Landon Donovan reflects on MLS, retirement, U.S. soccer's future
Landon Donovan, the coach? While it may be too early to say that the former U.S. legend has found his new calling, Donovan has been named coach for the MLS Homegrown Team for their match against Club America Under-20s on Tuesday, July 28 (9 p.m. ET) as part of the league's All-Star Game week. We chatted with Donovan about his new role and whether the U.S. is on the right track for player development. (Editors' note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
ESPN FC: First of all, congratulations on taking this gig.
Can you talk a little about how it came about and what it was that appealed to you about this?
I speak to my agent often and he just bluntly asked if this was something I'd be interested in doing. That they'd called and asked if I'd be interested in doing it. My initial gut reaction was "Yeah, it'd be great..." It was pretty soon after I'd gone to New Zealand with the Under 20s and I really enjoyed that experience. My initial thought was "Why would they want me to do this - I've never coached a day in my life" (laughs), but the more I thought about it the more I thought it'd probably be a really good experience for me.
Obviously there was the New Zealand experience, and you seemed to enjoy launching the draft this year on the occasion of the MVP trophy being named for you, and you have your youth camps. Is this an indication of a future direction you're going to take, or is this more of a comfortable fit while you work those things out?
Not necessarily, but I don't rule it out either. My sort of goal right now is to find out what I'm passionate about. I'm fortunate to get opportunities to do different things and I'll keep dipping my toe in and trying things out, but I want to make sure that whatever I do next I'm passionate about in the way I was about my playing career.
You were obviously a young player who was part of a generation where there was a plan but no road map. So when you think about this current group of players, is there anything that you wish had or hadn't been done for your generation of players that you could maybe help with now, or you could suggest?
Yeah, there's a lot of things. I think the biggest plus for them is that they have an end game now. You said it well -- when we came up, we didn't know that there was somewhere we could go. We thought it was ... you could go to college or maybe go overseas somewhere. But now they have -- and these kids in particular -- they are in their home city, their home state, getting to play and learn and grow in front of their friends and family. For us ... me personally, I had to go to Germany and other guys had to move all over the place to have that opportunity, and now they get this chance to do it while still getting to be a kid. Now all of the MLS teams have their own academies and it's been a big plus, and I think all the teams see the value in it.
What's the process been like - being given this particular mandate to look at this group of young players, if only for one game?
It's actually been really interesting from that standpoint, because you hear these names, and then you see these kids play a little bit at the professional level, and a few of them have played a little bit or quite a bit now with MLS teams, but you don't know a lot about them. And it's been interesting for me to, as much as I can, get to know about some of these other kids who maybe haven't played quite as much ... I had the opportunity to speak to every coach in the league, except, I think, Caleb Porter, about these players. And then talk to other people about these players. And it was an interesting process to get to know a little about them through that and then decide how to put a team together.
How are you going to be on the bench for the Homegrown game?
[laughs] I haven't thought about that...
Are you going to be gesticulating, or are you a hand on the chin guy?
It's actually a really, really good question, because sometimes when I watch a youth soccer game and I watch these parents and coaches going crazy, and I'm thinking to myself, "Dude, you're watching an 8-year-old play soccer -- why do you care so much about the result?" But then I find myself in New Zealand watching the Under-20s and I have no real connection, but I'm up in the stands going absolutely crazy when they score a goal or there's a bad call against them or something, and I have to sort of calm myself down, and you can understand why people are so passionate about it. But I always thought if I was in that position I would kind of keep my cool and just be relaxed, but I guess it's to be determined. Fortunately I have two great coaches and friends coming with me -- Pat Noonan is with me and Mike Munoz, who coaches the under-16s at the Galaxy. So if I get out of hand they can drag me back into my seat.
Twitter will be watching
I know, right?
You've obviously been in a few All-Star games. What are they like on the inside as a player and do you see a particular value to them?
I do see value, and I think in this case, for all of the young men coming in for this game, in a lot of ways it's a benchmark. And it's being able to appreciate them for what they have done. Obviously it's their goal and their dream to get to this stage in their life where they are professionals, but to have an opportunity to take a few days out of their daily life and come in and get to be in an enjoyable environment -- I think that's really special for them. That's what I always felt as an All-Star, even at the end -- I really appreciated that opportunity. And then the biggest thing is getting to play with all these great players that you idolize and you watch throughout the league.
We have Harry Shipp coming, and I'm sure a lot of these guys have watched Harry play over the last few seasons, Or Dillon Serna, or Shane O'Neill who has been on national team camps -- or Gyasi Zardes, who won't be with us. But they get to watch that and now they have the opportunity to come in and play with each other, train against each other for a day and have a really cool experience. And they'll remember that forever -- I mean I remember all those experiences very well, and they have an opportunity to be part of something really special, even if it's only for a few days.
Was there an All-Star coach that you worked with your All-Star game appearance where you thought afterwards, "They handled that really well" or "That was a nice touch", or anything you picked up you'd want to pass on?
