Landon Donovan’s bonafides in the world of American soccer are unassailable. He’s worn just about every hat one can wear, as the greatest player to ever wear the red, white, and blue consistently did it for club and country before moving on to a number of other endeavors in the sport. Currently, Donovan spends his time with the USL club San Diego Loyal SC, for which he is the manager, co-owner, and executive vice president of soccer operations.
But like all great footballers, Donovan’s most well-known moment involves the World Cup. Back in 2010, the United States needed a win against Algeria to wrap up group play and move on to the knockout round. Try as they might, the Americans could not find a goal as the game entered injury time in the second half. Tim Howard saved a headed attempt, sprung a counter-attack with a pristine ball to Donovan, and after a Clint Dempsey effort was denied, Donovan was there to clean up the mess. The rest of the American squad put Donovan at the bottom of a celebratory dogpile while Ian Darke famously screamed “goal, goal, USA!”
It is almost certainly the most well-known moment in American soccer history, the sort of clip that pops up in compilations and on Twitter whenever the United States is about to participate in a World Cup. That, of course, is only a few days away — the 2022 World Cup in Qatar begins on Sunday, and the USMNT will kick off its tournament on Monday afternoon against Wales.
Before that happens, we caught up with Donovan through his partnership with Autotrader to discuss this American side, his advice to USMNT talisman Christian Pulisic before his first World Cup, what it’s like to score a goal on this stage, how USL can play a major role in growing the sport in the United States, and much more.
What do you have going on with Autotrader?
Well, little did I know, a few weeks ago, my wife told me she … we have a 2008 BMW we were trying to sell. And I leave those things to her, and she said, “This was pretty amazing, I went on Autotrader and was able to sell it within a few minutes.” As you’re getting ready for the World Cup, there’s a lot of things you’re trying to check off the list, and that was one of them. So, that started the process for us, and it was an easy and fun process. Of course, the problem was, then she spent the next hour searching for cars, and we don’t need a car, but that’s generally what happens with these kinds of things. But it was an easy, enjoyable process for her and anything that makes her life easier makes me happy. So, it was an easy partnership to come together.
Are you a big car person? Or are you someone who got keys to one car when you were 18 years old and went “alright, that’s it, I’m going to be a BMW person forever”?
I’m not a big car person. Although now, I drive a Tesla and I probably will never drive another car in my life. I generally just want something that gets me from A to B. My wife, on the other hand, as I said, can spend hours on the Autotrader website and look for cars. My job then is to convince her that we actually don’t need a car. But when you have the largest selection of cars sitting in front of you, it makes it challenging.
Let’s talk a little bit of soccer, the World Cup starts for the United States one week from today, how you feeling about the team?
I guess excited and nervous. It’s hard to know, because this World Cup is so unique, what to expect. It’s unique, obviously, in the time of year, but the most important factor, I think, is that the teams have very little time to prepare. So, in past World Cups, if the team wasn’t playing great in the months leading up, you would have about three or four weeks together as a team to iron out any issues, play a couple of friendlies, feel good about yourself going into the tournament. But this time, they will not. The U.S. team arrived — some of them arrived over the last week and a few of them arrived today, I believe. They have no real time to prepare as a team, no friendly matches. So, it’s going to make it very challenging in that way. But hopefully, this group of players has had a lot of experiences together over the last couple of years, and hopefully that that comes in handy as we start.
I know over his time, Gregg Berhalter has really hammered “we have our core group,” and you basically have to hope that core group has played together so much that they’re able to fend off any issues that might pop up with how quick this turnaround is.
Yeah, in that way, I don’t know if that was intentional or not. But I think that’s really smart, because you just don’t have time to integrate one or two new players. And there were a few players who really made a push to be part of the roster, either through their performances with the national team or with performances with their club team. But Gregg was pretty consistent in saying, “I have the group of guys that I trust, and we’re going to stick with them.” And I think that will be helpful for them.
I want to get your thoughts on the roster — was there anything that really surprised you? When you think about the fact that Gregg has had the guys that he’s viewed as his core group, do you look at that and go, “oh, yeah, everything there sounds about right”?
You can make a case for anyone to be on — well, not anyone, but a lot of guys to be on the roster and not be on the roster. I think a couple that surprised me, a couple of omissions, the Zack Steffen one is interesting. I can see, now that I’m a coach, I can understand from Gregg’s perspective, last thing you want in a World Cup is a situation where you have basically two number one [goalkeepers], so that if one goalkeeper has the smallest mistake, now the pressure piles on to play the other, and you just don’t want to deal with that. But Zack Steffen is a top, top goalkeeper, so it’s hard not to have him on the U.S. roster.
The other one that is a little bit of an outlier, but that I thought would have been a perfect fit in a 26-man roster — which is different now, in the past, it was 23-man and now it’s 26. So, you have a few other guys who basically you can bring along knowing that they likely won’t play, but are really good in the locker room, good in training every day, and really help you. And for me, Paul Arriola would have been a guy to bring for that reason. If he does play, no problem, you can trust him. If he doesn’t play, he’s never going to complain about it, never gonna rock the boat, gonna show up and train hard every day and [be] really good in the locker room. So, that would have been one for consideration.
Everyone always wants to ask about the players who didn’t make it, but on the players who did make it, is there an individual, a collection of players, a certain position, anything that you’re most excited to see over the next three — or a few more than that — games?
The strength of this team is through them through the midfield, I’ll say. I’d say if there’s weakness, it’s a little bit in the defensive part of the field, and then with just a pure number nine, nobody’s kind of grabbed that and made it their own.
