Landon Donovan talks USMNT, World Cup snub, Klinsmann and depression
CARSON, Calif. -- The exact date of Landon Donovan's final game as a professional soccer player isn't known yet. It may happen on Dec. 7, at the MLS Cup final. If the L.A. Galaxy falls short of its quest to progress to that game, Donovan's finale may occur a week or two before that.
In terms of Donovan's international career, however, that final bow has been determined. It will take place Friday in East Hartford, Connecticut, in a friendly against Ecuador (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). It will cap an international career that has lasted almost 14 years, one that began with a goal and an assist against bitter rivals Mexico. Since then there have been ups like the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, as well as downs that included the 2006 World Cup and his being left off the 2014 World Cup squad.
In an exclusive interview, Donovan was as candid as ever, touching on all of those topics as well as the battle with depression that saw him take a four-month break from the game in 2013.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ESPN FC: How low a moment was getting left off the World Cup team last May?
Landon Donovan: It was hard. It was really hard for me. I think because it was so unexpected, it's what made it most difficult. If you had expected it, or even thought it was a possibility, then you can kind of prepare for it. But the unexpected nature of it made it so difficult. That part was hard.
ESPN FC: How would you characterize your relationship with Jurgen? How much more tense was it after your sabbatical? Or was it tense?
LD: I didn't perceive it as tense. Obviously there are two sides. I came back and felt good about where I was, and certainly my decision [to take time off] didn't sit well with a lot of people. But I felt it was necessary, and I felt good when I came back. I've never actually felt, even until the moment he said "You're not going to Brazil," I never got the impression there was tension. I've always been honest. I assume that he's been honest with me, and it sort of felt that way. Now, certainly some actions might say that there was tension there, certainly the tweet by his son made me think twice about whether he was honest or whether there was tension there.
Maybe I'm being naive, but I never perceived it that way.
ESPN FC: You've always been a very introspective guy. Do you think that helped you or hurt you during your career?
LD: I think at times it helped me and at times it hurt me. I think by being aware I've allowed myself to not get too high or too low with things. If I have a hat trick I don't come out on the field one week and think I'm great. I'm still prepared and ready the next week. Or if I have a terrible game, I don't let it affect me for the next game. So that's where it's been helpful.
It's not being introspective that, I think, at times has hurt me. It's been doing the work on yourself that can hurt you because people don't realize that if I'm going to therapy or I'm meditating, working through old issues or dealing with things in my personal life, sometimes that's going to show up on the field.
Now, on balance, I still want to do those things. It's important for my growth post-soccer. I'm not going to just shut everything out and live 32 years of my life not doing any of those things. I still want to do those things to grow, but once in a while you go out on game day and you go, "I just feel like s--- today because I've got all these things that I'm working through, processing, and all this stuff that's going on." So sometimes that can hurt.
“I think we have a very big issue with mental health in our country, and I think it's very much under-publicized.”
ESPN FC: You've talked about going to therapy, but were you depressed around the time of your sabbatical?
LD: I was. And I was burnt out, and getting up and going to training every day was really weighing on me. I never wanted it to be that way. I think a lot of players, a lot of athletes feel that way at times. I think they're scared to say it because it shows perceived weakness. It shows your coach that you're not completely committed like all coaches want. It shows that you're human, and sometimes people don't like to see that. But I realized that if I stayed on that path, it was just going to get worse and worse. I didn't want that. I didn't want to live my life that way.
I think probably a lot of people can relate to that at some point in their life or their career. I hope people look at that and say, "Gosh, I guess it's okay to feel human feelings once in a while." [smiles]. It's what makes us human.
ESPN FC: How long had you been feeling that way?
LD: I'd been feeling it for a while that year. I don't know exactly when, but as the year wore on, I remember when the whistle blew [at the 2012 MLS Cup final] and we won the game, I wasn't even that excited. I was just relieved that it was over. That's when I knew it was time to take a break.
ESPN FC: Do you plan to address that post-career in terms of raising awareness for that?
LD: I don't know. I would like to talk to people a lot and talk to young kids and talk to soccer players because when you go through times like that -- I've had a few in my life where I've had times like that -- you then become aware of it in other people. So I see a lot of people dealing with these things. It makes you sad because you want to help. It's hard for people to approach something like that honestly. That's potentially something I'll do.
