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The Best Medicine To hasten his development, top young U.S. player Landon Donovan has swallowed the prescription to play for an aspirin company in Germany

April 17, 2000
April 17, 2000

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April 17, 2000

Golf Plus

The Best Medicine To hasten his development, top young U.S. player Landon Donovan has swallowed the prescription to play for an aspirin company in Germany

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.

This is an article from the April 17, 2000 issue Original Layout

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 funneled 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 Pele.

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 think 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."

Within Leverkusen's soccer combine, people characterize the
sport as a "hard business." The Bayer Leverkusen uniforms have
the word ASPIRIN printed across their chests, in homage to the
parent company's best-known product. Players are awarded bonuses
for games started, goals scored and wins; fines are levied for
even minor infractions. Few players on the regionalliga team
have lucrative contracts like Donovan's, so those extra payouts
matter. The competition for starting slots often rages so
intensely that practice injuries are commonplace. With
mantralike similarity the Leverkusen bosses point out that
Donovan is competing against grown men with families to feed.
Donovan's getting the same message from his father. "I always
try to drill into him that it's not a club team anymore," Tim
Donovan says. "Everyone's playing for money, and he's trying to
take away someone's job. Landon says, 'I know, I know,' but I
think it was hard for a 17-year-old to grasp."

Like Landon, fellow Leverkusen regionalliga player John
Thorrington left the States at 17, but at first he played for
the reserve team of powerhouse Manchester United. "In England
there weren't so many rules," says Thorrington, now 20, who
transferred to Leverkusen last year. "We were one big club,
training together, and the practices were less intense.
Afterward the younger players had to clean the first team's
shoes. And if the older players thought you were out of line,
they'd drag you into the steam baths and hold a 'court case' to
punish you." Such high jinks and camaraderie are unimaginable in
Germany, where soccer clubs have the hierarchy and stiff
professionalism of a Big Five accounting firm.

When Leverkusen made an offer to Donovan, his father pushed him
to accept it. "Landon had a chance to do exactly what I had
hoped to do," recalls Tim Donovan, a former semipro hockey
player who works for a pharmaceutical company in Nebraska, "but
I didn't have the ability or the talent." Not that Landon needed
much encouragement. He had wanted to play in Europe since he was
13. But his mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, a special-education
teacher, had hoped he would go to college--he earned a high
school GED, having missed most of his junior year to play with
the under-17 team--and she worried about his leaving home so
young.

By the standards of the soccer world Landon's age was no big
deal. On his regionalliga team, goalkeeper Romuald Peiser came
from Paris at 15, and dozens of young Africans play for Italian
teams every season. Even after Leverkusen offered enough
up-front money to establish Landon's college fund, Kenney-Cash
had her doubts. There were heated arguments at the dinner table.
Finally Landon's parents, who divorced when he was two years
old, agreed to let him go and to visit him for stretches as he
settled in. Today Donovan says his mom still wants him
Stateside. "It's hard on me and on his twin sister, Tristan,"
Kenney-Cash says, "and I worry he'll start to see soccer only as
a business. I still hope one day he doesn't tell me, 'Mom, you
shouldn't have let me go.'"

Donovan talks about having a life beyond soccer, but the sport
dominates his time. He goes out rarely and then only to a movie
or restaurant. He avoids all risk off the field. "I don't want
to put myself in a bad situation," he says. "What happens if I
drink a beer and become an alcoholic? What if I try something
else, and I like it? I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to
play professional soccer."

Despite his recent success, living in Germany remains hard for
Donovan. The language barrier walls him off from much of daily
life; his main friend in Germany is Thorrington, a fellow
Californian. But separation from his family has been the most
difficult, especially the distance from Tristan, who is a high
school senior. "She's everything to me," he says. "We talk two
or three times a week on the phone, but I think the more we
talk, the harder it is on her. When I go back to California, we
don't hang out as much as possible, just because we get too
attached. It makes it so much harder when I leave." Says
Tristan, "It's like missing a part of yourself." His phone bills
are in the high triple digits.

Emotionally it would have been far easier for Donovan to play
for a team in Major League Soccer, but both he and Thorrington
describe bypassing MLS as a no-brainer. The U.S. league is a
fledgling business in a marginal sport; the Bundesliga is the
central focus of an entire country's sporting passion. "Here we
get 8,000 people watching third-division games," says Thorrington.

Nevertheless, Donovan still struggles to get settled in Germany.
Less than a week after his hat trick against Essen he told
Hermann he felt worn-out and homesick. The team had a bye
weekend coming up, and other players were planning visits home.
Leverkusen shelled out for a plane ticket, and the next day
Donovan touched down in Southern California. There's more than
just expatriate blues at play here. The strain Donovan is under
is enormous, especially for a kid whose lifelong friends are
giddily preparing for prom night. "I wanted to chill out and see
my family," Donovan says. "I wanted to spend time just doing
whatever I wanted, not having a schedule. There have been times
in Germany, like when I wasn't playing, that I wanted to go home
the next day. But when I'm playing well, I can't imagine why I
would ever leave."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY NORBERT SCHMIDTCOLOR PHOTO: DANIEL MOTZ/MOTZ SPORTS GOLDEN BOY At the under-17 worlds in New Zealand, Donovan (10) was named outstanding player.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY NORBERT SCHMIDT BOOT CAMP In striving for a spot on Leverkusen's first-division club, Donovan (right foreground) has practiced harder than ever before.
"I'M NOT HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS," SAYS DONOVAN. "I'M HERE TO PLAY
PROFESSIONAL SOCCER"
DONOVAN HAS LEARNED TO DRIBBLE WITH HIS ELBOWS OUT, JABBING
OPPONENTS AS HE SPRINTS LANDON DONOVAN