The Cheap Seats: Comeback kid

and yes, a German winter is like purgatory -- just to appease me or any other jackass with a laptop. He just has to live his life the best way he sees fit.

Obviously, in Germany, he didn't fit. Deutschland was hell. Donovan was unhappy, miserable, and homesick for California. From my sun-starved vantage point, that's understandable. No one's getting a tan in Leverkusen these days. They're just drinking beer and growing cheesy moustaches to keep their stiff upper lips warm.

Most important, Donovan missed his family and his girlfriend. That might make him sound like someone in a Night Ranger song, but for Donovan, it's all about his comfort level. When he's comfortable, he plays well. When he plays well, the national team is better. Just look at how he took over the Mexico match last weekend for 15 minutes, leading to Eddie Lewis's goal, or when he conjured up that feathery flick to set up Ed Johnson for the first goal against Guatemala.

Lest anyone starts to get crazy from the heat, I'll restate the obvious: Donovan is still our nation's best soccer player. Before you start saying how Donovan couldn't hack it on the big stage of Germany, just remember his dominating World Cup 2002 performance. Does it get any more "Big Stage" than that? In the immortal words of Derek Smalls (sort of): "You can get none more big."

Obviously, considering his AYSO-level performance against Liverpool in the Champions League a while back, being at Leverkusen wasn't helping Donovan's game any. And that's what it's all about: Improving. Particularly, improving the U.S. national team. That's the reason any of this -- MLS, USL, Project 2010 (whatever happened to that?), ODP, US Soccer, AYSO, even all us journalists who can't make a 10-yard square pass anymore -- everyone is keeping his eyes on the prize. I hope they are.

Some critics don't care about that, though. They'll claim he has no "moxie" and lacks the competitive fire of the immortals like Michael Jordan or Ayrton Senna, who lived only to test the limits of their abilities.

And to some extent, those critics would be right. But that's not how Donovan wants to go down. He's not willing to sacrifice his personal happiness just to prove to some schmo in Connecticut that he's a great soccer player.

At least, he's not willing to do that now. Let's remember, Donovan is only 23. Sure, compared to the MLS toddler brigade with the likes of Freddy Adu and Nik Besagno, Donovan is eligible for his AARP card. But, on a global level, 23 years old is still a baby. Who's to say he won't put on a clinic at next year's World Cup and then put on another clinic at the 2010 World Cup, and then, at the ripe old age of 28 and armed with three World Cups and 10 years of MLS experience, he'll finally be ready to go, see, and conquer over there?

Of course, by then, maybe it won't be necessary for U.S. players to go abroad to prove themselves. That's the other side of the Landon Situation: A world-class player says he believes in MLS and he believes in MLS's ability to produce the type of high-level competition he needed to stay sharp for national team games. Like Greg Vanney did last week, Donovan is making a statement about MLS, one that bodes well on the eve of the league's 10th season.

Did Landon Donovan cop out? Sure. Did he make the right decision to come back? Of course. How he reconciles that paradox will determine how history remembers him.

But history will remember him very well if he plays this season like it's his rookie year. Prove to all the blowhard American Eurocentric soccer freaks that Europe isn't the right place for everyone. Have a standout year with the Galaxy. Show up every game, every minute, something he didn't do his last season with San Jose. And, finally, lead the U.S. national team back to next year's World Cup -- which, may I remind you, is back in Donovan's oh-so-beloved Germany. Fate sure is twisted, isn't it?

***

Speaking of Greg Vanney, he contacted me this week after reading last week's View about his return to MLS. I mentioned his lack of playing time at Bastia in France, but he wanted to set the record straight. He said he started 17 of 19 games in the first half of this season, and made 51 starts in his first two years there, before the knee injury that also forced him out of the 2002 World Cup team.

So I asked him why he came back. He said he wanted to stay in Europe but that the right situation for him and his family ended up materializing in MLS. I appreciated Vanney's honesty. He was cool, mellow, and just wanted to talk with me. He wasn't contentious, and in fact was very respectful. Why? No clue. But I will always respect a player who is willing to discuss an article. And I will always root for a player like that. Good luck, Greg.

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at cheapseats@g73.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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