Beyond His Years At 22, forward Landon Donovan has gone from fresh-faced phenom to the grand old man of MLS

April 04, 2004

Two years ago, after he'd led the United States to its best World
Cup showing since 1930, San Jose Earthquakes forward Landon
Donovan returned to Major League Soccer as the league's most
recognizable star. A 20-year-old sensation who had two goals and
attacked defenses with artistic elan, he was the face of the
American game. Last November, Donovan burnished his reputation by
scoring twice and earning MVP honors in the Quakes' 4-2 MLS Cup
victory over the Chicago Fire, which gave San Jose its second
title in Donovan's three MLS seasons.

Things will change for Donovan and the league on Saturday, when
the Earthquakes open the season against D.C. United and
14-year-old Freddy Adu, who on the eve of his professional debut
is already the most famous player in the nine years of MLS. The
dawn of the Adu era, coupled with the departures to Europe of
such stars as Brian McBride, Clint Mathis and Tim Howard,
suddenly makes Donovan, at 22, the league's grand old man. "A
skeptic could look at it and say MLS has nothing else," says
Donovan. "But it's definitely a plus to have players go to
Europe. Hopefully, it will open the door for more new stars."

The league has proved capable of producing world-class talent.
MLS provided 11 of the 23 players on the '02 U.S. World Cup
squad, including Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who may be the
next star to cross the Atlantic. While Adu will attract most of
the attention this year, there are other young Americans ready to
make an impact. Foremost among them is Adu's United teammate
Bobby Convey, who was a 16-year-old rookie four years ago when he
was the youngest player ever signed by MLS. A playmaking
midfielder, Convey shone over the winter in international duty,
first for the U.S. at the World Youth Championship, and later for
the under-23 squad that failed to qualify for the Olympics.
Donovan, for his part, is extremely high on the potential of the
youngest member of that U-23 team: MetroStars midfielder Eddie
Gaven, 17, who scored just once in 12 games as a rookie last year
but created plenty of buzz. "His touch is incredible," says
Donovan. "Ask anybody around the league. He's fast, he's smart,
and he just works hard."

Convey, Gaven and Adu would do well to study the career of
Donovan, who was the wunderkind of U.S. soccer not so long ago.
At 16, as the most highly touted young player in the country, he
signed a four-year, $400,000 deal with Germany's Bayer
Leverkusen. There he languished in the reserves before asking for
a loan to MLS in the spring of 2001. (He's still on loan from the
club and recently asked MLS to buy out his contract.) Back home
at last, Donovan became an instant impact player, scoring seven
goals and leading San Jose to a championship. He was even better
during last season's title run, scoring a career-high 12 goals.
"Landon's best years are still ahead of him," says first-year
Earthquakes G.M. Alexi Lalas, himself once the face of American
soccer. "The mark of a star is the ability to be consistent and
live up to all the expectations. Landon's done that."

For all his success, however, Donovan has never experienced the
level of hype that surrounds Adu. While Freddy recently filmed a
commercial with Pele, Donovan has never met the Brazilian soccer
legend. "I'm a little jealous about that one," Donovan admits.
"But it's not at all frustrating. MLS needs to reach the people
who don't know who I am, and that's what Freddy's doing for us.
Because of him, there are a lot more people who know about MLS
this year. There's going to be a lot of people at our game who
have never been to a soccer game before."

It would be regrettable indeed if Donovan were overlooked during
all the Adu to-do on Saturday. The D.C. defenders certainly won't
make that mistake. "I would hope not, but if they do, they're
going to be surprised," says Donovan.

The same goes for everyone else.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN TODD ROLE MODEL Younger stars could do worse than to emulate Donovan, who has led the Quakes to two titles in three years. COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (INSET) [See caption above]

2004 Predictions

Eastern Conference Western Conference

1. Chicago Fire 1. San Jose Earthquakes
F Damani Ralph will challenge for Donovan and crew remain loaded
scoring title

2. New England Revolution 2. Los Angeles Galaxy
Budding star Pat Noonan will see New F Jovan Kirovski adds
time at left mid firepower

3. D.C. United 3. Dallas Burn
All hail Adu, Convey and the F Eddie Johnson's breakout year?
youth movement

4. MetroStars 4. Colorado Rapids
Coach Bob Bradley still searching Talented midfield offers hope
for right mix

5. Columbus Crew 5. Kansas City Wizards
Will miss McBride--and playoffs Preki's injury means slow start

Championship Game: Fire defeats Earthquakes