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Monday, May 22, 2006
Updated: April 15, 2:41 PM ET
Home Schooled

By Jeff Bradley

On nights like this, it all makes sense. The Home Depot Center is packed to its 27,000-seat capacity. At one end, fans of the LA Galaxy, bedecked in gold and green, are full of song and spirit. At the other, supporters of Chivas USA, LA's other MLS team, sport red and white and wave flags and streamers to match. The atmosphere is hot, the action is going to be fierce and Landon Donovan is ready to do battle. But just to make sure he's completely clearheaded, the Galaxy star snaps open some smelling salts and takes a big whiff. His head shakes violently as he lets loose a primal scream.

On nights like this, when Donovan can use his speed, stamina and vision to set up two late goals for a 2-1 victory, stoking the passion of the footie faithful, it makes sense that the best-ever American-born attacking player chose to ply his trade here at home and not across the Atlantic.

Of course, there will be plenty of nights when it won't make any sense at all, like on a July Wednesday in Kansas City in front of a few thousand youth soccer players, their parents and tens of thousands of empty seats. On those nights, soccer fans in the U.S. and abroad will wonder why Donovan is here and not over there.

But then, they don't know Landon Donovan. "People just miss the point," says the 24-year-old California native. "I just want to be happy. If I'm happy, I can play with anybody in the world."

Donovan's happiness is what U.S. coach Bruce Arena is banking on in these final weeks leading up to the World Cup in Germany. In November 2004, when Donovan announced he was leaving MLS to play for Bayer Leverkusen, the German team that signed him out of the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program when he was 16, Arena was thrilled. Yes, the coach is thankful for the opportunities MLS affords aspiring American soccer players, but when it comes to where he wants his top stars to play, his preference is Europe, hands down. "The speed of play, the pressure to perform, the scrutiny of the fans and media-players in MLS do not have that," Arena says. So upon learning that Donovan was coming home after just two months in the Bundesliga, the coach found himself spinning like a pol. "Playing in MLS has never had a negative impact on the way Landon plays for the national team," Arena said at the time. "I like him happy."

Call it a flip-flop, but Arena deserves a pass. While he still wants all of his best players competing at the highest levels, he can't make that decision for Donovan. It is often said of soccer stars around the world that they are artists and need to be treated as such. So if Donovan's muse happens to be the comforts of home-specifically, his MTV-featured crib in Manhattan Beach, his fiancée (actress Bianca Kajlich), their three dogs, his beloved Dodgers and Lakers, living close to his mother and sister—well, let Landon be Landon.

Smelling salts and packed houses might register with the soccer-obsessed, but it's on quiet nights when Donovan can stroll down the street for dinner with friends that his decision to stay in the U.S. makes the most sense to him. "People who say I need to be in Europe sit at home and don't play soccer for a living," he says in the soft monotone he rarely alters. "Soccer is important to me. It's not everything to me."

So he weighed his lifestyle options: living alone in a flat in Germany, waiting for the sun to break through the clouds, or hanging at the beach with Bianca? E-mailing and instant messaging his mom, Donna Kenney-Cash, and twin sis, Tristan, or actually seeing them in the stands at home games? In either scenario, Donovan would be playing soccer for a living. But the LA version gives him something other than the game to live for. In his mind, it was a no-brainer.

"You know, I could be over there and I could be successful," he says over sushi at one of his favorite Hermosa Beach haunts. "But I would never come close to being as happy as I am here. No matter how much better it might make me, it would never be worth it."

And with that, Donovan glances around the restaurant. The extraordinarily taut skin on his cheekbones—the signature of fitness in the soccer world—is the only hint that he's different from everyone else in the place. The other diners have no clue they're in the company of the man who will lead the U.S. in the world's most important sporting event. Donovan says he wouldn't have it any other way: "I don't have to deal with all the BS. In Germany I saw guys—Bulgarians, Croatians, Brazilians—who would come to training, go home and just be miserable. They'd have nothing to do. I would never want to be that way. There's more to life than soccer."

