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American soccer star Donovan on pace for stardom in Europe

BERLIN—The buildup has been decades in the making, but American soccer has arrived in Europe—in the form of Landon Donovan, a 22-year-old Californian with surfer looks and quick feet, who joined his new German team, Bayer Leverkusen, this week.

Donovan, from Redlands, Calif., is hardly the first American to play professional soccer in Europe, but he's the first expected to become a star.

"It is dangerous to ask so much of a young man so soon," says Frank Lussem, one of Germany's top sports writers. "Still, the expectation is simple: He is expected to be an international star."

Explains U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman Jim Moorhouse, "He's young, his best is yet to come and no one here has any doubts that his best will place him among the best in the world."

Donovan is seen here as a piece of what Europeans believe is an increasingly tasty pie of American soccer.

In all, more than 100 Americans play professionally in Europe—23 in top leagues—and they're attracting attention.

Last weekend, nine Americans started for their teams in the English FA Cup—the world's most prestigious national soccer tournament. Two of them, goalkeeper Tim Howard, of North Brunswick, N.J., and defender Jonathan Spector, from Chicago, played for Manchester United, the world's best-known and richest sports team.

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Kevin McCarra, who covers soccer for the British newspaper The Guardian, said that a decade ago, American players were novelties who weren't taken seriously.

"Back in 1993, the English national team lost to the United States (2-0), and it caused an immediate cry for the manager to be fired," he said. "Today, it wouldn't be such a shock. It's clear that Americans get it."

Vincent Okker, writer for Voetbal International, the top soccer magazine in the Netherlands, calls the United States "the new market for clubs. Very talented players, very good players, and, because you're new at it, very inexpensive players."

Time and again, experts talk about Americans as "intense," "hardworking," "meticulous" and "very serious about sports."

Legendary Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson (knighted for his coaching abilities) called it "that American thing" and "a fierce will to win."

Americans have built solid careers. Manchester's Howard and Brad Friedel of the Blackburn team in England, who hails from Bay Village, Ohio, have both been named goalkeeper of the year in England, last year for Howard and the year before for Friedel. In Germany this week, Steve Cherundulo of Hannover, from Rockford, Ill., was picked as one of six "defenders to watch."

Others have won notoriety. In Norway, Robbie Russell, from Amherst, Mass., was the subject of racist taunting and took a stand against it. Less honorably in Germany, Clint Mathis, of Conyers, Ga., angry at a coach for not playing him more, celebrated a goal by grabbing his crotch and pointing at his watch (which is simply not done in Germany).

But for a breakthrough player, people look to Donovan.

He first signed with Bayer Leverkusen—a traditional power in German soccer—in 1999, when he was 17. They loaned him back to Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes to develop as a player.

In San Jose, he twice led his team to championships, played for the U.S. team in the 2002 World Cup and for the past two years has been picked as the Chevy Athlete of the Year in U.S. men's soccer.

Donovan scored two goals for the national team in the 2002 World Cup, but perhaps is best remembered for missing a shot by inches after slipping the ball between a German defender's legs in the United States' 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals.

He joins his new team, Leverkusen, in mid-season. Leverkusen is in eighth place of 18 teams in the German Bundesliga league, but among the final 16 teams in the elite all-Europe Champions' League tournament. (Already four Americans have played in the tournament this year.)

Observers expect him to nudge a Brazilian from the starting lineup as the team's "number 10," or center midfielder, a position that makes the offense work.

Team officials won't talk much about what's to come, because they say they don't want to put pressure on a 22-year-old.

"He's our player and will be for a long time," says spokesman Ulrich Dost. "We will have to wait for the games to see what he can do."

But Kicker magazine's Lussem is less reserved. "I knew him when he was here before, when he was a shy child," he said. "He has changed. He knows he is a star now."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

Landon Donovan

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOCCER

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