In the history of U.S. men’s soccer, no one has made more of an impact than Landon Donovan did.
Sure, there are recognizable names like Cobi Jones, Kasey Keller, Eric Wynalda and, more recently, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, but what Donovan did during his days donning the red, white and blue are unmatched.
The all-time leader in goals and assists in U.S. history with 57 and 58, respectively, thanks to Sprint—who Landon was working with for this year’s Copa America—I got to sit down with Landon to talk about Team USA’s progress, the goal of his against Algeria and that whole being left off of the 2014 World Cup roster thing.
BroBible: I know you did commentary for Copa America, how would you assess Team USA’s performance?
Landon Donovan: “It’s kind of been a tale of two teams. The first game and the Argentina game were certainly far from ideal—they seemed a little overwhelmed in both games. But I think that they had a stretch during the middle of the tournament where they were really good.
It’s too bad because a lot of people probably tuned into the first game and then, obviously, while playing Argentina a lot of people watched, and those were their two poorest performances.
In between, though, I think they had a good stretch of three games and, in the end, you can still say that it was a successful tournament since they reached the semifinals.”
BB: During the Argentina loss, you said, on-air, that USA players need to expect to win games like that. What’s it going to take for them to get that belief?
LD: “That’s the hundred and hundreds of million dollar question that we all want to know because, when you watch a game like that, you come away thinking that there’s still a pretty big gap between us and Argentina. On another day, when Argentina isn’t as good and the U.S. isn’t so bad, the outcome may not have looked so differently—although Argentina probably would’ve still won, it wouldn’t have been so bad.
But we still know that we’ve got a long way to go, and it isn’t just a quick fix where there’s an easy answer. It all starts with how we’re developing players.”
BB: What’s it going to take for the U.S. to get a world-class player, though? I mean, we’re not just going to develop the next Lionel Messi.
LD: “As much as we talk about wanting to develop players who are world-class like that, a player like Messi is so good that he’s on an entirely different level. You can’t just develop a player like him. To get a special player like that is once-in-a-generation, maybe, once-in-a-lifetime, so that shouldn’t be the focus.
We should be focusing on developing players like the 10 other players that Argentina has, because that’s where we’ll make strides. If we, somehow, end up getting a Messi by some stroke of luck, than that helps, but we need to work on the other areas that are more feasible.”
BB: It was actually just the six-year anniversary of your game-winner against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, can you just talk about that moment.
LD: “For myself and for the team, it was a big moment because it meant we qualified for the next round. As time has gone on and I’ve been able to process it, I’ve realized how big it was for soccer in America, so it’s incredible to see how a moment like that can impact a sport, culture or society.”
BB: Yeah, that was one of those “Where were you?” moments for U.S. soccer fans, I’ll never forget what I was doing when it happened.
LD: “People still come up to me today to tell me about where they were when it happened, so that’s really special to provide that kind of memory for people.”
BB: Can you talk about the emotions and feelings of playing in a World Cup?
LD: “For players, it’s literally a dream come true. When you get the opportunity to experience that, it’s the absolute pinnacle. I’ve played in the Olympics and other major tournaments, but the World Cup was the ultimate goal, so to achieve that as an athlete is really special.”
BB: I know it’s beating a dead horse, but how shocked and just straight-up pissed were you to be left off the 2014 World Cup squad by Jurgen Klinsmann?
LD: “I’ve talked about that a lot, and anybody in that situation will view that as a big moment in their life. In the end, though, I realized that I was fortunate throughout my career, to that point, to not have those decisions go against me. In this instance, it did.
It was difficult for me, but it’s part of life, so I just needed to figure out how to get passed it. Time heals all wounds, so you move on.”
BB: For whatever reason, if Klinsmann isn’t back, who would you like to see takeover managerial duties?
LD: “Fortunately for me, there are people smarter than me who get paid to make those decisions. So I’ll just continue to be a fan and hope the team continues to succeed.”
BB: You were The Man, dude, how were you able to handle all the pressure and expectations on the world stage?
LD: “It didn’t feel that way for a long time because, when you’re young, you’re just excited that people want to meet you, cheer for you and they want to watch you play. It’s enjoyable from that standpoint.
As I got older, it was a little more difficult to manage because it was just exhausting. I welcomed the day where other people could shoulder that load. It’s just sort of part of what we deal with as soccer players in this country, because, as a star basketball player, the foundation has already been laid for you, and you don’t need to be an ambassador for the sport like soccer players in the U.S. are expected to be.
It’s just part of being a soccer player in this country, where we have to promote and endorse the game off of the field.
For most of my career, though, it wasn’t such a big deal. But in the latter stages, I had to manage it a little better.”
BB: You finished your playing career with a third MLS Cup, how do you think the game has expanded in the U.S. because of the league?
LD: “There’s no question that the national team doesn’t have the success that it’s had over the past 20-plus years without Major League Soccer. People are still quick to criticize MLS for not being like other top leagues in other countries around the world, but when you think about how far the sport and league has come since it began, it’s pretty spectacular.
Having been a product of the league for 15 years and knowing how it helped me grow, I’m aware how important it has been and how major of a factor it has been to the success of our national team.”
BB: What’s the most raucous MLS stadium you’ve ever played in?
LD: “Typically, Portland is pretty fun to play in because they’re loud, knowledgeable and have a lot of numbers. Seattle, they’re the same, because they have a lot of numbers, too, but the atmosphere isn’t as intimate since they play in the Seahawks stadium. The other one is Kansas City. The way the stadium is built, with it sort of into the ground, the acoustics are really loud, and they have a really good, passionate fan base. Those three were all really fun places to play when we went on the road.”
BB: Lastly, the league renamed its league MVP trophy after you, dude, congrats! Is that the ultimate sign of respect?
LD: “I spent half of my life, and most of my adult life, pouring my heart and soul into the league, and, while it was beneficial for me, I’d like to think that the league benefitted from it, too. When the league called me and told me that they were thinking about naming the MVP award after me, I was pretty floored—and I’m not often at a loss for words.
I really didn’t know what to say to them, and I understood how heavy that was and what an amazing honor it was. So I was happy and proud, but I knew it was a big responsibility, too. It’s very nice, and I hope that people appreciate what a lot of us have done to help built the MLS.”
BB: What was the most crushing defeat you ever experienced?
LD: “The game in 2006 against Ghana when we got eliminated from the World Cup was the most difficult for me because I didn’t play well in the tournament, and there were a lot of expectations on me.
When I got home, for the first time in my career, I realized that not everyone was going to be nice when things didn’t go well.
That was a very big learning experience for me, but it was very difficult because I had never faced criticism in that way. I learned a lot, and it was devastating at the time, but I’m glad it happened because it allowed me to become both a better person and player after it.”