Landon Donovan Interview Part I

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Landon Donovan Interview Part I

by Paul Oberjuerge

It was time to check in with Landon Donovan, to get some quality one-on-one time with the Los Angeles Galaxy and U.S. national team standout.

He agreed to an interview in the middle of last week, after practice and after his now-regular hour-plus deep-tissue massage session with Galaxy trainers. He met me at the outdoor dining area behind the south goal at the Home Depot Center, in Carson, Calif. When we finished, he left the facility in his black Maserati, planning to get a haircut.

Donovan, the leading scorer in U.S. soccer history, as well as the highest-paid American ($900,000 annually) in Major League Soccer, sat across a round table from me, wearing wraparound sunglasses. He spoke quietly and chose his words carefully — perhaps a natural response to a decade in the public eye. He is the best-known soccer player in American history, but he also has been the most-watched and the most-criticized.

Donovan was savaged, during and after the 2006 World Cup, for what was perceived to be a spotty performance as the U.S. team managed only a tie in three matches. He then played for three consecutive Galaxy teams that failed to make the MLS playoffs … and was a front-row witness to David Beckham’s tumultuous arrival in MLS, beginning in the summer of 2007.

After the 2008 season, which ended with the Galaxy in shambles despite Donovan’s league-high 20 goals, Donovan criticized Beckham’s leadership — criticism that wasn’t published until July in excerpts from the book, “The Beckham Experiment.” Interestingly, and tellingly, Donovan this season kept the captain’s armband that he had regained after Beckham chose to finish the 2008-09 Seria A season with AC Milan.

Two days after our chat, Donovan scored the only goal in the Galaxy’s 1-0 victory over Chicago, a result that clinched a playoffs berth for the Los Angeles club.

The first half of the conversation (Part 2 will be published tomorrow) deals primarily with the Galaxy, including Beckham and coach Bruce Arena, as well as MLS — and Donovan’s belief that 2009 has been his best year.

Paul Oberjuerge: Can you identify the moving forces behind the Galaxy success this season, compared to the mess of last season?

Landon Donovan: The main one is Bruce. He’s just brought stability, which in our league makes all the difference. All the good teams have that. Second would be the play and example set by our older players every day, which wasn’t there in the last, well, definitely last year was not there. Third is finally having an identity to our team which we didn’t have in the past, and that also comes from Bruce, but it’s everyone buying into it. It’s made a big difference.

Q: How would you describe the team identity?

A: Our identity is being, first of all, competitive. Just competing. Again, last year there were too many times where we’d do the things that were easy but we wouldn’t compete and do things that were harder. Second is just being more organized all around. That starts in the locker room, people knowing their responsibilities, knowing what their role is, helping each other. And then playing to our strengths. We’re not a team that’s going to out-talent other teams, but we’re a team that when we’re good, defensively, we have some talented players who can make plays and score goals. When we’ve done that we’ve been successful this year.

Q: How would you evaluate your play so far in 2009?

A: It’s been my best year as a pro. Consistently. That’s the difference. I’ve had other moments, other games in other years when I’ve played better, but I think I’ve been involved, mentally and physically, in every game this year. And then when it shows up in the results, it’s a big lift.

Q: In years past, you talked about you felt as if you had matured. But perhaps you hadn’t, really?

A: Yeah. It doesn’t mean I’m there yet, but this was a big … I felt a big turn this year. Just finally knowing what it takes to bring that out of myself every day and being able to do that has been really fun for me.

Q: How much of your maturation is mental and how much is physical? I don’t recall you spending as much time, in the past, on physiotherapy as you have this year.

A: It’s a combination of both. It’s more mental than it is physical, but I did … at the end of last year, my body was pretty beat up and worn down and I did a lot of things in the offseason that got my body in the right mode and got my body prepared for the long year. And then obviously mentally, this has been the culmination of probably three-and-a-half years of working hard mentally to get myself to where I want to be.

Q: Three-and-a-half years, that takes us back to the end of the 2006 World Cup, when you were heavily criticized?

A: Yes.

Q: It seemed as if a team coached by Bruce Arena, with Landon Donovan and David Beckham … it seemed hard to conceive of that team not making the MLS playoffs. Did you feel that way, even with the slow start and all those ties?

A: Yeah. We were 1-1-9, or whatever it was. I think we all felt good about a lot of things in our team. That we were competing, the way we kept playing for 90 minutes. What we were lacking at that point was putting together complete performances. So we would have lapses of 10, 15, 20 minutes when teams could get on us and score and then we’re scrapping to get a point. Now we look back, and there’s probably six or seven games that we should have lost. That we scored late goals just by being persistent and having good character, and now that’s the difference between being in the playoffs or not. And then what happened, as the season was going on, we cut out those mistakes and got better and better and better, game by game, and now those 1-1 games are 2-1 games for us and the 0-0 ties are 1-0 for us because we’re better and because we’re making the plays that make a difference.

Q: Should the Galaxy win the MLS Cup?

A: Do I think right now we’re the best team in MLS? No. I would say Columbus is. But as we’ve seen, you don’t have to be the best team to win anything in any sport. The beauty and some would argue the ugly of our league is that once you get in the playoffs anything can happen. Our starting point is to get in the playoffs. We haven’t been there in three years.

