- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

HANNOVER, Germany — Landon Donovan has proved he is the class of Major League Soccer and the U.S. men’s soccer team. Proving he deserves to be world class will be much more difficult.

That means producing in the World Cup in Germany — the only stage left for the golden boy of American soccer to display his many talents. The United States takes on the second-ranked Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen today in its first game in Group E, a crucial match considering the United States faces Italy on Saturday.

“I believe Landon is a tremendously creative and special player, who can play anywhere in the world if he wanted to,” said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who is responsible for signing and trading the league’s players. “He’s not known about in other places. I think the 2002 World Cup got him a little bit more respect and if he can repeat that in 2006 he’ll elevate his status. But until people believe that MLS is one of the best leagues in the world, Landon can be as successful as he likes in MLS but won’t be viewed as one of the world’s star players. The only stage he’ll have to prove himself is the World Cup, and he’ll do that.”

When he wants to, Donovan, 24, can be brilliant and has the ability to change a game in one play. But he does occasionally drift and lose interest. That said, the Los Angeles Galaxy star always saves his best for the big games and there is no bigger game than today’s.

As a 20-year-old, Donovan scored two goals at the 2002 World Cup, including the insurance goal in the big 2-0 win over Mexico. Four years later, Donovan is America’s all-time assists leader, and he has scored 26 goals, putting him third behind Eric Wynalda and Brian McBride.

It would be hard to find another player Donovan’s age in the world with so much international experience — and he’s on track to become America’s greatest player ever.

“It’s my time now to rise to the occasion,” Donovan said. “I’ve had a little bit of a wake-up call. I realize this is my job and when I bring that attitude to the field, I can play very well.”

Donovan has much to prove in Germany, where he began his professional career with Bayer Leverkusen in 1999. At only 17, he was one of the youngest American players in history to sign a professional contract with an overseas club.

But after two tough years training with some of the best players in Germany, he never broke into the starting lineup. Soon, the Redlands, Calif., native became homesick.

Bayer loaned Donovan to the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS, where he blossomed, leading them to two MLS Cups. Bayer couldn’t help but notice the talent they owned and in 2005 ordered him to return.

Most American players would knock down doors to play in Europe at the highest level, but Donovan hated life in Germany and after just nine games was back in MLS — only this time with the Galaxy.

“As exciting as the day-to-day lifestyle of the European soccer player is, basically just day-to-day living stinks,” Donovan told MLSnet.com. “It’s miserable. And so it would never be worth it to me. We don’t have to deal with all the junk. We don’t deal with bad media, we don’t deal with over-the-top angry fans. We have a great place to play right here.”

Soccer purists were baffled by his actions but Donovan was happy, enjoying life on Manhattan Beach, Calif., with his fiancee, actress Bianca Kajlich, and earning $900,000. He led the Galaxy to win the 2005 MLS Cup.

But wins like that don’t make headlines in the world soccer press. Scoring a goal against the Czech Republic will.

Taking on the Czech Republic is no easy matter, with players such as Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros, Tomas Rosicky, and giant 6-foot-7 striker Jan Koller. There’s also the fact that the U.S. strikers have to get the ball past 6-foot-5 Petr Cech, who has helped Chelsea win two English titles and is arguably the best goalie in the world.

“Four years ago he was an excited kid going to the World Cup,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “This time around he is an experienced player who realizes the challenge of the World Cup and the responsibility he has now as a more senior player. We have to see if we can get a consistent performance out of him game in and game out for 90 minutes.”

The moment has arrived for Donovan. With the world watching, he can make a name for himself in Germany or continue to spend pleasant anonymity in sunny California.

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