US soccer player Landon Donovan, of German Bundesliga club Bayer 04 Leverkusen, runs during a practice session in Leverkusen, western Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2005. The two-time U.S. player of the year joined Bayer Leverkusen two weeks before.
AP Photo/Hermann J. Knippertz
LEVERKUSEN, Germany Landon Donovan had to pick up his pace. He's not in Major League Soccer anymore.
Back in the Bundesliga after four seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes, he hasn't played in a game since Oct. 30. When he rejoined Bayer Leverkusen two weeks ago, the two-time U.S. player of the year noticed the difference.
''I found out quickly that I had better get sharp fast, because they're good here, very good,'' Donovan said. ''Not just the starters, but the reserves, even those that don't make the roster. It's definitely a challenge.''
After Germany's winter break, Leverkusen resumes its season Saturday against Hannover 96. The 22-year-old midfielder/forward scored in his first exhibition game and had two assists in his last one.
Donovan was 16 when he agreed in 1999 to sign a six-year contract with Bayer Leverkusen, then left two years later for MLS's Earthquakes, homesick for California and frustrated by a lack of playing time.
''The major difference between Landon then and now is that he's developed into a very good player and a major personality,'' said Wolfgang Holzhaeuser, Leverkusen's business manager.
Donovan, who has 19 goals in 59 appearances with the U.S. national team, realizes he will be tested in the physical and pressure-packed Bundesliga, where the media can be brutal and angry fans sometimes block team buses after poor performances.
''That will be the deciding factor,'' he said. ''It's great to play well in exhibition matches, but I have to prove I can play at that next level or I will be considered a player that failed.''
Donovan has 32 goals in 87 MLS games, helping San Jose win titles in 2001 and 2003. He doesn't think he will have trouble this time adjusting to Leverkusen, a wet and cold factory town of 160,000 residents dominated by chemical giant Bayer AG.
The first thing a visitor sees is the company name, towering above the factory. A gritty place, Leverkusen is far different from San Jose or Redlands, Calif., where Donovan grew up.
Another American, Steve Cherundolo, has developed into a top Bundesliga player at Hannover. He advised Donovan to be patient in waiting for his breakthrough in Germany.
''This place can beat you up and spit you out, but if you're good enough you will get your chance,'' Cherundolo said. ''Landon is an excellent player and I know he can play here, but it can take six months to adjust.''
Leverkusen coach Klaus Augenthaler is thought to be enamored of Donovan's ability and personality. Nonetheless, he probably won't start the American against Hannover on Saturday.
Augenthaler had planned to test Donovan from the opening whistle in a key tuneup, but the American was sick with a virus.
''It's still open, but it's not likely he'll start,'' the coach said. ''I would have liked to have seen him against Sparta Prague. I can see he's a reinforcement for the team, however.''
Leverkusen, which shared Donovan's rights with MLS, wants him to challenge Robson Ponte for the spot right behind the two forwards. Leverkusen is eighth in the Bundesliga at 7-5-5 and plays Liverpool in the second round of the European Champions League.
After scoring twice to help the United States reach the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup before losing to Germany, Donovan finds U.S. players are treated differently these days in the country.
''I get more respect now. American players get more respect that's the big difference,'' Donovan said.
He feels he already proved at the World Cup that he can play with the game's best.
''That's not a motivation. I want to feel good and play,'' he said. ''Whether that's five minutes or 90 minutes, I want to play.''
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