After signing a long-term contract with Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen in 1999, 17-year-old playmaker and golden-boy in the making, Landon Donovan, became one of the youngest American players ever to ink an overseas contract.  But a long way from the oozing sunshine and laid-back vibe of his native California, Westphalia, Germany proved more heartache than Donovan had anticipated.

Picked by some - even at such an early age - to be the future of US football after grabbing best-player plaudits at the FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand in 1999, one of the world's top league's proved a road too far for the youngster. His massive potential and silky skills were not enough to see him get anywhere near the first team and he did not keep quiet about his homesickness.

Though Leverkusen owned the contract of the explosive, creative midfielder, they sent him back Stateside on loan to hone his skills and get some first-team football ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ finals. As soon as he was back in the Golden State - with San Jose Earthquakes - young Landon exploded onto the American scene with a brilliant freshman year in which his impressive and cultured displays brought the Northern California club their first MLS Cup title (the one-off game that decides MLS' champion) in 2001.

The standout campaign re-affirmed Donovan's talent and confidence, and soon he was getting calls into Bruce Arena's qualifying team for the FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan. Playing a crucial role in the CONCACAF qualifying run, the 20-year-old was a full-fledged starter by the time the Americans hit the big time in the Far East.  And with a pair of goals at the tournament, Donovan laid claim to the Best Young Player award - a first for an American. 

California dreaming
The year after the finals in Korea/Japan, Donovan did even better, leading the Earthquakes to their second league title while simultaneously scooping the MLS Player of the Year award.  Meanwhile back in Germany, the Leverkusen decision-makers felt they had seen enough and it was time to cash in on their more mature American star.

He returned to Bayer in the summer of 2005, but the challenge again proved too much for the player who had become the highest-profile star in the MLS firmament and the poster-boy for American football. He was soon relegated to the subs' bench and feeling that familiar call of home.  After extensive negotiations between the two leagues, Donovan returned to MLS again for the 2005 season after only three months back in Germany.

MLS purchased the player's contract outright (in Major League Soccer all player contracts are owned by the league in a 'single-entity' format), and he was sent to Southern California and LA Galaxy, becoming the highest-paid player in MLS in the process.

He was obviously thrilled to be back. "It was a no-brainer. It was a decision I made with no hesitation," said the three-time American Footballer of the Year. "I don't need to be in Europe. I don't need to be anywhere but here. This is the future of soccer in this country. I know there are people who are sceptical and will be critical of this, but I want you to remember that I'm here because I love soccer in this country."

And his happiness at home was there for all to see as he led his new side to the MLS title in 2005. His performances during the 'regular' and 'post season' proved he was back to his old form again. He also played a hand in qualifying the US for Germany 2006 - where he will hope to secure some validation in the land of his most testing trials as a player.

As Donovan tries to take over the world from the comfort of his native California, LA's second-leg quarter-final clash against Saprissa away in San Jose stands as a good next step. Having blown a score of chances at home in the first leg on 22 February, the Galaxy now head to the cauldron of Saprissa Stadium in need of a win to move one step closer to qualifying for next year's FIFA Club World Championship.

"I'm disappointed because I think it took us too long to understand and be urgent enough," Donovan said. "A lot of guys don't understand that it's great not to have given up a goal, and it's great to play 0-0, but it's going to be tough there."

If the Galaxy are going to get a result and book a place in the CONCACAF Champions Cup semi-finals, playmaker Donovan will need to be at his best away from home-sweet-home.