Yeah there was a few. I believe it was the last two years, in Kansas City and Portland ... in Kansas City it was really cool for me to see, and it was a little bit of an "Aha" moment because I remember playing in Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium in front of 1500 fans, and then to juxtapose that with this All-Star game that you could tell they were so excited to have -- the whole organization and the whole town. It was buzzing and you could really feel it and sense it, and I think their organization did a great job - they really put on a great show.
And it was the same in Portland. Caleb [Porter] did a great job -- Vermes did a great job the year before. They understood it, they got it, they were excited to be a part of it, and it feels really special. And I think as the league has grown and expanded, it's a lot more special now to be named to that team than it was in the past. I think people really realize that. I don't know if you saw the Drew Moor video but you can tell what it means to people to be named to that. And that's what it should be and what they've wanted all along.
The Drew Moor video was one I really appreciated
I'll not get you into hot water about commissioner's picks...
Do you feel that the homegrown program has been growing at a realistic pace? Would you like to see more happening? Say tomorrow Jurgen Klinsmann gives you a call and say, "OK -- you're going to lead youth development for the country" -- what would be the first thing you would do?
To me, it's all about the coaches. I think we probably get a little too hung up about it being about the players. Obviously you need the players, with the right ability and the right skill level, but at the end I think it's about who's doing the teaching. And if we can focus on that part of it, I think we'll continue to get better, and I really think it's been an overwhelming success. I don't think anybody could argue that, but there's still a lot of ways to improve. Some teams do it very well and some teams don't do it so well.
Obviously the team I know best, the Galaxy, have been at right at the top now, for a long time. To the point where, in the past, when kids got called into residency or certain tournaments with the national team, it was an absolute no-brainer that the kid should go - "Of course they should go!" But now we're to a point where in a lot of circumstances it's better for a kid to be playing with the Galaxy U-18s or LA Galaxy II or training with the Galaxy first team, than it is to go to some of these camps, and that is a big, big plus. That's where it's changed a lot ... But to answer your question, the emphasis should be on the coaches and coaching and then eventually you're going to develop a lot of great players.
There's an idea that comes up periodically, in England especially, when the FA starts to worry about domestic development and talks about quota systems to encourage young English players who might otherwise be crowded out in the Premier League by big name expensive signings from overseas. You just mentioned Galaxy youth development, but the team has also signed what is in effect a fourth designated player in Giovani Dos Santos, which gives another first team slot toward an established player. Do you see any argument for at any stage introducing some sort of quota mechanism to protect domestic development?
It's an interesting question ... Part of me thinks you have to leave it up to each individual team to decide what they're going to do with their team and their roster. But the reality is that for U.S. soccer as a whole to get better, we need Americans playing and playing well at a high level.
We hear about cycles of success in other youth systems whether it's Germany, France at one stage, Belgium recently. Each has their own particular qualities. Given your experiences here and in Europe what do you think is absolutely specific to the U.S., that might either curtail or encourage youth development?
It's an important question, and unfortunately one that I don't feel we have a great answer to, but my theory is that it just takes time. I think that's a hard answer for people to cope with, especially with Americans, because we think we can do anything. That's a great mindset to have, and that's a great way to live, but the reality is that things like this don't just happen overnight. I mean, can you imagine if ... I'm just trying to think of or pick a similar country that has our athleticism and our resources...all of a sudden was learning how to play and develop a new sport. It wouldn't just happen overnight.
I think what's happening now is that people who grew up playing, like myself, will eventually have children, who will then be fans and play, and maybe they won't be professionals or play in college, but they'll grow up appreciating the sport. Then they'll have kids, and generation after generation of legitimate soccer fans. Then eventually you start having real fan bases and guys who've played all throughout MLS who are teaching kids all through 5,6,7 years old, all the way through academies, and everyone gets better and better that way.
But I guess the simplest answer and the most, I guess, real answer for me is that it just takes time. We have the resources, right? We have the ability to implement best practices from all over the world and eventually we'll get there, but it'll just take time.
For better or worse you've been a lightning rod for a lot of discussions around the national team, and the league, just through being the first to certain things. You have a certain amount of social capital and power within the U.S. game. So do you think, "I have this voice and I want to choose where I make my stand?"
Yeah, I do think about that quite a bit actually. I try to see both sides and I try to understand why some of the things I do are not popular with people. I think a lot of people would like to make decisions in life based on other things than necessity. And I've always made decisions that would make me and my family and my loved ones, and people I care about, happy. And that's not always popular with people, and probably because people wish they could do the same too, and a lot of people unfortunately don't have that possibility, because they have other things going on in life that make them need to do things.
So I understand that piece of it, but I've always just came back to "I need to live the way I need to to be happy." And I try to do things with good intentions -- the right intentions -- and going forward it's important to make sure that I do what I'm passionate about and what really means something to me. So I'm trying to be more cautious - I could probably do a better job of picking...of, I guess, being careful about what I'm going to choose to do and choose to support. But it is something I think about. And in the end, I guess, I know I'm going to make a lot of mistakes, so now I'm transitioning into figuring out what's next, and I'll probably make a lot of mistakes. But as long as I keep learning and trying to grow and get better, I think I can live with that.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.