He's Just What MLS Needs

A sporting event can be made great by loud, enthusiastic fans and even a single, mesmerizing player.

The 2001 Major League Soccer championship game Sunday between the Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes was pepped up considerably by a group of noisy, rude Chicago Fire fans who apparently made the five-hour drive from home for the sole purpose of hooting at the Galaxy.

"No way, L.A. No way, L.A." Maybe 100 people wearing Fire red filled Columbus Crew Stadium with their voices and drums. "Anybody but L.A., anybody but L.A."

And, "L.A., L.A., you'll never win the Cup. L.A., L.A., you'll never win the Cup." You had to laugh, finally, at the unstoppable determination of this group of beer-drinking, scarf-waving, drum-beating goofs.

They provided atmosphere. And they were right. The Galaxy is now 0 for 3 in MLS championship games. San Jose won, 2-1, in overtime, and Coach Sigi Schmid and his players were glum. The Chicago fans were exuberant.

So was Landon Donovan.

He is 19, still a kid from Redlands, Calif., and that was obvious by the way Donovan rolled around in the grass, as if he were a puppy scratching his back when nothing else in the world feels so good. His hair is tinted alternately platinum and black which makes it easy to spot Donovan on a field.

And it takes only a minute or two to realize that an entire soccer game spent focusing only on Donovan would not be a disappointment.

San Jose Coach Frank Yallop, who signed his first professional contract for Ipswich Town FC in his native England when he was 16, said that after coaching Donovan for a season: "I realize that he is great with both feet, that he is extremely quick, that he has a sharp, sharp brain." Yallop interrupted one answer in the post-match news conference to point out that, "Landon's last four goals [all in the playoffs] have been world-class goals."

For these reasons and many more, there was nothing more fun than watching Donovan Sunday.

After the Galaxy scored the game's first goal, it was Donovan who answered. Most of the 21,626 spectators sucked in their collective breath with amazement more than they cheered when Donovan made the ball explode across his body and into the Galaxy net. The ball left Donovan's leg as a home run leaves Barry Bonds' bat--quickly and with a monstrous oomph.

Appearing out of nowhere to accept a pass, Donovan flicked his leg so quickly and effectively, back and forth, so fast, so cruel.

Sometimes life can seem that way too. When he was 16, Donovan signed a professional contract with Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga.

It was a big deal.

Donovan was heralded as the future star of U.S. soccer. His future was going to be nothing but winning and starring in international competition, in the Olympics, in the World Cup.

Finally, the U.S. had a homegrown soccer superstar.

Then Donovan went to Germany. He practiced. Hard. He learned. A lot. And when the games came, Donovan sat and watched. He was young. He was American. He was inexperienced. He was also impatient.

This year Donovan, after some stomach-churning sleepless nights, decided to ask Leverkusen to allow him to come home and play for MLS. If the MLS competition wasn't as good as in the Bundesliga's, it was still competition in which Donovan could participate.

"After all the thinking and debating," Donovan said Sunday, "it just came down to one thing. I wanted to play."

And play he has. The Earthquakes were the worst team in MLS last year. With Donovan, San Jose won the title. Nothing is that simple. Yallop is a first-year coach too, and there was consensus in the Earthquake locker room that Yallop brought both enthusiasm and good strategy to the team. He also had Donovan.

Paul Caligiuri, the 37-year-old Galaxy defender who played in his last MLS game before retiring to coach at Cal Poly Pomona, spoke with great respect and heartfelt joy about Donovan.

Caligiuri, born in Westminster and a star at UCLA, said it made him proud to watch Donovan.

"Landon was one of the great attributes to the league," Caligiuri said. "I know he has many more dreams and ambitions. He wears No. 20 for the national team. I wore No. 20, and that number couldn't go to a better player. I'm sorry we lost today, but on the other hand I enjoy watching the great success of a young player like Landon Donovan."

Having abandoned the Bundesliga for this year, Donovan said, he had made up his mind to improve as a player and have fun.

"I think I've done both," Donovan said. He shared the victory with his twin sister, Tristan, and his father, Tim, who came from Lincoln, Neb. Donovan's mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, and his older brother, Joshua, were home near Fontana. Joshua, who taught Landon soccer, joined the army and is being shipped out today. "I told my mom she could watch the game on TV and she should be with Josh," Donovan said.

His father was beaming in the locker room, accepting congratulations and saying how someday soon Landon will go back to Europe and "show them how good he is."

Landon stood across the room with his sister. He was sneaking a look at a beer but not tasting. His grin couldn't have been bigger. He had beat L.A. The Chicago fans thank Donovan.


Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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