Monday, March 7, 2005
Wednesday night's Champions League is the perfect opportunity for Landon Donovan to show Leverkusen why they signed him six years ago.

Not only are defenders Jens Novotny and Roque Junior and Juan out with injury, midfielders Robson Ponte and Paul Freier will also miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.

All that makes it hard to imagine a scenario where Donovan doesn't get the start, though the California transplant isn't so sure.

"I'm done speculating," Donovan said following this past weekend's match against Hamburg. "Reading and hearing people say I should play and then I don't? I've never really been in this position before...well, it's been a long time."

He's probably wondering why his coach hasn't started him at least once in the last two games. With the all-important Champions League game just around the corner, any coach worth his salt would give his playmaker a chance to gel with his teammates, right?

Apparently not, as Klaus Augenthaler only gave Donovan 26 minutes in the two games preceding Wednesday night's match up between The Reds and Bayer 04.

Conjecture in the German press as late as Friday, had Donovan in the first eleven against Hamburg, yet he once again found himself on the bench to start the match and didn't make an appearance until the 79th minute.

Even without a looming Champions League game, Bayer's attack was so dismal, and so clearly lacking in creativity, it was truly puzzling to see Augenthaler make his creative midfielder his final substitute - as a third forward, no less.

If Augenthaler has a method to his madness, he isn't communicating it to Donovan.

I asked him myself after Saturday's match if fan and press speculation extended into the locker room. He just shook his head, shot me a look that told me I was asking a pretty silly question, and said, "No. Not at all."

But Germany can be a tough place for Americans to play when it comes to communication with the coaches.

Clint Mathis seemed to be in the dark as to why he wasn't playing even before the watch-tapping incident, and another player recently told me it was the one thing he would criticize his coach for - sentiments that Donovan echoed.

"That [lack of communication] is definitely part of the problem. In Germany, [the coach] just comes and puts a lineup on the board before the game and that's how you know who's playing," a clearly frustrated Donovan said.

Just a few weeks ago, Donovan wasn't necessarily happy with his situation at the German club, but certainly optimistic about his future. Understandably, he wanted to play more, but understood his place on the team.

"I'm playing a little bit. Hopefully soon I can start playing more, but the team's doing good, so I have to wait for my chance," the just turned 23 year-old said following the Nürnberg match.

In his start against Mainz, a match where less than three days prior he had played 90 minutes in 90 degree heat six times zones away, the young American showed superbly. A little bit of finishing from his talented forwards and Donovan would have come away with at least an assist and he was clearly enjoying his situation.

"It was great! It's fun to play with that team," he told YA after the game.

Four games later, however, it seems he's lost some of that enthusiasm and I don't blame him; he's earned his chance and it seems only forcing Augenthaler's hand is what going to get him on the field.

Ponte returned to the lineup following the Mainz match, and admittedly did quite well, assisting on three of the four Leverkusen goals.

But this came against bottom dweller Nürnberg, and since then, Ponte hasn't done anything that even his Dad would be proud of.

His play against Liverpool was anywhere from poor to horrendous - depending on which report you believe - whereas Donovan came in and changed the way the game was played - injecting some creativity into the lifeless Leverkusen attack.

Next up was VfB Stuttgart, where Ponte was once again ineffective. For the second consecutive game, Leverkusen was unable to score with the Brazilian running the show.

Donovan was subbed in the 75th and five minutes later assisted on Bayer's first goal. Two minutes after that he just might have been credited with another were it not for a superb save by Stuttgart keeper and heir apparent to Oliver Kahn, Timo Hildebrand.

The last three games, with Ponte running the show, Leverkusen has managed a grand total of zero goals, no wins and a tie.

It's time to try something new at Bayer, and Donovan has earned the opportunity.

It's not as if he should be treated with kid gloves.

Donovan has 58 international caps, 19 international goals, including two in the 2002 World Cup and has been named captain of the USMNT.

Donovan is by far the United States' most popular, and perhaps best ever, player, and it's easy to see why when you talk to him. He's often been criticized for being too sensitive, for wearing his heart on his sleeve - I've been guilty of rebuking him myself.

But I can tell you it's refreshing to talk to a player who speaks from the cuff, and the general impression you get from talking to him is that he's simply a really nice guy, who really, really wants to play.

Bruce Arena, who he loves playing for, has made him captain for a reason.

He's always one of the hardest workers on the field, he's mentally tough, and above all is capable of taking a game over when he's got something to prove.

Just ask Oliver Kahn. Or the country of Mexico.

If there's one thing that he might be justly criticized for, even by his own coaches, is that he's too unselfish.

"Yeah, everybody says that," he said after the Mainz game. But he added that, knowing it was his first game starting with his new team, he "didn't want to try to do too much."

A couple of games later, he had a chance take a shot himself, but had a teammate yelling for the ball, although he probably had a better shot. "Next time I'll probably shoot," he said in retrospect.

With motivation, and a little selfishness, I'm expecting a coming out party on Wednesday night.

He's earned a chance to display his wares. Let's hope that Augenthaler thinks so as well.

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