I think we have a very big issue with mental health in our country, and I think it's very much under-publicized. I think people aren't aware of it themselves. They don't have compassion towards it. I think it's a big issue in our country, probably in the world. It would be nice to see some of that change.
ESPN FC: Oct. 25, 2000, was your debut against Mexico. What are your recollections of that game?
LD: It was exciting just to be in camp, and I think my expectation was that I wasn't going to play at all. I thought, "Maybe I'll get a few minutes at the end of the game." And you don't know where you stand because you're a young guy coming in. It's not like I had long conversations with Bruce [Arena] about anything. But I didn't know what was going to happen.
I'm on the bench. It was a crazy crowd at the L.A. Coliseum, and 30 minutes in Chris Henderson gets hurt. We're all sort of watching. I'm a young kid so if I was older I might be like, "Oh, this might be my chance." But I was like, "Oh, that sucks," just sort of sitting there, and the next thing I know it's "Landon, warm up." I'm like, "Oh, s---. This is serious." So I warm up for a few minutes and I think it was [former USMNT assistant coach Dave] Sarachan who came down and grabbed me and said, "Let's go, you're going in."
Honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened. I didn't think about it, I didn't overthink it, I didn't have any time to plan. The next thing I know I was in the game. I don't really remember details except scoring the goal, and having an assist and the feeling after. That was it.
ESPN FC: What was the goal like?
LD: I think Clint [Mathis] played the ball through someone's legs. I remember making a run that I had made 1,000 times in my life up to that point, and getting onto it. As I got there, I remember the goalie coming out pretty hard, so I just instinctively touched it by him. Once I hit it, it was in. It was this euphoric, almost incredulous, enjoyment. I probably celebrated like an idiot, but I was just so excited.
ESPN FC: What was the feeling afterward?
LD: Well, my whole family was there. It was cool to be in the locker room. Obviously beating Mexico was such a big thing for everybody. And then having the chance to sit and hang out with my family and friends was really special. Up to that point -- that was in 2000 -- I hadn't had too many great experiences professionally because I was at Leverkusen, and not getting many chances to play. I had had the U17s and stuff like that, but it wasn't like I had had this great career, and this was a nice moment. That was really the first moment that I did something special. It was really cool for all of us to experience.
ESPN FC: You were the villain to Mexico many times after that. What was it like to be Public Enemy No. 1 for an entire nation?
LD: I think my fault was that I said a lot of stupid things. I was just brash and sort of shot my mouth off a lot. I think that was the issue. I think if you're just a good player who scores goals, it's not that big of a deal. But saying stupid things, doing stupid things, really vilified me, and I wish I could take that back. I regret that stuff, because there was no need for that.
ESPN FC: Anything in particular that you recall?
LD: I would see an interview around a Mexico game, and just my attitude and the cockiness and the ego, I just didn't need to do that. Part of it was probably what made me good at that time, having that attitude, but I could have handled it in a better way for sure.
ESPN FC: What did playing for the national team mean for you, and how has that changed over the course of your career?
LD: A lot of people start their careers with club teams. We have kids who come up now like Bradford Jamieson -- he's playing with our club team and he does go play with the [youth] national team a little bit, but this is where his bread gets buttered, so to speak. At that point, when I first started playing, MLS was in its infancy, and the national team and the youth national team was all I had. Even when I made my debut, I wasn't playing first-team football anywhere; it was all really just the national team. It was my first club team in that way, so it was special.
Over the years, I've always had this enormous sense of pride wearing the national team jersey. I'm not exactly sure where that's come from. I've always felt like I owed it to somebody or something because I felt like the national team and Bruce in particular gave me a chance to get my career going. I've always felt a special connection in that way, and it's stayed with me forever. When I wear it [on October 10], it's going to feel the same way.
ESPN FC: Does it shock you that the end is so close?
LD: Not yet. I haven't mentally processed it. Part of it is because we're in the middle of this Supporters' Shield race. I think when I get on the plane to Hartford, I think it will hit me. It's sort of what I think. I'll be able to put this aside a little bit, with the Galaxy, and then focus on that. It's certainly going to be a different situation. It's not like it's a testimonial where it's a bunch of 45-year-old retired players. It's a real game, so part of me almost feels bad that I'm in some ways interrupting an important match for everybody involved. It's a little strange in that way.
