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Donovan finds his feet

When Landon Donovan signed professional forms with German Bundesliga team Bayer Leverkusen in February 1999, the Californian was anointed as the "next great hope" for US football.

Like many young Americans before him, the then 17-year-old was heralded by football media and supporters alike.

This was surely the one American who could make an impact as a true world-class goal scorer; something continually sought-after but never yet realised.

When Donovan was awarded the Golden Ball for the outstanding footballer at the FIFA Under-17 World Youth Tournament in New Zealand later that year it became even more likely that he just might be the superstar that American's had longed for.

He led the side to a best-ever fourth-placed finish and at the end of his career with the under-17 squad, Donovan had amassed an amazing 35 goals in 41 appearances. That haul included 12 goals in his final 14 matches.

There seemed no doubt to anyone in the US that Landon Donovan would become America's first international football prodigy.

But things were not to be so easy for Donovan at club level, as he failed to graduate out of Bayer Leverkusen's reserve side, increasing both his frustration and homesickness.

Suddenly, Donovan seemed destined to follow in the long line of American's who simply were not good enough to break through with a major club in Europe, no matter how great their promise and potential.

Regardless of this situation, the American first division Major League Soccer (MLS) continued to covet Donovan despite his lack of progress with Bayer Leverkusen.

At the player's request, MLS worked out a unique transfer/loan arrangement that brought Donovan back to the US, giving his fledgling career a much needed second chance.

Perhaps owing to his still untapped talent, the German side agreed to sell their young striker to Major League Soccer for four years, with the option of bringing him back in two.

MLS then assigned Donovan to their worst club, San Jose Earthquakes, in effect giving him an opportunity to immediately become a marquee performer.

"I felt to reach my potential as a soccer player, I needed to be playing somewhere," Donovan told BBC Sport Online.

"It just worked out that MLS wanted me here."

For Donovan, now 20, the gamble to leave Germany has paid dividends that would have been hard to envisage.

In his debut season with San Jose, Donovan helped lead the California based club to their first ever MLS Championship.

Within the space of a year they improved from seven victories before he joined the club, to 18.

In 28 matches during the 2001 campaign, Donovan scored 12 goals, including the equaliser in the MLS Championship Final.

With his potential then being realised at club level, albeit the MLS rather than the Bundesliga, Donovan was given a bigger role at the international level by US manager Bruce Arena.

Arena used his budding star in eight matches last year, including four World Cup qualifiers.

"I think I'm going to be in the squad," Donovan said with an eye on the World Cup.

"Right now I'm just fighting for a starting position, and that's difficult."

Barring injury, it is all but certain that Donovan will be heading to the World Cup as he has appeared in all 10 of America's matches in 2002, scoring four goals.

If his present form continues, he very well may win his fight to be in the starting 11 when the US faces Portugal on 5 June in their opening match.

Less clear is what will happen to Landon Donovan once World Cup 2002 has been completed.

"My agent has met with them (Bayer Leverkusen), and I think they want me back sooner rather than later; probably after the World Cup," Donovan revealed.

"But I also know that MLS wants to keep me for as long as they can, so we'll see what happens."

Despite his earlier negative experience in Germany, Donovan is not completely driven by the prospect of returning to a major club in Europe.

"I'm not one of those guys who thinks that if I don't play in Europe, I'm going to die - I just want to be happy.

"And if I go back to Europe and sit on the bench, I'm not going to be happy, regardless of the money or the fame. If that's the case, I'd rather be here (MLS) playing."

If Donovan does in fact show his still evolving skills at this summer's World Cup a number of top clubs, in addition to Bayer Leverkusen, will no doubt be seeking his immediate services.

A good showing can only further his chances of becoming America's first-ever world class striker.

For his part though, Donovan remains philosophical and seemingly unaffected.

"When I was younger, I got caught up in reading the good and the bad, but now that's irrelevant, it's just part of soccer.

"I'd love to play at the World Cup, but really I just want to see us do well. If I don't play, and we get out of the first round, then I'm happy."

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