Since he began playing soccer in Redlands, Calif., in 1987, Landon Donovan has loved taking the field at night. "Day games are less exciting—people come to them thinking about what they'll be doing afterward," the 18-year-old striker says, "but night games are events, like concerts. I always get pumped up to play them." The days have been long and hard for Donovan since February '99 when he signed a four-year, $400,000 contract with Bayer Leverkusen, the premier club in Germany's Bundesliga. Leverkusen assigned him to its developmental regionalliga squad, which plays in small stadiums in the hinterlands. Under constant pressure to perform, targeted because of his big salary, 9,000 miles from home, the kid who might become the U.S.'s first great goal scorer had struggled.
Last month, however, Donovan finally found his footing. Fittingly, the breakthrough came at night, in a midweek regionalliga match against Essen. Though it was a home game for Leverkusen, it took place at a stadium in nearby Cologne; Leverkusen's field lacks the facilities to contain Essen's supporters, the rabid Red Bulls, who must be tunneled into an enclosure to prevent violence. Twenty-five minutes into the game Donovan shunted his defender aside, stretched out a leg and tapped a teammate's weak shot home. Three minutes later, on a two-on-one breakaway, he volleyed a pass into the corner of the net from 15 yards out. Then, with a minute left in the first half, Donovan scored his third goal, drilling in a loose ball from near the top of the penalty box to give Bayer a 5-1 lead; they won 5-2. "Some games you can do no wrong," Donovan says. "I just kept shooting." In the papers the next day soccer writers compared Donovan to Leverkusen's famed scorer Ulf Kristen, the Bundesliga's Pel�.
Donovan describes the Essen game as a "coming of age," one that validated his decision to leave home and endure the hardships of adjusting to life in industrial Leverkusen. It scarcely helped that he was shuttling between Leverkusen and various international tournaments to play for the U.S. under-17 team. But those hassles had their rewards. In November, Donovan received the Golden Ball, given to the outstanding player at the under-17 world championship in New Zealand, capping a youth career that included 35 goals and 16 assists in 41 international games.
A chasm yawns, however, between being the world's best 17-year-old striker and just holding your own against veteran professionals. When most Americans mink of soccer goals, they imagine a striker breaking from the pack and tricking the goalie with deft footwork. But most scores occur in deep traffic, and the striker's art involves meeting a ball that flies in at an acute angle, often with absurd spin, and instantly deflecting it toward the goal on a line that neither the goalie nor any other defender can intersect. Usually there's a defender's hip, shoulder or elbow complicating the execution of this magic trick; sometimes it's all three. The feat is akin to hitting a knuckleball with a warped bat while standing on a seesaw.
Donovan has the gift to pull off such minor miracles. He rose rapidly through Southern California's youth soccer system. At 17 he was not only playing for the U.S. under-23 team but also scoring regularly. He returned to the U.S. on Sunday to play with the under-23 team in an Olympic qualifying tournament. "We've never had such a highly touted young attacking player," says Bruce Arena, coach of the national team. "A lot of people are saying Landon's the savior of American soccer, and I'd love to say he's the real thing, the answer to our problems. But there's no direct correlation between success in the under-17s and at the senior level. Plus, I think all those expectations can be a huge burden."
The questions about Donovan involve only the sport's intangibles. In speed and agility tests he eclipses elite players years older than he is, and his ball handling technique is world-class. But world-class soccer is not played in the U.S., and at 16 Donovan started hearing from clubs in England and Germany. "We seldom offer a young foreign player such a contract," says Michael Reschke of Bayer Leverkusen, "but in 21 years working with young players, I've rarely seen such strong potential."
The time in Germany has transformed Donovan's game. The 5'8", 145-pound striker rarely touches the ball without getting bodychecked by his taller, heavier markers, and he has become noticeably more physical. On defense he charges at the goalkeeper or ball handler, forcing him to make a move. Donovan has learned to dribble with his elbows out, jabbing opponents as he sprints forward. "I definitely played horribly at first," Donovan recalls. "I just couldn't understand why my game was not working. There's no creativity or flair in the game here. People kept telling me I have to battle—that's the German theme in life. Finally, I quit playing like a sissy and decided to fight and run."
His head coach, Peter Hermann, says, "Landon has a great heart," by which Hermann means the combination of courage and resilience so prized in Germany. Coaches gauge it in youngsters by submitting them to harsh conditions and two-a-day practices, pushing potential stars to prove themselves against rough-hewn veterans. Donovan's recent successes have confirmed Leverkusen management's belief in his potential. Next year he will move up to the first team, a progression that was not expected so soon. But promotion to the first team does not ensure playing time: Leverkusen's Bundesliga team is 35 deep, enough to fill two game-day rosters.
Though Leverkusen has high expectations for Donovan, he hardly gets preferential treatment. Shortly after his November exploits in New Zealand he bounced onto the team bus and sat near the front. Suddenly Hermann was looming above him, pointing to the top of Donovan's thin cotton warmup suit. Loudly, the coach demanded, "What are you wearing underneath?" Nothing, it turned out, except for a thin gold necklace. As chuckles echoed from the rear of the bus, Hermann forced his young striker to strip off his top and put on a thick sweatshirt. Pouting, Donovan muttered, "Man, I just got back here, and I'm already getting yelled at."
Hermann, a member of the first Leverkusen team to fight its way up into the Bundesliga, in 1979, treats his work as seriously as a surgeon. "Your body is your capital, and you have to do everything for it," he says. "That's why I told Landon that he has to wear an undershirt when it's cold. You must say, 'For 10 years I will do everything for football.' You must train hard, you have to eat the right foods, you have to watch games to learn tactics. You must only go to the disco when you are on holiday. You must blow-dry your hair so it isn't wet when you go outside."