German powerhouse convinced U.S. star will leave MLS
Posted: Friday October 1, 2004 7:12PM; Updated: Saturday October 2, 2004 1:59AM
Landon Donovan has won two MLS titles with San Jose.
Landon Donovan has a lot on his mind these days. His San Jose Earthquakes need a win in Colorado on Saturday as they fight for their playoff lives. Then there's the U.S. national team, which has two crucial World Cup qualifiers next week.
Now Bayer Leverkusen, the German club that owns Donovan's contract, says the 22-year-old forward will be a key component of its Champions League and Bundesliga campaigns when he returns to Europe on Jan. 1 -- as stated in Donovan's loan deal with MLS.
The big question remains: Does Donovan want to go?
Donovan's agent, Richard Motzkin, met in Germany last week with Leverkusen's director of football, Michael Reschke, to discuss the situation. And while Motzkin says Donovan has not decided if he wants to go to Germany, Reschke told me in an interview that Leverkusen is eagerly anticipating his arrival.
"I am sure that he will come," Reschke said. "Anything else would be a big surprise to me. Landon is a very special player with an outstanding level, and everybody in our club -- the management, the coach, the staff and the team -- are looking forward to welcoming him here."
Reschke said Leverkusen hopes to host Donovan for a Champions League game at the beginning of December. The plan is to roll out the red carpet for a player who soured on Leverkusen after signing with the team at 16 and spending two years on its reserve squad. Donovan is finishing his fourth season on loan to MLS, where he has won two titles with San Jose.
Though Leverkusen appears to hold all the cards, Reschke doesn't want to have an unhappy player on his hands. A smooth sales pitch will therefore be necessary. "I don't want to go back and sit on the bench," Donovan told me in 2002. "My experience was pretty bad in Germany, and sometimes I think no matter where I go it's going to be the same way. I love my life in San Jose."
In our interview Reschke provided Leverkusen's take on some pertinent questions:
How much playing time would Donovan get in Germany?
"I am sure that Landon will be around 70 to 80% minimum on the field," Reschke said. "He's able to play two or three positions, and he will be an important part of the team. On Tuesday we were sitting together after the game in Kiev [a 4-2 Champions League loss] and discussing: If Landon were here, he would be in the starting XI on Saturday."
Is moving to Leverkusen necessary for Donovan to continue improving?
At Bayer's 3-0 win over Real Madrid two weeks ago, Reschke spoke to new German national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who has closely watched Donovan's progress from his home in California. "Klinsmann said Landon is now able to make this step and that it is necessary for him," Reschke said. "We have great respect for American football, especially the national team. But if you are an outstanding singer, you must go to La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera. If you are an outstanding basketball player, then you must go to the States. Landon is an outstanding talent."
Would Leverkusen consider selling Donovan's contract to MLS or another European team?
"Landon's future is in his hands," Reschke said. "We all hope he will be an important member of our club in the second half of the season. If there are personal reasons, if there is a special situation in the view of Landon, then we are speaking about a young man and his future and we must discuss every point. But at the moment I am sure we will have a great time together here at Leverkusen."
Keep in mind, Reschke is no dummy. He's leveraging his advantage in a situation that isn't too different from a similar one with Donovan in 2002 (which resulted in Donovan's loan being extended by two more years). At the same time, Donovan is now two years older and appears ready for the European game (from a competition standpoint, at least).
What's more, as we know, any player can be had for the right price. But will MLS be willing to "break the bank" for Donovan, as one league insider suggested to me recently? Will San Jose's uncertain future have an impact on Donovan's decision? (Motzkin says it might.) And will Donovan turn down a shot at European stardom?
Reschke, the man who first pursued Donovan for Leverkusen , says he feels a "personal responsibility" toward him. But as he adds, the future is in Donovan's hands.
With the playoff chase heating up, all five MLS games will be available for no charge on live video through MLSnet.com on Saturday night. Gotta love the chance to watch two games at the same time on your laptop. Regrettably, mine doesn't have the RAM to get three going at once. But I'll beat that by watching New England-Dallas on TV.
In a teleconference Friday, U.S. coach Bruce Arena issued an intriguing apology for his caustic remarks against MLS and U.S. Soccer in a recent New York Timesarticle. On the one hand, Arena was forthright: "I have to admit at times the passion and commitment I have for the game tends to cloud my judgment and apparently has destroyed some of my brain cells as well." Later on, though, Arena added: "There's nothing in there that I don't agree with what I said. I think I can choose a better forum to voice those opinions."As a journalist who has appreciated Arena's candor over the years, I hope he doesn't dial it back too much. We need more unvarnished opinions in the game, not fewer.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
MLS has been meeting with ESPN officials in hopes that the network may schedule additional MLS games to replace slots held for locked-out NHL games.
With Claudio Reyna's injury-related omission from the roster for next week's World Cup qualifiers, the pressure will fall on somebody to spark the offense in the middle. Who will that person be? Clint Mathis? Landon Donovan? Somebody else? Stay tuned.
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Got another soccer column coming next week, so send in your Mailbag questions in the box to the right.
After eight years of excellent work, Dallas Burn press officer Chris Ward is leaving MLS. Take it from me: Chris will be missed.
And finally ... on their recent trip back from Europe, SportsNet agents Richard Motzkin and Dan Segal had the misfortune of sharing their plane with singer Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), who was detained and deported by U.S. officials who had him on their terrorist watch list. As a result, Motzkin and Segal spent an unscheduled six hours at the Bangor airport before resuming their travels.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl keeps you up to date with the world of U.S. soccer at SI.com.