Q: David Beckham’s performance this season?

A: Fantastic. And even the games where he hasn’t scored or assisted on goals he’s been a different player for us than he was last year. He’s also been different off the field. He’s been engaged, prepared. And he’s motivated. And when he’s those things, he’s as good as any player in the league.

Q: In retrospect, some of the unpleasantness of the summer, with David, was that almost necessary? Something that had to be broached before the team could move on?

A: It was necessary, but it probably didn’t have to be in that way. It was necessary to get it out and talk about it and figure it out. I wish I could have taken a different route, but I think we all needed that. Like I’ve said all along, you don’t have to agree with everything that someone says or does, but if you communicate and try to get on the same page, then you’re usually successful, and that’s what we’re seeing now.

Q: Twenty-seven is not old in real life, but do you feel your age as a striker/attacking player?

A: Getting there.

Q: When you are no longer the fastest player on the field, for 25 yards, 40 yards, 80 yards, do you think about “How will I play at that point?”

A: Yeah, I do. I do. My game will change, and it probably already has started to change a little bit. I have moments when I can still do that, and pull those things off. It doesn’t mean I’ll do it as often as I did in the past. But I also think I’m a much smarter player. Tactically, I’m smarter. Even little situations in the game when the ball comes. In the past I would be rushed or hectic. Now I understand the situation and I can calm myself down. All those things come with playing a lot of games and feeling more comfortable.

Q: Bora Milutinovic used to say that a 20-year-old player runs 25 meters and passes 5 meters, and a 30-year-old runs 5 meters and passes 25 meters.

A: Yeah. And I think over time that will continue to happen, and it’s probably already happened a little with me, becoming more comfortable in midfield. When you’re attacking, when you’re a striker, constantly active that way, and running …

Q: With the national team, when Bob Bradley put you on the right wing it was easy to think “that limits your leading scorer to half the pitch.” It seemed like a bad idea. But it seems to have worked out fairly well, and it’s given you a chance to show your work rate. Were you happy with the move from the start?

A: Yeah, I was. For a while now I’ve liked to play in midfield with the U.S. team, especially, because it gives me a chance to face the field. Generally, we have a guy on the other side, in Clint (Dempsey), who is an attacking player and can make plays. And depending on who is playing in the middle, someone can also be attacking-minded. Michael (Bradley) has a good sense of when to go forward, and then you play with two real forwards and it gives us more options in the attack, and the only caveat to that was continuing to learn how to defend properly because the further you are back in the field, the more important those plays are. That’s a learning process. I’m still learning. But I enjoy it.

Q: Watching you play this year, you appear to be closer to exhaustion at the end of matches, especially since the Confederations Cup. Or is that just my imagination?

A: It’s very true, and it’s good to feel that way. Because there’s been a lot of games in the beginning of my career where the game ends and I am still fired up and ready to go, and I realized that you’ve got to use that 90 minutes and put everything out there. And when I do that, I’m usually successful and the team’s usually successful. It’s a good feeling when you’re done after the game and you’re exhausted. Because you know you gave everything to it.

Q: Do you get more media attention now than when you were 22 or 23?

A: Less attention.

Q: So if there seems to be a consensus out there, in the media, that your work rate this year has been really high, would you be aware of it?

A: No I wouldn’t. But I’ve always had a good work rate, going back to when I was young.

Q: But perhaps it’s easier to see the work rate when you’re playing in the midfield and we can see you at the attacking end and then back inside the box, playing defense.

A: That’s fair. I probably get more out of myself playing in the midfield. As a striker, once the ball is in the other half, you’re putting yourself in a good position but you’re not constantly running like you are in the midfield. Yeah, that’s a fair assessment.

Q: Are you following the situation in Honduras, ahead of the match there (Oct. 10)? The upheaval in the country?

A: Just what I hear.

Q: Going to play in an unsettled environment like that, how do you approach that?

A: I’ve learned that in Concacaf and in qualifying that anything can happen. Not only in Honduras, but in all aspects. Being an American, anything can happen. I remember that after 9/11 the security every time we played was just outrageous. You just learn to deal with it and you put your trust in the authorities and the security team and U.S. Soccer. They’ve always done a great job with us. So we just trust that if they say it’s OK to play there, we’ll play. If not, then we trust that they’re making the right decisions.

Q: Honduras has been playing well. It’s probably hard to put yourself in their situation, but are they better or are they worse if they’ve got this country that doesn’t agree on anything except maybe their soccer team?

A: Obviously, i don’t envy the situation they’re in. It probably involves their family and friends and it’s probably a difficult time. My guess would be that it will be a time for everyone to forget about that stuff and just enjoy their opportunity to get to the World Cup which I think would probably bring some sort of peace to the situation, believe it or not. Soccer has that effect sometimes.

Read Part II of the Landon Donovan Interview.


Paul Oberjuerge writes about soccer for the NY Times soccer blog Goal and has his own sports blog at Oberjuerge.com. He can be reached at: paul.oberjuerge@gmail.com

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