BRISTOL, Conn. – There is no press conference like a Landon Donovan press conference. Instantly recognizable on the field thanks to his slashing style and exquisite control at high speed, Donovan is equally distinct off it. Candid, thoughtful and often courageous – “probably to my detriment, at times,” he said Friday – Donovan holds court like few other athletes.
Friday’s meeting with the media inside ESPN’s headquarters outside Hartford, where he’s scheduled to play in a U.S. jersey for the 157th and final time, was especially poignant. After 16 years as a pro, three World Cups, a record number of goals for club and country and unprecedented scrutiny, Donovan, 32, has announced his retirement.
No American player has ever been more honored or more divisive, and that dichotomy was evident as Donovan and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati addressed questions about his unparalleled accomplishments on the field, his sensational exclusion from this summer’s World Cup and his uncertain future.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was preparing his team to meet Ecuador at Rentschler Field, did not attend. Donovan’s relationship with his third national team coach was the only topic on which the player didn’t eloquently expound, responding to a question about it by saying simply, “You know.”
Donovan did, however, discuss the perspective he’s found on his World Cup absence. In a sense, the path from shock and indignation to a place where he can regard the snub as an illuminating lesson reflects his much longer journey, one that started as an impulsive, occasionally shortsighted teenage phenom who learned and grew on the job. Today, Donovan feels he has command of what’s really important. In the future, he hopes to help others through the same process.
“Life doesn’t always go your way and like I said, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be on the right side of most decisions,” Donovan said. “Although this summer I didn’t agree with the decision – I still know I should’ve been there – it was good for me to know it’s not always going to go your way. It took time for me to get to this place. I’m human. I had some very real emotions. But after a while, maybe it’s going to be a good thing. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow had it not happened.
"I certainly grew more by that happening than if I’d gone to the World Cup and played there and in that way, you can learn a lot from it. I had the opportunity to feel what other players have felt in my career. A lot of times, when I made the team, I was so happy for me that I forgot about the guy who got cut … These are real things that people deal with and that was positive. As much as I would’ve loved to have been there and should’ve been there, I believe that it’s happening the way it’s supposed to and I’ve learned a lot form it and maybe a night like tonight [his national team farewell] doesn’t come about the same way. There are always positives to take.”
His awareness of his maturation, and the work he still hopes to do, will inform at least a portion of the next phase of his life. Donovan has said that he wants to take college courses, hopes to travel to the places he experienced only through bus and hotel windows and is excited by the prospect of having a beer without worrying about its affect on his play the following day. But he also wants to use what he’s learned about that journey and help others. Rather than dealing with the “headache” of “male soccer egos,” Donovan – who has been very active in the MLS Players Union – said he’d like to work with younger players as they set out on their own road to professionalism.
“What I wish is that I had someone, or people, to let me know that things were going to a certain way or what the potential was,” he said. “When I think back to my days at [Bayer] Leverkusen [in 1999-2000], I had no clue what was coming from that standpoint. I got there and it didn’t go well and I bailed. If I had someone who said, ‘This is part of it. This is part of being a professional, part of growing up, part of life,’ I’d have said, ‘Okay, I’ll stick it out.”
Nothing about Donovan has frustrated more people, including Klinsmann, than Donovan’s decision not to “stick it out” in Europe.
“I certainly would’ve liked to have had some more awareness about how life was going to go in this sport. It’s certainly unique for 16-year-olds to deal with that sort of stuff, so I give myself a break. But it would’ve been nice,” he continued. “Just having the ability to influence people would be positive for me and I think I would get a lot out of it and I think they would get a lot out of it. I feel like I could help in a lot of ways with people of different ages, but I think being able to really be hands on early in people’s careers would be helpful because that’s where I needed the most help.”
Gulati turned to Donovan and said that the federation is “Here to be a part of anything you want to do in the future and we’ll be here to say ‘Thank you’ in another 10 or 20 years for what you’ve done then.”
He added, “I think the fact that he’s done what he’s done makes it easier for other players to come through, because the level of the game has risen, the popularity of the game, and Landon has been a big part of that.”
The president’s support for Donovan, and his affection for a player he’s known since 1998, is the reason Friday’s testimonial is happening. Gulati said that Donovan was reluctant to embrace the idea following Klinsmann’s decision to leave him off the World Cup roster. But the player came around as he developed more of a sense of Friday night would mean to so many people, including the 20 members of his family who Gulati flew out for the occasion.
