now a respected player around the world, the U.S. national team captain and one of the most recognizable faces of Major League Soccer -- has decided that he is ready to retest the waters in one of Europe's toughest leagues.
In a media conference call on Tuesday, Donovan announced his plans to rejoin Bayer Leverkusen at the start of the new year. He made it clear that the decision to return to Leverkusen was his, putting to rest any thoughts that he is leaving MLS because the German club, which still owns his rights, had recalled him or rejected another extension to his loan. Instead, the 22-year-old pointed out that he chose to return to Germany, saying that he is excited for the challenge while still sad to see this part of his career come to an end.
"It's funny how we make decisions in life," said Donovan. "You always think the decision you're making is the hardest you've ever made and I thought that four years ago when I first came here. Clearly this decision has been 100 times harder."
Donovan signed a contract with Bayer Leverkusen in February 1999, becoming one of the youngest Americans ever to become a professional soccer player overseas. But after two seasons of being limited to reserve team action and struggling to adjust to new surroundings, the Ontario, Calif. native came to MLS thanks to a two-year loan agreement, which was then extended a further two years following the 2002 season.
After taking four seasons at home to grow both as a player and a person, Donovan is ready to give Germany and Leverkusen a second chance. He cited the German club's patience and understanding as leading factors in his decision-making process.
"You become emotionally attached to a place, to a team, to a fan base, to an organization," said Donovan on San Jose, the Earthquakes and their fans. "That being said, (Bayer Leverkusen) have in every way accommodated every wish I have ever asked for. Given the fact that they have always been loyal to me, always been fair to me, given me the chance to do what I love to do, I feel that it is fair to at least go back and try it out, fulfill the obligation of the contract I signed and see how it goes."
It was widely reported when Donovan joined MLS prior to the 2001 season that the driving force in his departure from Europe was a lack of playing time in the Bundesliga. Assurances from the Bayer Leverkusen front office and coaching staff led Donovan to believe that he will at least be given a chance to prove himself during his second stint in Germany.
"They have assured me that it is not prison I'm going back to," he said. "I don't expect to go in and just play. You can't just go and be given anything, you have to earn it and I expect to do that, but it's nice to know that they are backing you and supporting you."
The Earthquakes will receive a replacement allocation for Donovan, who ends his four-season stint in San Jose with 93 points on 32 goals and 29 assists in 87 appearances (78 as a starter). However, Donovan insisted that his return to Germany would not mean that continuing his career in the United States at a later time would be impossible.
Rather, he virtually assured fans that they would have another chance to see the young talent at a point further down the road once again in MLS.
"I would almost promise that I'll be back at some point," said Donovan. "I would say 100 percent but you never know what can happen with injuries and whatnot. But I would promise that I will be back and I want to be back. This is ultimately where I think I want to be, where I can be with my family and this is where I want to raise a family as well, so at some point I'll definitely be back."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.