Bright future lies at Landon's feet with Germany's Bayer Leverkusen
Posted: Tuesday November 23, 2004 8:59PM; Updated: Tuesday November 23, 2004 9:08PM
Bayer Leverkusen signed Landon Donovan when he was 16.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
And so he's gone.
But before you start haranguing Major League Soccer for "losing" Landon Donovan to Germany's Bayer Leverkusen, remember: This is the way it's supposed to work.
Since being loaned by Leverkusen to MLS in 2001, the 22-year-old Donovan has 1) won two MLS titles in four seasons, 2) had a breakout 2002 World Cup, 3) won three straight U.S. player of the year awards, and 4) become the U.S. captain, taking over the national team's leadership at a ridiculously young age.
Do you think Donovan is ready for the big time in Europe? I sure do. And I can't wait to watch him there.
This is the way it's supposed to work, whether you're a young superstar in the Argentine or the Brazilian or, yes, even the American domestic soccer league. You go where the money is. You go where the competition is. You go where you can find out if you're the best.
And, as sure as the sun rises, more talent develops back home to take your place.
If anything, Donovan has been far more hesitant about moving to Europe than most soccer players, far more ambivalent than you might expect for someone with his international demand. But he liked his life in San Jose. He liked being near his girlfriend and family, liked playing for the Earthquakes, liked waking up to the California weather that beat all those dreary German days in the late 1990s when he never played for Bayer's first team.
But Donovan felt like he had an obligation, one to Leverkusen (which signed him at 16) and one to his own progress in the soccer world. Nor can it hurt that Leverkusen's director of football, Michael Reschke, guarantees that Donovan will "be around 70 to 80 percent minimum on the field" for the Bundesliga powerhouse, as Reschke told me last month.
If Donovan were playing for Leverkusen on Tuesday, he most likely would have been starting against Real Madrid in a crucial Champions League match at the legendary Bernabeu Stadium in Spain. You can't get that kind of experience in MLS.
While it may be sad to see Donovan leaving MLS, it's more appropriate to offer congratulations on a day like this. Congratulations to Donovan, first of all, for turning his Earthquakes experience into an unqualified success. Congratulations to the Quakes, for providing a stable training environment even as its front-office situation was profoundly unstable.
To its credit, MLS reconsidered that stance and brought Donovan to San Jose -- and today the league is signing more top young American players than ever before.
They should be considered part of Donovan's legacy in MLS, to say nothing of his indelible performances over the years: his goal as a 19-year-old rookie in MLS Cup 2001; his role in San Jose's remarkable four-goal comeback against L.A. in the 2003 playoffs; and not least, his two goals in MLS Cup 2003.
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Donovan is a man with options these days. Even if he's not satisfied in Germany, MLS will always be willing to embrace the U.S. captain should he decide to return. And Leverkusen, to its credit, appears willing to let Donovan choose his next step six months down the road.
In the meantime, a wide-open future lies at Donovan's magical feet.
When things go well, this is the way it's supposed to work.
Eat your heart out, Dr. Z: When it comes to prognostication, I'm having a pretty good year. First I picked UConn to win the college hoops title in SI mag. Then I went and nailed the MLS playoffs before the postseason even started, picking No. 4-seed D.C. United to beat No. 2-seed Kansas City in the final and adding that "D.C.'s Alecko Eskandarian will be the toast of the MLS postseason." This gives me a five-year grace period before I have to get anything right again, doesn't it?
On-fire FC Dallas striker Eddie Johnson (who has scored five times in three U.S. games) is training this week with Manchester United, and Johnson told me that he may go from there to a two-week training stint with PSV Eindhoven. However, PSV manager of scouting Hans Gillhaus told me that those arrangements have yet to be finalized.
Big ups on the retro uniforms worn by the U.S. in last week's tie against Jamaica. Here's one vote for keeping those kits -- replicas of the ones worn by the U.S. in its 1950 World Cup upset of England -- as the first-option Yanks jersey heading toward 2006.
Next step for the U.S. men's national team: a loooong camp in Los Angeles from Jan. 3-31. Domestic friendlies against Sweden and South Korea are planned for January in advance of the Yanks' World Cup qualifier on Feb. 9.
One man's humble suggestion: put that South Korea game in the Rose Bowl and start it with a celebrity death match between gymnasts Paul Hamm and Yang Tae-young. (The place would be packed.) Then promote some healing by bringing Korean forward Park Ji-sung out and granting him honorary citizenship for the World Cup goal he scored against Portugal to save the U.S. in '02.
Don't know if you caught this item in a recent New York Times, but the actor Ted Danson won the first wager ever to be settled at Long Bets (longbets.org), an online prediction site that's popular in Silicon Valley. Danson, who played Sam Malone on Cheers bet Time Asia editor Michael Elliot that the Boston Red Sox would win the World Series before the U.S. won a World Cup in soccer. Elliot argued on the site that immigration and technology would improve the quality of American soccer, while also citing the so-called curse of the Bambino. Danson's argument went like this: "Statistically, scoring goals is harder than hitting a home run and in the World Cup you have the whole WORLD against you." What's more, Danson wrote, "the Red Sox only have to beat the Yankees." Each man bet $1,000, and Danson will now give $2,000 to a charity of his choice. Perhaps he could donate it to the U.S. Soccer Foundation.
Here are some highlights from Stamminger's comments:
Stamminger on the MLS deal: "For us, doing this was unexpected by a lot of people, but we believe there is a huge potential in this market which is not utilized yet at its full level. When we see the MLS management and the passion of the owners, we see in 10 years a completely different ballgame here. Soccer will play a major role in this country. Everybody in the world is interested that MLS becomes successful on a global level." My take: Someone at MLS has done a good job convincing Adidas that MLS really does have a chance to thrive.
Stamminger on grassroots involvement vs. take-the-money-and-run approaches: "For us to become successful here in a credible way, this sport in the U.S. has to play a major role. Not just in terms of us sponsoring Real Madrid and their coming once a year to the United States. No, it has to be every day, every week in the normal competition so that more Americans get closer to it .... [Bayern Munich deputy chairman] Uli Hoeness said next time we come maybe we should play an MLS team or an all-star team of the Western or Eastern Conference. Same with AC Milan: 'Hey, we'd like to come back, but maybe we can do this more closely with what's happening in the U.S. market and not play against another European team.'" My take: Adidas appears to be distancing itself, partially or completely, from the Champions World-run money grabs involving Man United and other clubs. Expect Adidas-aligned teams such as Bayern Munich, AC Milan and perhaps Real Madrid to arrange summer friendlies against MLS-stocked squads in the future.
Stamminger on Adidas' plans for MLS-centric advertising in mainstream outlets next season: "We want to communicate around the teams and use events like this today [MLS Cup] to communicate to the whole population here. We're discussing commercials around soccer. It's a little too early now to discuss details because we are still preparing for next season." My take: If the video Adidas showed to reporters on the morning of MLS Cup is any indication, the ads could be pretty cool.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. And please send me any soccer-related questions; I'll be writing another column next week.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl keeps you up to date with the world of U.S. soccer at SI.com.