LANDON DONOVAN: You can go home again

(From the April 25, 2005 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

It didn't take long for Landon Donovan to burn his bridges in Germany, yet he insists he left MLS in good faith and returned because Los Angeles made a lot more sense than Leverkusen. He explains why in an exclusive interview.

By Ridge Mahoney, Senior Editor

As much as he wanted it to happen, Landon Donovan's debut as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy triggered more unease and uncertainty than he'd felt in quite a while.

"I was nervous in a way I haven't been nervous before," said Donovan, who had sat out the season opener because of fatigue and a case of the flu, and thus got to start his second MLS stint at home with his friends and family in the stands. "I didn't know what to expect.
Usually I know what to expect in a game or in a situation, and this was completely different. I hadn't really trained all week, either, and I didn't know a lot of the players. It wasn't like being overly nervous for a World Cup game or something like that. I didn't know how to deal with it."

How did he deal with it? Try scoring a beauty in the ninth minute, and netting again just before halftime. Boisterous sellout crowd celebrates a 3-1 win, and all's right with his world.

Donovan's  move may not sit right with a lot of people. He's not concerned about them.

"You go back to what works and try to prepare like you do for every game," he says. "That keeps you from thinking too much and lets you play."

Not since former commissioner Doug Logan engineered the "re-allocation" of Colombian superstar Carlos Valderrama from Miami to Tampa Bay had there arose such a stench over a prominent player transaction. Dozens of stars had been traded for draft picks because of the salary cap, and international players had been signed amid fireworks only to be quietly waived, but nothing quite compared to America's young star coming home just four months after resolving to give it a real go in Europe four years after leaving Bayer Leverkusen the first time as a homesick 18-year-old.

LAST LEVERKUSEN DAYS. Looking back, Donovan has explanations as to why he rapidly became persona non grata at Bayer Leverkusen, which he joined in January to prepare for the second half of the Bundesliga season.

Leverkusen won four of the first five league matches, including a 2-0 win over Mainz that was his only start during that span. He quickly learned Coach Klaus Augenthaler had his own way of using his players, a much different approach than what Donovan had experienced with Frank Yallop in San Jose and Bruce Arena with the national team.

"The game I [started], we played really, really well," recalls Donovan of the match for which kicker magazine gave him a solid rating of 3 (on a scale of 1 being great and 6 the equivalent of a nightmare). "At that point, when he put Robson [Ponte] back in the starting lineup the following weekend I was a little disappointed, but I still thought, 'I've had one good game, that doesn't validate me starting.'

"But the next four or five games, we didn't play well, and he didn't change the lineup. Unless somebody got hurt, nothing changed, nobody got a chance. I just remember him constantly saying, 'We need to play like we did in the Mainz game,' which was the game that I played. I was thinking, 'Well, then, put the same team in.'"

It may be paranoia on Donovan's part, but he believes Augenthaler refused to give his team any real chance to overturn a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool in the second leg of their Champions League series.

Donovan and Brazilian Franca had come on midway in the second half of the first leg two weeks earlier, but had played sparingly since.
"Leading up to that game, three or four of us who started that game hadn't been playing more than 15 minutes in a game for a long time," says Donovan. "I remember thinking, 'I'm not going to be fit,' and that's one thing I rely on and is one of my strengths.

"I remember asking to stay after practice and do some running with one of the coaches, and they'd say, 'That's stupid, you get plenty of fitness during training and you'll be fine.' I'd think, 'Damn, that sucks.'

"We were excited to play the game, but we had no chance. The team we had against the team they had and the way we were playing, we had no chance. We had no excuse. We played terrible, and I'm the first to say I didn't play well. But one reason why Bruce is such a great coach is that he puts people in a position to succeed and this coach did the exact opposite. Bruce wouldn't throw someone into that game if they hadn't been prepared."

With Leverkusen trailing, 2-0, and thus in arrears, 5-1, on aggregate, Augenthaler yanked Donovan eight minutes into the second half. "It clearly wasn't a tactical decision," fumes Donovan. "It wouldn't have made any difference if he'd brought in the best striker in the world, and he brought in a right back." Regardless of his actual position, substitute Clemens Fritz isn't a goalscorer.

"To be made the scapegoat, 'This is all your fault type thing,' that really pissed me off," says Donovan.

Whether the system was too harsh, too European, or simply too cold-blooded, it didn't sit right with Donovan. Before he'd gone to Germany, MLS executives had made it clear he'd be welcomed back, speedily and gratefully, which is what happened. Nobody needed more than one guess to discern which team he'd like to join.

Bayer Leverkusen  announced that MLS paid 1 million euros (a shade less than $1.3 million); other reports put the figure as high as $4 million.

ALLOCATION CONFUSION. "As it stands today, it was a fairly simple decision," says Galaxy GM Doug Hamilton. "It happened very quickly, it wasn't much more than 10 days before the actual announcement. We recognized the moves we had to make to capitalize on the opportunity."

The final move was the Galaxy was swapping allocation slots with FC Dallas, which in exchange received Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, a player the team had tried to acquire in the past.

Months before, San Jose had received an allocation as compensation for losing Donovan, but had already used portions of that allocation in other transactions, which dropped it down the list.

If San Jose kept its allocation, it could have dickered and bickered for Donovan, yet that battle would have been a futile one, which mitigates somewhat the stigma that San Jose GM Alexi Lalas toed the AEG company line rather than put up a fight for the player that helped win a pair of league titles. The wheels were greased because agent Richard Motzkin represents both Donovan and Ruiz.

Donovan had played four seasons in Northern California yet had flown south as often as he could to be with his mom, his twin sister Tristan, and, most of all, his girlfriend, actress Bianca Kajlich.

"I was doing a ton of Sunday mornings after the game flying to L.A. or driving down after the game Saturday night to hang out with her," says Donovan. "We usually had Sunday and Monday off, so I'd come back up Monday night or even Tuesday morning before practice. It's tiring. Or she would drive or she would fly.

"Obviously there are a lot of reasons I want to be in L.A. and I know people look at it and go, 'God, what a jerk, he left San Jose for L.A., he thinks they're a better team, and all this crap.'

"Going to L.A. was a personal decision to stop all the jumping around from place to place all the time. It gets old, and I've done it long enough and I just didn't want to do it."

He's already bought Dodgers season tickets and plans on going to Laker games, "just as soon as they get good again."

MEMORIES OF SAN JOSE. "I gave everything I had there, I did everything anyone could ask of me, and then I turn around and say, 'I want to make a life decision to be with my family: my future wife, my sister, my mom, I want to be near them,' and all of a sudden, I'm just the most horrible person in the world," he says of how some Quake fans have reacted and what might greet him at Spartan Stadium when he plays there in a Galaxy uniform.

Dominic Kinnear was the assistant coach for Donovan's first three seasons in San Jose and the head coach last year. Kinnear grew up in Northern California and is haunted by the memories of his brother, who fell seriously ill while Kinnear was playing for Tampa Bay.

"It's strange to me how fickle people are," says Donovan. "I spoke to Dominic for a long time, which was something I really appreciated. He said, 'We had four great years together. That team went from five horrible years to four pretty-damn-good years, and people just throw it out the window and forget about it in maybe a week's time.' That's pretty sad.

"I'll know the people who are really good people, those are the people who will genuinely be happy that I'm happy. The people who can't see any deeper than me leaving will be idiots and be rude, and that's fine. Their true colors will show."
Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications