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Nike intervention heats up negotiations for move of Donovan to United States.

By Christopher Courtney
Special to SoccerTimes

Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan
LEVERKUSEN, Germany (Saturday, February 24, 2001) -- Major League Soccerís chances of acquiring the services of young United States national-team standout striker Landon Donovan have improved greatly now that deep-pocketed apparel maker Nike has entered into the negotiations.

Bayer Leverkusenís general manager Rainer Calmund has talked to MLS and Nike and is expected in Columbus, Ohio, prior to Wednesdayís U.S. World Cup qualifier with Mexico to continue the discussions. A large transfer fee -- possibly as much as $4 million -- much of it coming from Nike -- is at the center of the negotiation in which MLS would buy Donovanís contract from the German Bundesliga team.

"All in all this is quite a different situation now that U.S. sportswear maker Nike is involved in the deal," Calmund told a SoccerTimes source.

Donovan, who turns 19 on March 4, has two-and-a-half years left to go on the deal he signed with Leverkusen in February, 1999. He is unhappy there because he has not been able to work his way onto the star-studded full team, and has been mostly limited to the reserve side. His contract prohibits Leverkusen from lending him out to a lower-division German team, a standard practice with young players trying to work their way up through the ranks.

"Iím a soccer player and all soccer players are unhappy when they are not playing," Donovan said recently.

Leverkusen, believing part of Donovanís problem is homesickness, tried to lend the teenager to MLS for the next two American seasons, reasoning that he would return a more mature player. The U.S. league, however, has a policy of owning the contracts of all its players.

At first, Leverkusen did not want to give up a player with so much potential, but after meeting with Donovan and his agent when the player returned to Germany after recent friendlies against China and Colombia, the club reportedly came to the conclusion that short of guaranteeing Donovan a place in the starting lineup, the situation was not going to work out to either partyís satisfaction.

So, Leverkusen told MLS last week it was willing to talk a sale of Donovanís contract, but there was no way that cash-strapped MLS could meet the German teamís demands without the intervention of an outside party, such as Nike.

Donovan has a long-term endorsement deal with Nike, which would like to get more exposure for its investment. So reportedly, the Oregon-based company offered to underwrite a large portion of the transfer fee.

Leverkusen is reportedly also asking for an agreement with MLS that the Bundesliga club will be granted right of first refusal within the league to any player under MLS contract who wants to move to Germany.

A further complication exists. Donovan has stated if he returned to MLS, he wants to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, having grown up in nearby Redlands. Under the leagueís complex allocation rules, the San Jose Earthquakes believe they are owed the next allocated player, therefore they would be entitled to Donovan.

A trade would have to be worked out, leaving the question of how much the Galaxy would be willing to give up. Last year, the team gave up three starters to acquire Mexican star striker Luis Hernandez, who demanded to play in L.A. Many who work in the organization, and quite a few fans believe the price, which included sending rising American standout midfielder\striker Clint Mathis to the MetroStars, was too high.

Then there is MLSís contract standoff with the Galaxyís popular attacker Cobi Jones who has not signed for the coming season and is trying to catch on in Europe. If Jones is not re-signed, Los Angeles might argue it is owed an immediate allocation to replace him.

Apparently, Bayer Leverkusen is also interested in selling the contract of its other American, midfielder Frankie Hedjuk, who is disappointed about his failure to make the first team and has a wife and child who currently reside in the States. Whether that sale would be to another German or European club, or to MLS is a matter that has not yet been determined.

Christopher Courtney is an American living in Wuerzburg, Germany, where he follows the fortunes of American players in Europe. He can be e-mailed at yanksgermany@yahoo.com.

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