In his prime John McEnroe never hit a truer half-volley. Late in the first half of MLS Cup 2001 on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, 19-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward Landon Donovan met a wicked short-hopped cross precisely on the sweet spot of his right foot. Suddenly the ball was in the back of the Los Angeles Galaxy net. "It took a glorious bounce," Donovan said after his brilliant play had set San Jose on course for a 2-1 come-from-behind victory in overtime. "It was one of those times when you know you've hit it well." Said Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop, "The last four goals Landon has scored have all been world-class."
The Earthquakes had a lot of heroes in their remarkable jump from league doormats in 2000 to champions in '01. There was MLS Defender of the Year Jeff Agoos, the only player in league history to win four titles. There was defender Troy Dayak, who returned from a career-threatening neck injury this season and scored the walk-off header in a semifinal upset of the Miami Fusion. Then there was substitute forward Dwayne DeRosario, whose swerving golden goal on Sunday gave the championship to MLS's most historically inept franchise.
Most of all, though, the 2001 MLS playoffs will be remembered as the coming of age for Donovan. As recently as a year ago, Donovan was carrying a teddy bear on road trips, and he didn't even start on the U.S. under-23 team at the 2000 Olympics. After joining MLS last March, however, he ditched the bear, earned a starting spot on the senior national team and established himself as the MVP of the MLS postseason, scoring five goals in six games for the Earthquakes.
Did we mention that he's only 19? Or that he's American? "This has been the best year of my life," Donovan said last week. "I have grown so much from playing day in and day out."
Donovan is Exhibit A for MLS's value when it comes to developing young U.S. players. In 1999 he signed a four-year, $400,000 contract with German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen, only to be stuck playing on its reserve team in the fourth division. Homesick and disillusioned by the German emphasis on toughness over creativity, Donovan asked for a loan to MLS last spring. "I wanted to get out of Germany so bad," Donovan says. "If I weren't playing in MLS, I wouldn't be with the national team."
In the Americans' must-win World Cup qualifier against Jamaica on Oct. 7, Donovan's penetrating run drew the berth-clinching penalty kick during the waning moments of the game. Nobody has observed his rapid ascent more closely than U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "Going from 18 to 19 years old, you're going to change," Arena says. "Landon already had a terrific first touch and was a good finisher, but what surprised me is how well he holds the ball. He's stronger and wiser, and he's an outstanding passer. He's dangerous every time he touches the ball."
Arena had a different impression of Donovan when he first saw him play three years ago. During a scrimmage in Braden-ton, Fla., between Donovan's U.S. under-17 team and Arena's D.C. United, Donovan taunted the United players, who were in the process of winning three of the first four MLS titles. "He was a punk," Arena recalls. "That was my first contact with him, so you say, 'Holy s—-, the lad has some balls.' But he has matured. Now he knows he can get his leg broken too."
That hasn't happened yet, though not from a lack of physical play by opponents. Donovan absorbed 25 fouls in the playoffs, more than any other player, and in the semis he turned the top-seeded Fusion, the league's most skillful team, into a band of Laimbeer-worthy hack artists. Miami drew one red card and three yellows by systematically scything down Donovan. Then there was the off-the-ball headbutt he took from Ian Woan and the blatant kick in the shins from Ian Bishop. "I'd never seen guys be that cheap and dirty before," Donovan says. "Everybody plays harder in the postseason."
In other words Donovan is learning, and growing up—fast. Not many 19-year-olds have their own car, their own apartment and the pressure of being called the savior of American soccer. The responsibility is exhilarating, but there's fear that Donovan might become the oldest 20-year-old in the world. (In this respect dying his hair an unfortunate shade of yellow seems to have been a good thing.) Donovan's mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, has noticed the differences between Landon and his twin sister, Tristan, who still lives at the family's Redlands, Calif., house. "Landon's more like a 25-or 30-year-old," his mother says, "while Tristan acts like any other kid her age. Sometimes I wish he could have been naive just a little bit longer."
So much was going through Donovan's mind after the game on Sunday. He was thinking of his brother, Josh, 22, who was set to leave for South Carolina on Monday to enlist, hoping to become an Army paratrooper. As Landon savored the MLS title in the back corner of the Earthquakes' locker room, he couldn't help but look forward to next June when, in all likelihood, he'll appear on the biggest stage, a World Cup stadium in Japan or South Korea. "I'm sure I'll dream about it in the off-season," he said. "That's what I'll be working for."