This attitude is what makes so many people question Donovan's fortitude, but it also makes him the ultimate American soccer player. Unlike the most decorated veterans of the U.S. team (guys such as goalkeeper Kasey Keller and midfielder Claudio Reyna, who have played their entire professional careers in Europe), and unlike many of the squad's rising stars (such as midfielder DaMarcus Beasley and defender Carlos Bocanegra, who fled MLS for Holland and England respectively), Donovan sees no reason why he ever has to play anywhere but the States. He doesn't deny that the competition, the overall level of play, is better abroad. But he does believe that there's a lingering anti-American bias when it comes to soccer players, especially creative types like himself. Despite the gains made by the national team in the past 16 years, Americans are still considered novices in the world's game. The message over-seas: You want to come here, learn the system and be a good soldier? Fine. You want to be the general? Hold on, Yank-you have to earn your stripes. "You can go somewhere and play a minor role or you can be a major player here," Donovan says. He could easily point to goalkeeper Tim Howard, who went from hero to bench-player with Manchester United as quickly as a pair of soft goals entered his net.

Arena agrees with Donovan that Americans don't always get a fair shake in Europe. But he also points to the pressure of fighting to stay in the lineup overseas as a positive in player development while the security of starting spots for top players in MLS is a negative. So player and coach have come to an agreement of sorts: Play in MLS, Arena tells Donovan, but don't let your guard down for a second. Stay fit, stay determined and keep in mind that no player on the U.S. team is irreplaceable if his form falls off.

To that end, Donovan sees his challenge as raising the league's bar. "It's an exciting time in U.S. soccer," he says. "In Europe, I could go five years and be completely miserable just to fit into a system that's been there forever. Or I can be someone here who helped start something." He is, of course, aware that not many MLS players pull in the type of salary ($900,000 per season) or endorsement money (about $450,000 a year from Nike) that he commands, which is as big a reason as the quality of play that a lot of top Americans flee home. Donovan is one of the few Yanks who has it all: the money, the exposure and the quality of life. "You hope that if you can help build it right, more guys will have the same opportunities that I've had," he says. "Then they may not feel like they have to go to Europe to play good soccer and make a good living."

PERHAPS THE main reason Europe has so little appeal for Donovan is because of the scars that were inflicted early, although he admits that he brought some of the pain upon himself. Growing up in Redlands, Calif., and raised almost exclusively by his schoolteacher mom (his parents split when he was a toddler), Donovan wasn't your stereotypical soccer kid, eating orange slices at halftime and running through the postgame human tunnel before piling into the minivan. But he was, for the most part, a soccer-only kid. After picking up the game from his older brother, Josh, Landon honed his skills in a largely Hispanic league, where he caught the attention of various regional teams and, ultimately, the U.S. Soccer Federation's Under-17 squad in Bradenton, Fla. He went on to win the Golden Ball as the best player at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship. And just before that tournament, he signed a contract (worth, with incentives, about $1 million over four years) with Bayer Leverkusen, a traditionally strong team in the German Bundesliga. By going to Europe, Donovan went against the wishes of his mom, who wanted him to accept a soccer scholarship to UCLA. But he had stars in his eyes, and he figured, based on that Golden Ball, that he was ready for the big time.

Looking back, he now understands he was just one of the many prospects a club like Leverkusen signs annually. But at the time, he was a cocky SoCal kid. All he knew of international soccer was the youth tourneys he'd played in and the World Cup videos his mom had given him. Like a highschooler expecting to report straight to Yankee Stadium after being drafted, Donovan was clueless enough to wonder why he was playing only in reserve games and wasn't getting any run with the first team. "I wasn't anywhere near good enough," he says with a smile. "I wasn't strong enough, I wasn't mentally tough enough. I was still a kid. Skills-wise I had moments, but I wasn't consistent enough at that age."

Donovan pauses, and this is where some lingering pain comes in. "If I had been German or Brazilian or Argentine, I think I would've gotten a better chance," he says. "But being American, it wasn't going to happen. I would've had to wait three, four years going through their system, then maybe get a chance to play. I didn't want to wait."

