FIFA.com was fortunate enough to enjoy an in-depth chat with Landon Donovan recently.
In this, the first of a two-part interview, all matters Stateside are discussed, such as Los Angeles Galaxy's start to the Major League Soccer season, the dominance of Mexican sides in the CONCACAF Champions League, the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as USA coach and why the FIFA World Cup™ is so special.
FIFA.com: With an attacking ensemble which would be the envy of many teams across the globe, can the Galaxy capture a second MLS cup?
Landon Donovan: Well in our league, and particularly in LA, we have an owner here who is very committed to not only winning but to making sure we are putting an exciting product on the field. Most places around the world it’s just about the football, but we are still trying to build our game, so we need to have, hopefully, an exciting product that people want to pay money to come see. We’re fortunate that we’ve got an owner and a coach who are committed to that and it’s fun for me as an attacking player because I get to play alongside some of these great, talented players.
Looking at the current table and the CONCACAF Champions League, it wasn’t the start you would have hoped for. What do you credit that to?
It was tough. We are certainly a much better team than we showed early on. I think a big part of it was not having myself and Robbie [Keane] there from the beginning of the pre-season. We were a little bit disjointed to start and it kind of showed on the field. We weren’t playing terribly, but our league is parity-driven, so if you are a little bit off-form and a team is playing well they can beat you. So it’s not like we are Manchester United or Barcelona, where you have a bad day and you can still win 2-0 or 3-0. We have a bad day and we can lose games, and that’s what happened at the start of the season.
Monterrey have qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup. It always seems to be the Mexican teams that reach the final of the competition. How close are MLS teams to narrowing the gap?
We’re close, but there are realities. We’re the exception, but most Major League Soccer teams have a payroll of $3-4m USD for the entire squad. Some Mexican teams have a payroll of $20-30m USD. The reality is that the teams who are paying more for their players generally win. We’re getting better – our league is committed to continuing to spend more money, but they’re running a business so they’ve got to be smart about it. We’ve had a number of teams, even with the discrepancy in pay, doing very well and getting very close. Last year, Real Salt Lake went close against Monterrey – and were less than 45 minutes away to advancing to a Club World Cup. It’s only a matter of time, but as long as we’re progressing I think we’re still OK with that.
Jurgen’s very adamant about pushing us, even to the point of getting out of your comfort zone and I think it’s done wonders for a lot of our guys so far.
Do you think the Galaxy may be the team which are in the best position to narrow that gap?
Yes, if our team is healthy. We’ve got enough talented players to pull off plays and score goals. One deficit we had at the start of this year we were missing arguably our most important player in Omar Gonzalez, our centre-back, and I think we paid for it. We gave up some pretty soft goals early on and goals that you wouldn’t expect to give up if Omar was there. So I think if we were a healthy team, we’d have a realistic chance to do well.
Turning to the national team, what do you think Jurgen Klinsmann wants to achieve with USA?
He keeps his goals pretty broad. He wants progress and those of us who have been in the game for a long time here in America know that’s what it is about. It’s about continuing to progress. It would be a little unrealistic to expect we are going to go win the World Cup in 2014. We’ve had a number of games over the past ten years where we’ve pulled off some special results, but the best teams do that consistently. We want to get to a place where we can do that. Jurgen’s very adamant about pushing us, even to the point of getting out of your comfort zone and I think it’s done wonders for a lot of our guys so far. It was a little slow to take hold early on, but I think guys are started to adapt now and understand what his demands are and it’s getting better and better.
In terms of pushing you to the limits, is that physically, mentally, or is it both?
I think it’s both. I think it’s continuing to challenge guys, particularly younger guys, to not be content with, you know, if you had a good season last year, don’t be content with that, keep going. If you had a good game last week, don’t be content with that, get better. The physical part, he has been very demanding in the camps so far, but it’s all in a positive way and I think we’re starting to see the benefits of it.
How have you responded to him personally? You’ve missed a couple of games through illness and injury.
Well, I’ve known Jurgen a long time now and I think we have a lot of respect for each other. For me, it was great to have him appointed because of our relationship. I think we see not only soccer the same way, but we see the world in the same way. We both believe in really good, positive energy and he wants to fill us with confidence and give us the ability to express ourselves. And as a creative, attacking player that’s all we ever want and so, it’s been great – it’s been a little frustrating for me because I haven’t been able to be in the squad for a while, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to get in again and be with the team.
How confident are you of reaching Brazil 2014?
Well, it’s never easy in our part of the world. I think the assumption probably from around the world is that this is an easy place to qualify. The reality is, it’s not - it’s difficult and it always has been and always will be. But, I think particularly what we’re seeing in recent history is that the footballing world is getting smaller and smaller, and teams are getting better and better. In the past, if we played the El Salvador national team in qualifying, out of 23 guys in their squad, they had 22 guys that were playing in El Salvador. Now you might get eight which are playing in El Salvador, two in Mexico, three or four in the US, and some in Costa Rica or other parts. They’re pushing themselves more and getting better and better. So, that’s the way football is going. I’m sure people see it around Europe, with some results you wouldn’t expect from some of the smaller nations against bigger nations. I think that trend is going to continue as the world gets smaller.
I think a lot of people don’t realise that I’m actually half-Canadian. At one point, I could have had the opportunity to play for Canada!
What makes the FIFA World Cup so special for you personally?
Well, I think for most Americans, particularly my age, it’s all we knew of football. Growing up I had four TV channels, and none of them in America ever showed a soccer game – literally ever. So, I never watched soccer on TV growing up and never had the opportunity to really follow world-class players. I didn’t watch the Champions League, I didn’t watch the Premier League, I didn’t watch La Liga – I had no idea. So the only chance we got to really watch football was the World Cup, so that became my dream. My dream was ‘OK, well, this is the event that matters. This is what I want to do’, and that’s always made it really special for me. I’m a big sports fan in general, and to have the opportunity three times now to do something like that, there’s no doubt it’s been the most special times in my career.
Finally, tell us something about yourself which we wouldn’t find on the internet already?
I think a lot of people don’t realise that I’m actually half-Canadian. At one point, I could have had the opportunity to play for Canada! I think more importantly, my dad always secretly hoped I’d be a hockey player, but growing up in sunny Southern California I think the odds were low!
*A second part of this exclusive interview with Landon Donovan, in which he talks about his loan spells with Bayern Munich and Everton will appear on FIFA.com tomorrow.