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Donovan flies flag for U.S. soccer

Just the other day, Landon Donovan took his girlfriend to dinner in Wilmington, N.C.

They went to Chili's, figuring they'd be unassuming enough to blend right in.

Donovan may have been far from his Southern California roots or his Northern California home, places where his celebrity status is unquestionable, but America's best soccer player is finding he's big no matter where he goes.

"The whole crew of waiters and waitresses and hostesses, they all knew and they were lining up for autographs," Donovan said. "That's crazy. It's just this little town."

Donovan is the marquee attraction at tonight's Le Bonheur All Star Soccer Game at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, where he'll be joined by World Cup 2002 teammates like DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Mathis and Jeff Agoos.

Local soccer fans can thank former Houston High star Carey Talley for organizing the game, which Donovan and other players promise will have a regular match pace if not the usual defensive intensity.

This is the second year for the event, which is played in honor of Carey's father, John Talley, who died in March after a long battle with brain cancer.

With nine players from tonight's game heading to the U.S. national team camp next week, it quite literally will provide a glimpse at America's promising soccer future.

"I think if my father were here, he would be amazed that the guys that are coming would do this for him," Carey Talley said.

It is Donovan's presence, even more than the depth of quality on the two rosters, that makes this a must-see event for local soccer fans.

It is not just that Donovan, 20, recently became the youngest U.S. player of the year.

It is that he combines a certain star quality with on-the-field charisma and a grounded down-to-earth personality.

Or, as his agent said after Donovan's breakthrough performance in leading the U.S. to a quarterfinal run at the World Cup: "Young boys want to be him, young girls love him. Moms adore him and older males admire him."

Donovan, it seems, is the real deal on and off the pitch.

On it, he is capable of making breathtaking runs through a defense and his ever-improving ability has an un-American flair.

Off it, he charms national talk-show audiences and, when he is presented with the Honda Player of the Year award, has the following to say: "I feel like the young guy shouldn't win."

And Donovan does not shy from taking the huge responsibility of serving as poster boy for American soccer and creating more mainstream popularity for the sport.

"I don't really think about it unless people mention it," Donovan said. "It gets a little crazy if you just sit down and think about it. I try to enjoy it and stay as grounded as possible, although it is hard at times.

"But it's fun. What person wouldn't want to be that?"

Some would suggest that Donovan is so bent on promoting American's domestic league, Major League Soccer, that he is doing so at the expense of his own development.

Donovan could be in Europe right now, playing for Bayer Leverkeusen, one of the richest clubs in the world. Bayer owns his playing contract, but has allowed Donovan to play on loan for the MLS in San Jose.

Now, Bayer is struggling, and the club officials are clear that they want to give Donovan an opportunity to help them.

Only Donovan doesn't want to go back to Germany, where he lived for two miserable seasons playing with the Bayer reserve squad.

He wants to stay in San Jose and continue to sell the sport in America. His agent is in Germany with MLS officials trying to arrange for Donovan to stay in the MLS on a longterm basis.

"It's a great time for U.S. soccer, and if the league continues to do the job it's doing in keeping young players home, it's going to be a very, very good league," Donovan said. "I want to be a part of it, and I want to see it grow."

Contact staff reporter Zack McMillin at 529-2564; E-mail: mcmillin@gomemphis.com

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