Connolly: Into the Great Unknown

if you were running that club and you saw him do what he did in the last World Cup would you allow him to stay in America? -- and the fact that he felt he had an obligation to them to give it another try in Germany, it's obviously more than that. While he did not want to come right out and say that he has accomplished everything he has wanted in MLS, we can say it for him. Two titles in four years. An MLS Cup MVP. An All-Star Game MVP. A spot on the Best XI in '03 that should have been followed by one in '04.

In that time he also became the definitive face in the league. And that's both in and out of the country. Back when the league started, and for many years following that inaugural season in 1996, Carlos Valderrama was the first name most people outside the U.S. brought up when MLS was mentioned. Go to a place like England nowadays and they won't bring up Carlos Ruiz, Amado Guevara or Joe Cannon. They'll say Donovan's name.

Same thing around CONCACAF. Whether it was the cab drivers, the hotel staff or a fan walking by, the people in places like Jamaica and Panama asked about Donovan before the most recent World Cup qualifiers. And when you couldn't read their newspapers because of the language, you could always find his name written out several times, usually accompanied with a picture or two.

One of the greatest compliments anyone could say about Donovan is that he doesn't need Germany. He doesn't need England or Spain or Italy, either. He's a young man more comfortable in his own skin and with his place in life than many who are twice and three times his age. Because of that, he felt content, even when fans everywhere kept saying he should be playing in Europe. Half the time, you could practically see him rolling his eyes.

"The gap is not as big as people perceive it is," said Donovan on Tuesday commenting on the difference in talent between the U.S. and the top leagues in Europe.

At the same time, playing in another league made him curious. Going to a different country to play in a new league with new players isn't as much a chance for him to better himself as a player, but a chance to see what is out there and to decide on his own -- not through anyone else's eyes -- whether it's better for him to be in Germany or back in his home state of California.

"I think it'll be good for me to have a new experience," he said.

His offseason will be a short one now. Rather than have about four months to get ready for another season in MLS, he has a little over a month before he heads to the Canary Islands on Jan. 3 to begin training with his new club. That's the part of it he seems to relish more than anything, as his recent trip to Germany opened his eyes to how Leverkusen plays.

"They're not the typical German team," he said. "They play attractive, good soccer."

With a roster that includes several foreign players such as Brazilian defender Roque Junior and Polish international Radoslaw Kaluzny, Leverkusen doesn't play in the rigid, direct manner that many teams in Germany are known to do. They also do not rely on behemoth midfielders and strikers, but rather smaller, more skillful players with creativity.

"I'll fit in very well," said Donovan.

With five wins and four draws in 14 matches, Leverkusen hasn't exactly torn up the Bundesliga this year. It currently sits in 11th place out of 18 teams. In addition to the Donovan news, Wednesday was a good day all around for the club as it tied Real Madrid in Champions League play. No matter how well Leverkusen was doing, it is now a much stronger side with Donovan aboard. His speed, passing ability, creativeness and vision is something that will serve him well in any system or in any league in the world.

"I think he will excel," said Kinnear.

Whether or not he takes the reins right away as an attacking midfielder, he can play most anywhere in the midfield and certainly as a striker.

"I'll play right back if I have to," joked Donovan.

That won't be the case, of course.

As the top player in the U.S., he's not going over there just to fit in and prove that another American can make it overseas. Everyone knows he can do that by now. It's now a question of whether he can truly prove himself as one of the best players in the world.

And only when he does that will we see him back in MLS.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs


To report a comment, mouseover or touch the comment and then click/touch the flag icon (Flag).