18-year-old American phenom learns about much more than soccer in Germany
Landon Donovan expected to get an education in Germany. He just thought it was going to be about soccer.
And, to be sure, the 18-year-old Californian has refined his game during 15 months on Bayer Leverkusen's books. He is, he informs, a much more potent finisher, stronger on the ball, a far better defender with a growing tactical awareness.
Those kind of lessons come easy, but soccer has always come easy for Donovan, the most highly regarded American teen since Claudio Reyna. His prodigious gifts have been rewarded with the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup, a role with the U.S. U-23 team that qualified in April for the Sydney Olympics, and a four-year, $400,000 contract with one of Germany's best clubs before his 17th birthday.
No regrets, he says, for trading his last year and a half of high school for life as a professional, it's just not quite what he expected it to be. The soccer, of course, is wonderful, but everything else ù living on your own, petty clubhouse jealousies, soccer as business, adapting to a culture he's only beginning to understand ù can't be handled with a nifty through ball or a volley from the top of the box.
SPEEDY MATURATION. So, while soccer has become Donovan's profession, his primary job in Germany has been growing up.
"I've become an adult pretty quickly since I've been here, but I don't know, I'm still a kid at heart," says Donovan, who is playing for Leverkusen's reserve team in the Third Division. "I've just been thrown into a lot of things most 18-year-olds aren't."
His mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, isn't certain it has been for the best. She had held fast for a year before allowing her son to follow his dream halfway around the world.
"I have a lot of regrets," she says. "I didn't want him to go over to begin with. ... I'm not real concerned with him living over there, about his safety ù I've known for awhile he could live independently. It's more about his feelings of homesickness. I'm more concerned about his emotional health, not having enough friends, missing home."
Donovan does miss home, especially misses his twin sister, Tristan, "the only person who knows me for who I am." His phone bills home ù and to Nebraska, to his father, Tim Donovan ù are astronomical.
OFF-FIELD BLUES. Donovan doesn't have much to do away from the field. U-23 teammate John Thorrington, also at Leverkusen, is his closest friend, but Donovan has little in common with older teammates or German teens.
"There's not a whole lot to do," he says. "It's boring."
Life was bleakest before he began playing regularly for the reserves, after winter break. He was miserable.
"Pretty much the funnest part of being here is the soccer," he says. "When I'm not playing, I'm not like the other kids here, who go home to their families every weekend. If they're not playing, it's not a big deal. I have nothing else here."
Donovan's team hasn't fared well this season. It's 16th among 18 teams is the West-Sudwest Regionalliga, one of four regional leagues that make up the German Third Division, and set for relegation. He has played well at forward, in attacking midfield or sometimes wide, and he had a hat trick against Rot-Weiss Essen. He expects to be working out with the first team next fall.
"I'm not expecting to make the roster, by any means," he says, "but if I make the roster, and I play well, and I get in the 18, you never know what can happen."
It's that goal that has driven him through the tough times, but sometimes even the soccer isn't enjoyable. Donovan, the laid-back Californian, has bristled under the regimen of Teutonic existence, and his initial insight into the business of sport has left a bad impression.
"There's a lot of stuff I see about soccer now, and I don't like it," he says. "Soccer is a game, a fun game ù that's all it is. ... If you let the reality of the business side get to you, it can turn you, and that's not good at all. You have to keep your head, realize it's a game, realize why you started playing originally."
TARDINESS COSTS. He's also not so enamored with the German style.
"It's nothing like I've been used to ù the people are, like, totally different, a lot more strict in everything they do," Donovan says. "Everyone works hard, you always have to be doing something useful. ...
"[In the U.S.] if you're five minutes late [to practice], it's not a big deal, and the coaches are a lot more carefree, and there's not much pressure on players, and you want to play for the coaches. And in Germany, you're 30 seconds late and they have fines you have to pay. You're in trouble, you have to sit the next week. It's so stressful ù there's so much pressure on you that you have to concentrate on other things besides the soccer, and sometimes it's not good.
"I play a lot better when I'm relaxed, when the coach is laughing with me, making me feel good. Not when ù if I have a lot of pressure on me, I'm not going to play as well as if I'm relaxed."
The attitude, he says, also permeates German life, and he's started to see it in certain things he does. "I don't know if that's good or bad," he says, "it's just hard to take a step back and say, 'I've got to relax a little, stop being like these people.'
"It's intense, and it's good for me in soccer ways, but I don't know how good it is for me off the field."
Landon's father sees the changes in his son's game, how much stronger he is, how he's "more apt to go for a 1-on-1, where in the past he'd sit back and wait for it." Unlike his ex-wife, he has no regrets. But that comes with a caveat.
"I don't know that he's really happy there," Tim Donovan says. "Obviously, he's getting a good education, a good soccer education."
by Soccer America senior editor Scott French