I'm going to approach it in two ways. One, I'm going to take it all in and enjoy it. Two, I need to remember that it's still a game that matters. I'm not just there to walk around the field, wave my hand at everyone and say "Thanks." I'm there to play too, so I want to make sure I balance both of those well.
Landon Donovan's Final U.S. Game:
- Oral history: The early years and 2006 and beyond
- Parker: Discussing Donovan's legacy
- #FCdebate: Has Donovan fulfilled his potential?
- McIntyre: Donovan's top 10 USMNT moments
- Five Aside: Donovan's numbers make him the best
- Watch: All of Donovan's U.S. goals
ESPN FC: What moments in your national team career do you think you'll cherish the most? Is it goals, is it games, is it World Cups ... or is it something different?
LD: The World Cups are so special, because you're together for so long, and especially when it goes well, there's this sense of teamwork that I can't imagine you get in any other profession. You're with these grown men going through something that's so difficult and emotional. That's pretty special in itself. And it's just so much fun. Going on these trips was always so much fun, especially when Bruce was the coach, because we had so much freedom. We would come in, we would train in the morning, but then in the afternoon and evening you got to go be around the guys and just hang out. That was so enjoyable, because we had so many great memories from all that stuff.
ESPN FC: Any favorites that you want to share?
LD: One of my favorite memories was when we went to Barbados in 2001 and we were in the preliminary round of qualifying. Not even the final round. And we had to beat Barbados to advance, it was the last game. A tie wouldn't have gotten us through, so it was a tense, tense situation. Into the 60th minute, it was 0-0, and they had a great chance to score and [Tony] Meola made an incredible save. And then we ended up scoring -- I think Joe-Max Moore scored -- and we ended up winning 4-0.
“Over the years, I've always had this enormous sense of pride wearing the national team jersey. I'm not exactly sure where that's come from. ”
You could imagine this tense situation, these highs and lows of the roller coaster, and then afterwards we got to go out in Barbados. There was just this sense of relief and enjoyment, so it made the night incredible. I remember Clint Mathis coming up to me with all the money the guys had put in for the night saying, "Here, you're in charge of it for the night." It was my job as the rookie on the team. And we got to go out and just enjoy ourselves and have fun. It's moments like that that you never forget.
ESPN FC: Certainly two moments that fans will never forget: the goal against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup and the goal against Algeria eight years later. What do you recall about those particular moments?
LD: The Mexico one, I just remember how much fitter I felt than my opponents. I think our team was so fit, but I was young, so I had that extra, extra gear. I remember when the ball got to John O'Brien, and he hit it to Eddie Lewis, I took off on that run without even thinking about it. Nowadays, I would go, "Eh, the chances of me getting there are maybe one in 30. The chances of me actually scoring are maybe one in 100. Maybe I wait this time, because we're already winning the game. Maybe wait this time and just work on your defending." At that time, I would just go, and I took off. Eddie obviously hit the perfect cross, the timing was perfect.
I remember the celebration because when I turned the corner, I saw [DaMarcus Beasley] standing there and how exciting that was. That was really special.
Similarly in 2010, fitness was a big issue. That game really opened up. We had the ability to just keep going and just trying to find a way to win. All these World Cups -- it's just coming to me now -- being that fit, and feeling that confident because of your fitness was such a key, it has sort of been a staple of the national team over the years. In a lot of ways, those goals were similar.
ESPN FC: Who do you see as being the next Landon Donovan in terms of being an attacking player that got people excited the way you did when you first arrived on the international scene?
LD: I don't know. I think what makes those of us who have lasted a long time, what's made Clint [Dempsey] so successful, what's made Michael Bradley so successful, Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra; there's a lot of pieces that go into all that. There's guys who were much more talented than myself or Clint or Michael. From just a talent standpoint, the way they move, athletically, all those things. There are guys who have more than that.
The mental piece is so important. Can you get up every day and go again and go again and go again? Do you take care of yourself? Do you do extra work that's needed? People don't realize that I've spent lots of time and lots of money doing Pilates, doing yoga, getting work done on my body, doing structural alignment work in the offseason to get my body right. All those things are what separate those of us who can last and who can do it for a long time from other people. I'm very proud of that, and if someone is going to continue in that way, and carry that torch, they have to have all of those pieces.
Michael is certainly someone who has those tools. Whether or not young kids realize that yet is to be determined. We've seen a lot of young kids who come up through the national team who don't stick. I think that's a big piece of it that people forget about.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.