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U.S. under-17 men

Donovan sets sights high as budding star of American program.

By Gary Davidson
SoccerTimes

(Tuesday, March 9, 1999) -- Many young soccer players dream of some day representing the United States in the World Cup. Landon Donovan has set his sights a little higher.

"I want to win it," said the Redlands, Calif., resident who is the star striker of the American under-17 men's team.

If the United States develops many more talented teenagers such as Donovan, that goal might become a reality. He has scored 28 goals and added 13 assists in 31 matches for the under-17s, a performance that earned him a four-year contract with a two-year option with German powerhouse Bayer Leverkusen.

Both Donovan's talent and his youth were on display last month in Jamaica in the CONCACAF under-17 qualifying tournament. He scored three goals in the first two games, which set up a must-win match against Jamaica for the automatic berth in November's world championship in New Zealand.

With the scored tied at 0-0 in the final moments, he charged into Jamaica goalkeeper Allien Whittaker and was ejected with a red card. He will be suspended for the first leg of the two-match series against El Salvador, which will decide the final spot in the world championship.

"I was just frustrated; I made a stupid mistake," said Donovan, who turned 17 with his twin sister Tristan last Thursday. "The ball came to me and I headed it over the defender's head, but the goalie got there first. I was going for the ball, but I just stuck the goalie pretty good. I felt bad about it because I was so stupid, 'cause I didn't think about the El Salvador game."

When Donovan signed February 20 with Leverkusen, he became the youngest American player to be contracted to play in Europe. He would not discuss the financial details of his contract. He will start with the Bundesliga club's reserve team, as is customary for teen-aged talent.

"I've said it all along, Landon is a special player," U.S. under-17 coach John Ellinger said. "He just gets better and better. "He has all the physical tools. He's got speed and endurance. He doesn't have size, but he reads the game so well. He's a great finisher, sniffs out good opportunities from close range and can bang long-range goals. Part of Landon being a special player is he works really hard at being a student of the game. He studies tapes, he looks to see how he could have done something better . . . which I believe makes him unique for a 17-year-old.

"I've seen him, while dribbling a ball, pulling away from players who were trying to catch him. That was one of the first things we saw in him early on. There's one thing to have speed, it's another to be technically sound like he is."

Donovan left Redlands East Valley High School in the middle of his junior year to join the U.S. under-17s in full-time residency at the Bollettieri Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he and his teammates attend a local high school before training daily.

He credits his California Heat club coach Clint Greenwood with helping him develop into a top-flight player. "He taught me a ton about individual moves and a lot of different things about the game that helped me a lot," he said. "And when I made the national team, he helped me tremendously."

Donovan scored in his first match February 13, 1998, against Mexico. He calls his two goals in a come-from-behind 4-3 victory at Argentina his greatest thrill.

"I try to make a lot of runs and get into open spaces and create a lot of scoring chances," he said. "I'm not really like a target player because I'm not very big and I don't hold the ball as well as some of our other (under-17) forwards. But more I try to create."

He will go to Germany next month to find a place to live and must report to Leverkusen on July 1, though Ellinger said he will be released back to the United States for major matches and the world championship should the Americans qualify.

"I traveled a lot this last year with our national team, so I think I should be all right, but I'm sure I'll get homesick at times," Donovan said. "My German is horrible. I know about two words."

Her son being away from home -- now and in the future -- has caused considerable anxiety for his mother, Donna Kenney. "It's very difficult," she said. "It didn't come easily. We thought about it for a long time, but I support his decision. He's wanted to do this since he's about five years old. He could be good at probably anything he tried, but he's just loved soccer for ever and ever, and that's been his focus. He's a very talented individual."

At 5-foot-8 and 148 pounds, Donovan does not have the outward appearance of a great athlete, but those around him immediately recognize his talent, his intensity, and his focus. He's a leader on and off the field," said fellow forward Jordon Cila, who himself has fielded inquiries from Germany's Bayern Munich. "His personality carries onto the field, and he makes me a better player when I play with him. All the players on the team feel that way. He's very focused. He never stays up past curfew. He's always thinking about the game. His mind's never on anything else when we're in a major competition. He is quiet. He's never yelling. He's not that type of leader, but he sets an example for the rest of us."

Ellinger thinks with a good year at Leverkusen, Donovan could earn a spot on the U.S. under-23 team for the 2000 Olympics: "Who knows, maybe we'll see Landon and (U.S. national team striker Brian) McBride in 2002 (starting in the World Cup)."

Gary Davidson is managing editor of SoccerTimes and can be e-mailed at info@soccertimes.com.

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