In 2001, Leverkusen agreed to lend a homesick Donovan to MLS, where he was allocated to the San Jose Earthquakes. The understanding was that after he spent some time at home, he'd eventually find his way back to the German side. In his first year as a pro in the States, at age 19, Donovan led the Quakes-the league's worst team the season before his arrival-to an MLS Cup, scoring a goal in the title match. His play paved his way onto the roster for the 2002 World Cup, where he led the U.S. on an unprecedented quarterfinal run.

And this is where the story takes an interesting turn. In June, Donovan will play in his second World Cup, in (of all places) Germany. His first ended with a bitter 1-0 loss to (of all people) the Germans. It was a game the Americans dominated for long stretches. It was a game in which Donovan was an absolute menace, threatening the German goal repeatedly, slicing through their usually airtight defense. All that was missing was the final touch, though he did have one blistering shot that was barely fingertipped wide by all-world keeper Oliver Kahn. Screw the German system-that was what Donovan wanted to show everyone that day. His game was all-American, honed in a league that had been around only since 1996. "We could not have played better that day," Donovan says. "To not win … it just proves the game is cruel."

In 2003, Donovan took the Quakes to another MLS Cup. Meanwhile, Leverkusen began inquiring into its now-mature prodigal's return, as part of the original loan arrangement. Finally, in January 2005, with the future of the Quakes in jeopardy (the club moved to Houston this season), Donovan went back to Germany. He lasted just over two months, playing in nine matches and riding the bench for a few more before asking Leverkusen, once again, if he could go back home. The breaking point was a Champions League loss to Liverpool. "I had a bad game," he says. "But the reality is, we didn't touch the ball. Liverpool kicked our butts. After that, I went two weeks without playing. I guess they had to find a scapegoat." Reluctant at first, Leverkusen agreed to sell Donovan's contract to MLS, which arranged a deal that allowed him to play for his hometown team, the Galaxy.

The reaction of American soccer fans was anything but positive. Even with all that Donovan had provided the U.S. in the World Cup, calling it quits so soon in Germany made him look soft. Add to that his desire to play not for the Earthquakes but for their most bitter rivals, and suddenly, America's best player was as much villain as hero in his home country. Fans on Internet message boards referred to him as Baby Jesus and Landy Cakes. Leading a .500 Galaxy team to the 2005 MLS Cup wasn't enough to change that sentiment.

Turns out, American soccer gets no respect at home or abroad. The notion that a world-class player could continue to improve while playing in MLS was roundly scoffed. Donovan says that this perception is similar to the way the world views the U.S. team, and the only way he and his 'mates can change it is with more big wins: "Even with what we did in 2002, people still don't seem to care about American soccer. Until we beat more top-level teams in meaningful games, it's just not going to change."

But is that time now? The FIFA rankings, which take into account all international matches a team has played in the past eight years, place the U.S. fourth in the world, behind only Brazil, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. That would suggest the Americans are primed to make a run for the World Cup title. Don't believe it. If the U.S. is one of the two teams to advance out of a group that includes the Czechs, Italy and Ghana, the soccer world will be more shocked than it was four years ago when the Yanks knocked off Portugal. Simply put, the rankings are meaningless, no more significant than preseason college basketball polls. Arena never uses the FIFA numbers as proof of anything, preferring to say, "We're not one of the top countries in the world, but we're improving."

Back in Hermosa Beach, Donovan polishes off his sushi and lays it all out. He admits that the U.S. talent is not as good or as experienced as the names on the top-tier teams, but he also argues that the U.S. is fitter and tighter than almost any other squad in the world. "People can talk all they want about the soccer culture in Europe, but from what I saw in Germany, the one thing they lack is camaraderie," he says. "The pressure to stay in the lineup creates a culture of players who are looking out for themselves. I truly feel we can beat any team on any day. Something incredible could happen. If Greece can win the European Championship, we can win the World Cup."

And with that, Donovan puts on his dark blue peacoat and his Dodger cap and starts the walk home, believing in his heart, on a night like this, that it all makes sense.