Landon Donovan can call himself “The Greatest American Soccer Player” and few people would disagree. The past few years, though, have been tumultuous for all-time leading soccer for the U.S. Men’s National Team after newly hired head coach Jurgen Klinsmann decided to leave him off the roster for the 2014 World Cup. With his legacy still intact, Donovan is retired now enjoying life from the commentator booth for the Copa America Centenario.
With the riff occurring between Donovan and the USMNT at the end of his playing days, it makes him an interesting character to be one of the most visible faces in American soccer, as the National Team is set to play Argentina in the semifinals Tuesday.
Who better than Donovan to give his opinion on the U.S.’s chances this evening? We had time to catch up with him and ask him about his new campaign with Buffalo Wild Wings along with the U.S.’s chances in the tournament, but also how he feels about Clint Dempsey closing in on his scoring record. He let us know how things are going on between him and Klinsmann, too. While he gave him praise for his recent results, the conversation took on a slightly different tone, but this is also coming from the man who said, “The reality is that now, anywhere else in the world, if this coach had those results, and they lose this game against Mexico, they'd be fired. I think if Jurgen wants to hold all the players to that standard, then he has to be held to that standard too,” in an interview with ESPN FC last year. He even called for him to get fired if the U.S. lost to Guatemala earlier this year, but it seems like he's happy with what's going on with the USMNT right now.
It might leave people scratching their heads, trying to read between the lines, but would you expect anything else from Donovan?
You just had the video with Buffalo Wild Wings where fans were trying to save your shots. How’d that go?
It was really fun. I didn’t have too many opportunities in my career to enjoy things like that. Now that I’m retired, it’s pretty enjoyable to spend time and hang out with fans. I was always rushing to the next place, or I wanted to get home and rest, or I wanted to prepare for the next game. Now I have the opportunity to do things like this. We thought it would be fun to watch fans actually get involved and take a shot from one of us. People assume it’s pretty easy, and a lot of them came out saying, “Wow, it’s more difficult than I thought.” It was fun, because we invited all of them to come in afterwards and watch the Mexico vs. Jamaica game. It was fun for the fans, and Buffalo Wild Wings is really the place for soccer this summer. The place was packed full of Mexican fans, and we got to hang out and enjoy an afternoon.
What’s it like to be in the commentator booth instead of the pitch?
It’s certainly different. When we were playing, it was very easy to criticize commentators or criticize people on the set and say, “They’re not good at this, or they’re not good at that.” But once you’re there and pull back the curtain, you realize how much more difficult it is than what you watch on TV. I’ve done a few games now—some good, some not so good—and it’s been a really interesting learning experience. But I’m enjoying it. I don’t know if it will be a long-term thing, but I’m enjoying [it]. The best thing is that I get emails and messages and tweets from people saying, “I really appreciate your insight, and you’ve said some things that I never thought of before.” I think it’s nice for the fans to get a glimpse inside of our heads to see what we’re thinking during games. I think that’s been really rewarding for me.
Do you wish you were out there with the boys right now, as they’re going deep into the tournament?
[Laughs]. Well, I never had a chance to play in a Copa America. Outside of the Gold Cup, I only had a Confederations Cup semifinal that I got to play in. So, yeah, it would be fun to experience it. They’re going to be in front of 70 or 80,000 people in Houston. Those experiences don’t come along very often. I’m a little envious, but mostly I’m really happy for the guys and the team. They’ve deserved it. They’ve earned it. And I hope it’s a very special night. Regardless of the result, I hope it’s an incredible experience that everyone enjoys.
What do you think their chances are against Argentina, especially without Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood, and Alejandro Bedoya?
There’s no question that those guys not being there is going to hurt the team. The three of them have been a really big part of what they’ve done. They’re not playing great, soccer wise, but as a team, they’re playing as well as I’ve seen them play. They’re finding ways to win, and that’s what it takes to win in tournaments like this. You don’t play six great games in a row to win a tournament. Some teams that win these tournaments have one or two or three bad games, but they find a way to win. Let’s hope they play a great game. If not, can they do enough to win the game? I think, obviously, Argentina has better individual players, they have some of the best players in the world. There’s only one player in the world like Messi, but I’m not convinced that they’re a better team than the US right now. That’s what the U.S. has to hinge its hopes on right now, that they can be a better team as 14 team members, rather than the 11 or 12 individuals on Argentina. If they do that, they have a chance to win.
It’s been in the news a lot that Clint Dempsey is inching up on your goal record. How do you feel about the possibility of him passing you?
[Laughs]. Not only in the news, but all of my family is texting me every time he scores. Everyone is driving me nuts. Records, in my opinion, are great, but worrying about a record being broken is just ego. If Clint passes it, he deserves it. He’s been so important to this team for so long, it’s pretty remarkable that he’s still going strong. He’s the player who’s brought them to this point in the tournament. If he passes it, that’s great. In the end, Clint will tell you that he’ll gladly give up the goals to keep winning and have a chance to win this tournament. Let’s hope that happens.
Do you have a relationship with Jurgen Klinsmann or do you guys not talk?
We’ve had some conversations in the last few weeks. I’ll keep them private, but they’ve been very good. It’s nice to see him doing well, and I think he’s done an excellent job with the team in this tournament. He’s gotten a lot of criticism for certain decisions he’s made with the lineup in the tournament and not changing some of the guys. But every time he’s made these decisions, he’s been right. You have to give him a lot of credit. He’s been bold and stuck by what he believes, and he’s been right. He’s gotten them this far in the tournament, and he deserves a lot of credit.
How much contact do you still have with the guys?
I speak to quite a few of them relatively often, especially when they’re on a run like this, I reach out and congratulate them. I’ll see them when they’re training, and it’s nice to stay connected. You build friendships with these guys if you’ve been around them for five, 10, or 15 years. I’m really happy to see them doing well.
When you’re in Los Angeles, do you feel like you get celebrity treatment?
I think the European guys can like a “normal life,” because they’re not in the public eye as much here. I grew up in L.A., I’ve been there my entire career. It’s a little different for me. It’s really nice thing, and it means that soccer is advancing. That’s what we want. We want personalities and faces that people know. We want faces that sponsors want to market, and I think that’s all positive for us.
With the MLS going forward, do you think it’s better that they bring in these big players or try and grow the younger players?
I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s never black and white with things like that. Look at Robbie Keane: He’s been the best player in this league for five years. Look at Sebastian Giovinco: He’s been the best player, right next to Robbie, for the past two years. There have been a number of guys who have come in and treated it like a prolonged vacation, and that, in my opinion, is not good. But you don’t get anywhere if you’re just bringing in players from the outside. We need to do a much better job developing young players, so that we can some day be talking about our disappointment of not getting to a semifinal in a tournament like this, rather than how surprising it is. The only way you can do that is to continue to develop young players who can make an impact on the National Team level.