Landon Donovan is the greatest American soccer player ever. And he became that while no one was watching.
“In the early days, there were two barometers,” said Donovan, the all-time leading scorer in the history of Major League Soccer about the attendance problems that once plagued the earliest days of the league. “One was, a lot of the games weren’t televised. I remember games from early in my career where I scored a goal or two goals and there is literally no footage of it. I couldn’t watch it right now if I wanted to. Which is crazy to think of.
“And the other thing was, we had games on a Wednesday night, mid-week, in stadiums that were NFL stadiums. I remember playing at Gillette Stadium, Mile High Stadium, where, during the game you could literally hear people say, ‘Hey Landon – how’s your sister doing?’ It was like you were playing in a high school soccer game. When you juxtapose that with that with what you see today, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Donovan has teamed up with Heineken to launch “Soccer is Here,” a campaign to announce the start of Heineken’s “Rivalry Week,” and also recognizing players who helped bring the sport to where it is today.
Donovan won a record six MLS Cups and is the league’s all-time top scorer with 144 goals and all-time assists leader with 136. Last January, the league changed the name of its MVP award to the Landon Donovan MVP Award.
We asked Landon about his earliest soccer memory, what oft-overlooked attribute makes a player great, and fan taunts – presumably – about his sister.
Does working with Heineken on #RivalryWeek make you want to come out of retirement and play again?
For those of us who sort of lived it when soccer definitely wasn’t “here” but we were trying to convince people it was, yeah you do. Because there is more excitement, there’s more fanfare, there’s more money in the sport, there’s better players. All of that. So that makes it exciting. But, I think we can all kind of sit back, those of us who have retired or helped to build it, and feel really proud of what we’ve done.
I’ve read some really interesting stories about the history of the MLS in its initial stages about how stripped down everything really was, to put it mildly. Is there one experience that you had that encapsulates that?
Yes. I was a lot younger at the time so I was a little naïve. But I remember the older guys having discussions, my first year in 2001, and I vividly remember guys saying, ‘I don’t know if the league is going to be around next year.’ For me, that was just the reality we lived in – none of us were sure it was ever going to make it to any level. That was only 15 years ago. So when you turn around and see what’s happening now, it’s pretty remarkable. And I know we’re not the NFL. And we’re not like some of the other big leagues around the world. But it’s still pretty remarkable to hear a conversation 15 years ago about them realistically thinking about just folding the league and quitting, compared to where we are today.
So the fans weren’t taunting you; they were legitimately concerned with how your sister was doing.
Yes! Ha ha. It was probably my uncle asking me!
I’m curious about the early portion of your career, prior to the MLS experience. What is your earliest soccer memory?
Wow, good question. Not sure I’ve ever been asked that. I think my earliest memory is playing with my brother in my backyard. I was probably about three years old. In roughly 1985. Again, at that time, literally nobody played soccer – I’m not even sure why my brother was playing. My mother was really adamant about me playing – I was a really, really hyperactive kid and that was the best way to burn energy. She was really happy to have me running around all day.
The reason I asked about your earliest soccer memory is because I coached my 8-year old daughter’s soccer team this session and today we actually won the league, she had five goals in the final. As a coach, you want them to be excited, you want them to feel good about themselves. And it made me wonder how impactful those early years were for you.
It’s a good question and it’s well-said, because they were vital to me. Without getting too philosophical or personal, my childhood was a little bit rough. And so soccer became an identity. I was playing so much at a young age, when I got to five and 6-years old and started playing organized soccer, I was way ahead of the other kids. I got a lot of attention and recognition and built an identity that way. And like you said, you want them to do well and feel good about themselves and that was a place I could go out and play and feel good about myself.
In terms of goal scoring, what attributes of a keeper do you value the most-highly in terms of being difficult to score against? What makes a keeper great? Is it intuition?
Yeah. For me the biggest deterrent was making the goal look small. They didn’t have to be 6’ 5” with a big wingspan. But if the way they used angles, and timing as far as when they came out to put pressure on you, they could shrink the goal; that always made it hard on me. If a goalie stayed back and appeared smaller in stature, it made the goal seem big and gave you a lot of confidence. That was always what I wanted. And conversely, when a goalie did the opposite, it made you really think about trying to score, that you’d have to hit the perfect shot. And a lot of times you’d miss because of that.
What is the most valuable, yet most overlooked, skill that can be developed starting at a younger age but even as a player gets older?
Awareness. I think people put too much emphasis on the technical side – and obviously it’s extremely important in any sport, technically to be good at the skills. But in soccer especially, where you don’t have set plays drawn up – in football it’s run 10 yards and cut here, basketball you’re running set plays – in soccer it’s very instinctive. And so, your brain has to be better trained than your mind if you’re going to be an elite level player. And if you look at any top-level player – Christiano Renaldo is physically a specimen, and he’s physical very gifted, but he also has unbelievable awareness and understanding of the game, his body, his opponents, all that stuff – that’s what makes them truly great.
Speaking of greatness, what is your greatest moment ever? What is the one event you experienced that made your heart almost beat out of your chest because you were so excited?
There’s two of them. One was in 2010 at the World Cup scoring the goal against Algeria that put us through to the next round. Just because of the – and I don’t want to be too dramatic – but because of the historical significance. Because of the timing and what it meant for our team. And helping to grow soccer. And the other was the first time I walked out of the tunnel for my first World Cup game for warm-ups in South Korea in 2002. I was walking with a buddy who I had come up through the ranks with for four years prior to that. And I just looked at him and thought, ‘Can you believe we are doing this?’ We both just had this huge smile. Because it was our dream. It was absolutely, literally, our dream come true.
You’re in that scenario and you’ve literally realized a dream you’re actually living what you’ve dreamed and worked so hard to do – what do you do for an encore? What do you do from there?
In that particular moment it was easy because there was so much excitement. But then in the big picture, you still have moments that are awe-inspiring, that bring that same sense of wonder, here and there throughout your career. It becomes a little bit more of a job as you get older than it does with that genuine, childhood feeling. But there are still moments that have a similar feeling to that as you play your career.
How do you maintain the wonderment?
That’s the hard part. I think a lot of athletes struggle with that because it’s easy when you’re 19 and you come on the scene and you’re doing well. Everyone loves you. People are hesitant to criticize. Everything is going your way. But the first time you start to struggle, then what is it? Because this game, that has brought you so much joy, suddenly people are critiquing and criticizing you. And you go, “Well, this isn’t what I signed up for. I just wanted to play this sport that I love.” So, it takes a lot of thoughtful ness and compassion with yourself to make sure you’re aware of what’s going on, and you’re aware of how fickle the game is. And the critique of it, the media. So you have to learn to find ways to keep it fresh and genuine. So that you can try and emulate that feeling you had when you were younger.
At that point when they’re asking about your sister, they really don’t care about her well-being…
Hahaha – presumably not! Correct!