“I give all the credit to Sunil for sticking with me through some hard conversations and understanding what was important and making this happen,” Donovan said. “I believe this is a day I deserve. I believe this is a day my family deserves for all the sacrifices they made. I’m here representing all the wonderful teammates I’ve played with, all the coaches I’ve played for, all the executives who take great care of us … People in this sport, more than any other, care about soccer and if you’re in this sport for the long haul, like a lot of you in this room have been, you care about it more than ‘It’s just a paycheck’ or doing your job or showing up for a press conference. You care about it deeply … It’ll be a very special night for me and I hope I’m able to thank everyone in the appropriate way.”
Wounded pride wasn’t an issue. He’ll face Klinsmann in the locker room. Perhaps they’ll finally chat. But Donovan said he wouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of mostly great moments in my soccer career, being treated very well for most of my career, being selected when perhaps I shouldn’t have been for games or tournaments or teams. I’ve had the benefit of the doubt most of my career and this time it went against me and it was difficult,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I looked at the big picture and realized what a special day this could be and it’s almost like if you care to believe this stuff, in many ways it was meant to be. I think it’s no coincidence it’s 10/10 today. The way it came together was beautiful.”
Here’s more of Donovan during the hours before his final U.S. international:
On how he hopes to be remembered
“The stuff that happens on the field, sometimes I forget the importance it has in the greater scheme of life. While for me, sometimes I talk about the Algeria goal [at the 2010 World Cup] and that moment, for me it really was me just doing my job. I was in the right place. I did what I’ve done many times in my career, as did all the other guys on the field. But when I look at the big picture, we’re providing people something more than that. I hope more than goals, assists, games, that people looked at me and said, ‘That guy played the right way. He was passionate. He cared. He cared about his teammates, his coaches, everybody involved, and tried to make things better.
“Of course it’s our job. Of course we’re earning a living. Of course we live amazing lives. But we genuinely care. I hope people say that I genuinely cared about this whole thing and tried to make it better.”
On his career and life choices
“It’s easy for people to judge others in their choices and life choices. I’ve tried to not do that because I don’t life anyone else’s life and likewise, nobody lives my life. So I’ve always tried to make decisions that were best for me and best for my family and best for my happiness. I realize that’s not always popular with people. I’m sure a lot of people wish my career had gone a different way. But it’s funny how things work out and when we look at the state of Major League Soccer now and where it’s come from, I’m really proud to have been a part of that growth. When you look at the national team and where it is now, I’m really proud to have been part of that growth. Perhaps if my career had been played in other places, maybe I wouldn’t have been a part of the national team as much …. If I lived my life based on what others wanted, I’d probably have a pretty miserable life.”
On depression and mental health
“There are many people in life that deal with periods of depression. There are many people in this country who deal with mental issues. Many people who are undiagnosed. Many people who are afraid to admit it. Many people both famous and otherwise who have dealt with these issues. It’s human nature to have sad periods in life. I’d much rather feel than not feel things and to go through some of the things we as humans go through, it’s normal to feel that way … I have no problem being honest with those things and perhaps, it’s not for the goal of bringing light to it but if that’s an added benefit, that’s great.”
On developing the person as well as the player
“I do think about how do we develop real players? By real players, I don’t mean a guy who can score a hat trick or make an incredible save or defend well against a certain player in the world. I mean, how do we continue to find guys that can have 10-15 year careers that are meaningful, that help the sport progress?
“Guys who are good players on the field but they don’t understand the leadership part, they don’t understand the dedication, the commitment … we focus very much on the technical side, which is very important. If you can produce a Messi, that helps. But I’ll remind you that Messi doesn’t go out and drink beer every night. He’s at home preparing himself the right way. That’s where my mind goes. How do we keep developing those kind of players?”
On the uncertainty of retirement
“Obviously there are a lot of horror stories about athletes after their careers. There’s undoubtedly going to be difficult moments, for different reasons, but I have spoken to a lot of different guys … Dealing with the hard stuff, I’ll deal with at the appropriate time and there will be games I’ll watch where I’ll say ‘God, I want to get out there. I feel like I can help!’ But that’s all part of it. This isn’t a decision that was made in one or two days. This was well thought out and I made sure it felt right. There will be some hard times but the overwhelming sentiment is that I’m ready.”