But through the middle of the field with Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Timothy Weah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta, just really, really good depth and really good players all through the midfield. So, I think as that midfield goes, so we will go, and if our midfield is is really good, then we can absolutely succeed in the World Cup.
I spoke to Stu Holden a week or so ago and he also said the midfield. For the fan who just gets into soccer during the World Cup, what is it about this midfield that you think makes it so special?
They complement each other well. So, between Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Kellyn Acosta, you have three players who are athletic, can get around the ball, and around the field really well. But then, certainly in Weston’s case, you also have guys who can attack the box and get on the end of crosses and score goals. When you add in Aaronson, Pulisic, Reyna, those guys are more vertical, more runners. Yunus Musah I missed, Yunus Musah. All those guys can pick up the ball and carry it 30, 40, 50 yards and make a play, and are all really dynamic and explosive in the way they play.
And so, the key for Gregg will be, which guys do you get on the field together? What’s the best pairing to get them on the field? And then how do you spread around enough minutes so you give guys enough opportunity to have an impact on the game, because they’re all really, really talented players.
As you know, heavy is the head that wears the crown. And for the United States, the number 10 is Christian Pulisic. If you get five minutes with him before the World Cup to just talk to him about what’s coming, what are the things that you would want to say to him about this experience that he’s going to have for the first time in his career?
My hope for Christian is that he plays freely, and not worried about the outcome and the pressure. And it’s easy for me to say, but my experiences when I was 20 years old in a World Cup, I played free, and it was probably my best World Cup and some of the best performances. I didn’t care about leading, I didn’t have to worry about pressure, I wasn’t responsible for the results. I was just out there playing freely, and that’s when I was at my best. And when Christian does that, he is electric, and he’s really, really good. So, my hope is that he can do that, and play from that headspace. And if he does, I think we have a really, really good chance to be successful.
I’ve always thought with Pulisic, for club and for country, you can tell when he’s just out there playing and when he’s putting that pressure on himself, because he’s such a competitive guy.
Yeah, you can see it on his face, right? It’s clear. And so I hope that he can play carefree.
I want to ask about scoring a goal at the World Cup, because the list of Americans who have done that is short, but you’re on it and you’re at the top of it. The gravity of doing that, is that something that hits you right away? Or is it just another goal in that moment, and you don’t really give yourself time to think about how you’ve done the thing that you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid until after the game?
It’s a great question. If you go back and watch, my first goal and in a World Cup is in Korea in 2002, and we’re losing to Poland, I think it’s 3-0 at the time. And I score to make it 3-1. And my first instinct is such pure joy, because I realized I scored a goal in a World Cup. And then within a second, I realize, oh, we’re getting our ass kicked. [Laughs.]
So, generally speaking, it depends on when the goal is scored and what the score is, how it feels in that moment. But there was at least one or two seconds where I had such pure joy. But mostly, once I got that monkey off my back, it was just pure elation, because you were able to really enjoy it and appreciate it, but also, all within the context of what the score was. So, depending on what the score was, and when the goal came, was a different feeling.
Soccer in the United States, you’ve experienced it in so many different ways — as a player, manager, television, front office, all these sorts of ways. When you look at the kind of existential crisis that people had about men’s soccer in America in 2018, where do you think things have come the farthest over the last five years?
Ushering in a new group of players. Very young, inexperienced, but a new group of players that will hopefully play in the next three, including this one, the next three-plus World Cups. So, we had just gotten to a point where it was time to move on and move to a new generation of players. And that’s what Gregg has done so well, there’s [so many] players under 25 years old who will now be a part of this roster, hopefully for the next three World Cups. So, I think that’s where we needed to go. It doesn’t mean that you bring in new players and all of a sudden you’re gonna succeed, there’s a process involved. But there are now so many young, talented players playing all over the world, in MLS and Europe, who are going to be a big part of this roster for years to come.
I want to ask about USL, and I swear to God, this is not a pro/rel question because lord knows that debate is tired. But how does USL — and just how unique it is and how many communities it’s in — become a league like the Championship or 2. Bundesliga, where it’s this really prominent, really popular division in the United States that is maybe in communities that MLS isn’t getting into?
The challenge with our country is just its size, right? So, you need to touch as many communities as possible. If the ultimate end goal is to, I always say not win a World Cup, but be realistically competing for a World Cup every time, competing to win every time, you have to exhaust every community in the country to find the best players, the best talent, and then have enough good coaches, infrastructure, etc. to develop that talent.
And that’s what USL has done very well so far, and will continue to do. Between the USL Championship and USL League One and League Two, you now have, I don’t know the exact number, but 80-plus communities across the country that were not being looked at when only Major League Soccer was involved. And casting that net wider and wider is really valuable, and it’s not just the USL first teams, it’s then what do their academy players look like, and how are you developing those players, and then moving them on so that they compete at the highest level? And I think USL has done that really, really well.
And then my last question, I want to head back to the World Cup and take a little bit of a bigger picture look. Who do you have winning the whole thing?
It’s a boring pick, but it’s hard not to pick Brazil. Just historically, in a hot weather climate, European teams really struggle, or at least struggle when they get to the end. And it’s not because they’re not good enough to compete against Argentina or Brazil, but it’s more over the course of seven games in a month, you just really get worn out with playing and training in that kind of weather.
Now, the one advantage for those European teams is that there’s no travel involved. So, if you play in England your whole life, and all of a sudden you go to Brazil, and it’s 88 degrees, and you’re traveling three hours here, four hours there, that’s not anything you’ve ever been accustomed to, and you’re going to struggle and suffer. So, that challenge is taken away with the travel. But the heat factor, I think, is very real, and that makes me think Brazil is gonna win.