two years later -- brought this young talent to the Bay Area good things have happened, mainly because Donovan made them happen.
A good support system -- which involves the front office as well as the coaching staff -- has allowed Landon Donovan to take full advantage of the opportunity MLS has given him. But with a lot of time left on his contract with Bayer Leverkusen and no time left on the loan deal that has allowed him to play in MLS for the past four years, it looks as if Donovan might be obligated to take his game elsewhere and this year could be the last chance MLS fans and American fans alike get to see the best U.S. player this league has ever seen before he makes the jump to foreign soil.
In 2001, Frank Yallop was named coach/manager of the Earthquakes. One of the major factors in accepting the job was he had the opportunity to build a team around Donovan. Although at the time Donovan was very young, it was pretty clear that he was special. The expectations were high, but it seems on every occasion, he did not disappoint.
San Jose went on to win the MLS Cup in 2001, where Donovan scored the first of two goals against the Los Angeles Galaxy and made his initial impact in a rivalry that had, in its first five years, grown into something a young Donovan probably did not even understand. In his second year with the club, the team did not enjoy the success it had in the previous year, mainly due to the fact that Donovan spent the entire summer with the U.S. national team in Korea and Japan and again showed the world how good he is.
In my opinion, the World Cup hangover was too much for him, and he was unable to rise to the occasion in his second year. Obviously, last year we got to see the best of him. When he scored his game-winning goal in overtime in the Western Conference Final against Kansas City, going near post on Tony Meola, he looked like an experienced veteran at the young age of 21. And his two goals and MVP performance in MLS Cup solidified his place as one of the best -- if not the best -- players who have ever put on an MLS uniform.
But a lot has changed in the four years since Landon returned from Germany. He came to this league to grow, to learn and in the hopes of realizing his potential. He has done all of those. The world looks a lot different through the eyes of a 16-year-old in a foreign country such as Germany, where the future can be so bright yet still so uncertain. Europe still beckons for Landon Donovan, who is no longer a young talent. He is a world-class soccer player.
The only question that Landon Donovan can't answer right now, and it'll be a question that will haunt him for his entire career if he does not go is, "Can he be successful in Europe?" Can he sit in a locker room with 14 other professional players whose immediate financial future is riding on how he plays? That is a pressure that Landon does not yet know. But if he is going to get better, he has to go, and I truly hope he does. So keep this in my mind as you watch the first round of the playoffs from San Jose's Spartan Stadium: This might be your last chance to see Landon Donovan play in this league. This is an opportunity, as a fan, you don't want to miss.
I guess to the soccer purist, Sunday's clash between the Quakes and Kansas City Wizards (live on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. ET) is a great matchup. These are two teams that understand the phrase "defense wins championships".
It wasn't too long ago that Bob Gansler, with a very different team but a very similar approach, beat the high-powered Chicago Fire 1-0 at RFK Stadium to win MLS Cup. Kansas City was the winningest team in Major League Soccer this year, for a variety of reasons. I guess I could be vague and simply state that they have a good coach and good players, but it's obviously a little bit more than that. Specifically, you have to recognize Jimmy Conrad, Diego Gutierrez, Davy Arnaud and Kerry Zavagnin as the most underrated, underappreciated soccer players in this league. And if you were to ask them, they would probably ask you to continue to underrate them and to continue to disrespect them, because if you do, they'll end up with a ring on their finger.
Dominic Kinnear's Earthquakes team is a team that simply won't go away. I think this is a team that knows how to win, but they need to prove it to themselves again. They finished the season with four consecutive ties with a makeshift lineup, dealing with injuries and national team call-ups, but Kinnear has managed to get the results he needed and to make the playoffs. This is probably why I like this team, because now that they're in a position to succeed, they know what to do. It will all come down to execution. The one-on-one battles in this game are brilliant, but it's going to take one great play, one act of brilliance, something that MLS fans will remember for a long time, to win this one. I can't wait.
Former U.S. international forward Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in MLS history, and is currently the analyst on RadioShack's Soccer Saturday on ESPN2. He can be reached at email@example.com. He was inducted in the National Soccer Hall of Fame on Oct. 11. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.