In his prime John McEnroe never hit a truer half-volley. Late in
the first half of MLS Cup 2001 on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio,
19-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward Landon Donovan met a
wicked short-hopped cross precisely on the sweet spot of his
right foot. Suddenly the ball was in the back of the Los Angeles
Galaxy net. "It took a glorious bounce," Donovan said after his
brilliant play had set San Jose on course for a 2-1
come-from-behind victory in overtime. "It was one of those times
when you know you've hit it well." Said Earthquakes coach Frank
Yallop, "The last four goals Landon has scored have all been
The Earthquakes had a lot of heroes in their remarkable jump from
league doormats in 2000 to champions in '01. There was MLS
Defender of the Year Jeff Agoos, the only player in league
history to win four titles. There was defender Troy Dayak, who
returned from a career-threatening neck injury this season and
scored the walk-off header in a semifinal upset of the Miami
Fusion. Then there was substitute forward Dwayne DeRosario, whose
swerving golden goal on Sunday gave the championship to MLS's
most historically inept franchise.
Most of all, though, the 2001 MLS playoffs will be remembered as
the coming of age for Donovan. As recently as a year ago,
Donovan was carrying a teddy bear on road trips, and he didn't
even start on the U.S. under-23 team at the 2000 Olympics. After
joining MLS last March, however, he ditched the bear, earned a
starting spot on the senior national team and established
himself as the MVP of the MLS postseason, scoring five goals in
six games for the Earthquakes.
Did we mention that he's only 19? Or that he's American? "This
has been the best year of my life," Donovan said last week. "I
have grown so much from playing day in and day out."
Donovan is Exhibit A for MLS's value when it comes to developing
young U.S. players. In 1999 he signed a four-year, $400,000
contract with German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen, only to
be stuck playing on its reserve team in the fourth division.
Homesick and disillusioned by the German emphasis on toughness
over creativity, Donovan asked for a loan to MLS last spring. "I
wanted to get out of Germany so bad," Donovan says. "If I
weren't playing in MLS, I wouldn't be with the national team."
In the Americans' must-win World Cup qualifier against Jamaica on
Oct. 7, Donovan's penetrating run drew the berth-clinching
penalty kick during the waning moments of the game. Nobody has
observed his rapid ascent more closely than U.S. coach Bruce
Arena. "Going from 18 to 19 years old, you're going to change,"
Arena says. "Landon already had a terrific first touch and was a
good finisher, but what surprised me is how well he holds the
ball. He's stronger and wiser, and he's an outstanding passer.
He's dangerous every time he touches the ball."
Arena had a different impression of Donovan when he first saw
him play three years ago. During a scrimmage in Bradenton, Fla.,
between Donovan's U.S. under-17 team and Arena's D.C. United,
Donovan taunted the United players, who were in the process of
winning three of the first four MLS titles. "He was a punk,"
Arena recalls. "That was my first contact with him, so you say,
'Holy s---, the kid has some balls.' But he has matured. Now he
knows he can get his leg broken too."
That hasn't happened yet, though not from a lack of physical
play by opponents. Donovan absorbed 25 fouls in the playoffs,
more than any other player, and in the semis he turned the
top-seeded Fusion, the league's most skillful team, into a band
of Laimbeer-worthy hack artists. Miami drew one red card and
three yellows by systematically scything down Donovan. Then
there was the off-the-ball headbutt he took from Ian Woan and
the blatant kick in the shins from Ian Bishop. "I'd never seen
guys be that cheap and dirty before," Donovan says. "Everybody
plays harder in the postseason."
In other words Donovan is learning, and growing up--fast. Not
many 19-year-olds have their own car, their own apartment and
the pressure of being called the savior of American soccer. The
responsibility is exhilarating, but there's fear that Donovan
might become the oldest 20-year-old in the world. (In this
respect dying his hair an unfortunate shade of yellow seems to
have been a good thing.) Donovan's mother, Donna Kenney-Cash,
has noticed the differences between Landon and his twin sister,
Tristan, who still lives at the family's Redlands, Calif.,
house. "Landon's more like a 25- or 30-year-old," his mother
says, "while Tristan acts like any other kid her age. Sometimes
I wish he could have been naive just a little bit longer."
So much was going through Donovan's mind after the game on
Sunday. He was thinking of his brother, Josh, 22, who was set to
leave for South Carolina on Monday to enlist, hoping to become
an Army paratrooper. As Landon savored the MLS title in the back
corner of the Earthquakes' locker room, he couldn't help but
look forward to next June when, in all likelihood, he'll appear
on the biggest stage, a World Cup stadium in Japan or South
Korea. "I'm sure I'll dream about it in the off-season," he
said. "That's what I'll be working for."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN Donovan blossomed in the playoffs, scoring five goals in six games.