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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:13 EST

Donovan's MLS career could be a short one

By David Satlin [ESPN International]

Let me preface this piece by saying that I have never met Landon Donovan. I actually have only seen him play a handful of games, all on television. Nevertheless, ever since this teenage phenom arrived on the youth international scene a couple of years ago, I have always kept an eye on his progress.

The main reason for my interest is personal. As a 1988 graduate of the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, I have been a fan of Landon for over 15 years. (Our senior class was the last to take the IAC soccer title, but I digress).

Landon Donovan was first called up to the National Team on June 13, 1999 for a friendly with Argentina, but he did not play.
As any alumni would, I have been very concerned with the development of Landon Donovan as a soccer player. I want what's best for Landon. So far, his progress has been staggering. At age 19, he has already played for and shown brilliance at the U-17, Olympic and National Team levels. His combination of skill, speed, thought process, confidence and willingness to attack and punish opponents is unmatched in American soccer.

This summer, Landon will lead the best crop of young Americans ever assembled into the World Youth Championships in Argentina, where the United States will be one of the favorites.

Of this crop of young Americans, Donovan has the biggest chance of making a difference at the 2002 World Cup. While Landon has not been able to translate international success into success at Bayer Leverkusen just yet, there is no sign that he is just another Jovan Kirovski. This California kid is special.

That is why I was very concerned when it was announced last month that Landon would be joining the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer for at least two seasons. The benefit for MLS is obvious. In Bobby Convey, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, MLS has three of America's brightest young stars under contract. In Donovan, they have a player who turns people's heads, who has a stylish look and attitude that should be a marketer's dream.

But what's in this deal for Landon?

One of the reasons Landon has decided to come to MLS is that he will actually get to play in real matches. At Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan was stuck in the reserve team playing lower division matches. U.S. National Team Coach Bruce Arena has always supported American players moving abroad with the stipulation that they were playing on a regular basis.

In MLS, Donovan would be given the opportunity to play on a regular basis. But does he gain much? Is there a coach that will teach him the nuances of the game that will lift his play to the next level? Is there a forward on the San Jose squad who will take Landon under his wing and teach him to be a professional? The answer to all three questions - No.

Landon Donovan needs to be playing first division football in Europe. End of story. He needs that competitive atmosphere that is unmatched here in the United States.

Take the case of former D.C. United midfielder/forward Tony Sanneh. Sanneh, who was not known for his world class ability during his MLS days, left United three years ago to join Hertha Berlin of the Bundesliga.

Sanneh has not been a dominant player in Berlin. He starts some games, comes off the bench in others and is dropped from the squad on occasion. Sanneh made only five appearances in Germany in his first season, 15 in his second. Despite the lack of playing time, the competitive atmosphere of the Bundesliga has made Sanneh a better player. He has since come back to the national team and played in a variety positions under Bruce Arena, including right back. He has also shown a class and skill that was not in his game three years ago. Despite a lack of playing time, Sanneh's move to Germany has been relatively successful.

In his current situation, Landon Donovan will likely play less than 20 MLS regular season matches this year, hardly what one would call a full club season. Commitments to the U-20 and national team will limit his time with San Jose. The MLS season does not start again until next April.

In this scenario, Donovan and his MLS teammates will be on a five-month winter break and will struggle to get fit and recapture the competitiveness needed at a World Cup that begins at the end of May. Next summer, Donovan (assuming he makes the World Cup squad) will miss at least six weeks of action which will also limit his commitment to MLS to around 20 games.

San Jose and Leverkusen will attempt to arrange a loan deal for Donovan once the MLS season is over. The question remains - what club is going to want Donovan in September? Most European seasons start in August and most clubs make their moves during the summer or during a winter transfer window that doesn't begin until December. If a midseason loan takes place, a player (especially an American) faces an uphill battle to earn playing time.

If a loan is not secured, one of America's brightest young stars will be sitting on his rear for five of the nine months prior to a World Cup, which is not an ideal situation for a player who needs quality competition at this age. (A good friend of mine pointed out that if the E-Quakes make a run to the MLS Cup, that will allow Landon to play through October. Then, San Jose will be obliged to respond to their worldwide following and take a three-month World tour of Asia, South America and Europe. If this is the case, then I stand corrected.)

If Landon had returned to Europe this summer, his national team and U-20 performances could have attracted the interest of some Bundesliga clubs. Given the modern-day turnover every summer in most clubs, perhaps Donovan would have had a legitimate chance this season at Leverkusen. Donovan was very close to making the first team at Leverkusen last season. Leverkusen is not a na´ve club. It didn't sign Landon Donovan to a four-year deal if it didn't think that he had some promise and value.

Furthermore, the competitive atmosphere at Leverkusen for playing time will undoubtedly make Donovan a better player. I would love to see Landon fight this summer for a first team spot at Leverkusen. (I even played JV soccer at Landon before earning all-League honors my senior year, but I digress)

Instead, Landon signed a deal with MLS. A deal that will only see him play a maximum of 20 games this season. If the Vegas Over-Under for career MLS games for Landon Donovan is 35, I'm putting my money and my hopes on the under.

Go Landon.

Burning questions for ... Brandi Chastain

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