player who remains in the public eye here (even at depressed MLS levels), rather than lost to our view in a European league.

So maybe he's not giving up $1.1‚mill a year. Maybe it's less than that. Maybe quite a bit.

Maybe. But we know this kid. We've spent more time in conversation with him than with any other athlete in recent years, and what Landon's mom says strikes us as dead-on accurate.

Money? No big deal. Friends and family? Can never take them for granted. The United States? Where else can you buy a burger at 3‚a.m. in the smallest of towns? MLS? If the country's best-known players don't stay and play in it, how will it ever rise?

For now, at age 20, Landon Donovan is more than satisfied with the San Jose Earthquakes and $400,000 (or less), and Mom and Grandma in the stands.

It may be unusual. It may be weird. But it's also refreshing.

Special guy, Landon Donovan, because he's such a regular, grounded guy. Who has his priorities in order.

If he doesn't watch out, he could make us admire professional athletes again.

Oberjuerge is sports editor of The Sun. Readers may write to him at 399 North D St., San Bernardino, 92401, or fax to (909) 384-0327.

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