Friday, November 26, 2004
Landon Donovan is about show the world that he is worth all the hype that's been created around him since signing with German giants Bayer Leverkusen at 16, and winning the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Championships at 17.
MLS made the announcement official on both sides of the Atlantic last Tuesday, in a conference call where, and some may disagree, Donovan didn't exactly demonstrate how eager he is to rejoin Leverkusen by saying that he had been assured "that it is not prison I'm going back to" (Bonus!) and that he's now decided to go because he feels he should "fulfill the obligation of the contract I signed" (how noble of you, Lanny).
Comments like these certainly make me wonder where his advisors were.
How about an "I'm really looking forward to playing against some of the best players in the world for one of the most storied clubs in Germany," or an, "I really hope I'll be able to help this team in the Champions League."
No, the US golden boy just talks about his obligations and hoping to avoid incarceration.
Donovan's first stint at the German club began in the spring of 1999 when he joined Leverkusen, who had scouted him much more vigorously than any other club, shunning MLS, which he reportedly saw as inferior. Once there he found that he was not only no longer the best player on the field, he wasn't even the best on his team.
Though he worked hard on improving, Leverkusen saw him as having mixed loyalties as he spent weeks at a time with the U-17s, U-20s and Olympic squads and Bayer brass made it clear that until he could dedicate himself to their club, he was going to languish in the 3rd and 4th Bundesliga divisions.
Donovan was miserable and eventually worked out an unprecedented and never repeated "co-sharing agreement" (MLSish for loan) between Bayer and MLS and never hid the fact that he didn't like playing in Germany one bit.
As recently as prior to the 2002 World Cup he was rehashing his complaints that it was harder for him because he was American and that they wouldn't pass him the ball when he was open (he was a 16 year old rookie, and they wouldn't pass him the ball? Those cold blooded Germans...)
But that was a long time ago though, wasn't it?
One thing that US fans can attest to, is that Donovan is extremely honest - saying that he prefers to be in San Jose, he's proven himself on the world stage already, talking about his relationship with his sister. But it's these types of statements that are going to come back to haunt him in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Europe if he doesn't live up to expectations - and probably if he doesn't exceed them.
Reporters will have plenty to work with and are certainly going to goad him and try to create controversy. Leverkusen fans are going to be watching his every move - they've been waiting for him for two years and they know he didn't want to come back last time. With Leverkusen struggling in league play, the pressure on him to make a difference immediately is even greater.
Based on his comments Tuesday, I personally think that he would've stayed in San Jose (or at least avoided Germany if there were a means to do so), which is probably why it took MLS three weeks to confirm what Leverkusen had already officially announced just a week into November - that Donovan would be joining the German club in January.
Imagine now you are playing for Leverkusen and you've got the "best player in America" coming to your team, but you're getting the impression he doesn't even want to be there - while your club has bent over backwards to bring him. Players will know about the things he's said about his experience in Germany - that he didn't like it, refused Leverkusen's advances two years ago and hasn't exactly welcomed this "transfer" with open arms.
Physically Donovan certainly has the tools to succeed with just about any club in the world. He's also shown a tremendous growth as a player both mentally, no longer jawing with the referees or complaining until red in the face after every foul, and physically, single handedly taking over in games on the international level.
Perhaps Donovan has known all along what he wants to do and knows that now is the right time to make the leap across the pond. He may have a little leverage now with Leverkusen struggling at midtable due to their less than impressive midfield. To be fair, they are in the driver's seat to advance to the knockout stages of the Champion's League, but a little bit of creativity was exactly what they needed in their draw with Real Madrid this week.
I remember watching Donovan in the U-17 Championships in New Zealand in 1999 thinking, "This kid just does whatever he wants, when he wants."
He fed off of his own confidence and as he has done so with San Jose when he was given the reins to a team that was quite a force in MLS. If Leverkusen does the same, gives him some room to do what he is able to do, there is no question in my mind that he's going to be successful.
Now he just needs to work a bit on PR.