Following some consideration, Landon Donovan has decided not to run in U.S. Soccer's presidential election in February. On Thursday, the U.S. men’s national team’s all-time leader in goals (tied with Clint Dempsey) and assists spoke in depth to SI.com about his decision. Donovan also explained how he wants to be involved in the future with U.S. Soccer–taking in active role in correcting the wrongs that go way deeper than the men's national team's fortunes.
SI.com: So let’s start with the news. You have decided not to run for U.S. Soccer president. What went into considering a run? What went into deciding not to run?
Donovan: I think like most people, your initial reaction is, well, I can help. I can do the job. And I quickly walked back from that to considering the realities, which were 1) I’m not remotely qualified for that job; 2) I would have no idea how to even begin that job; 3) I don’t want to do that job; and 4) there are better ways for me to be involved and impactful. The one thing that has come out of all this is that I realize I’m not doing enough in this whole process to help. And that’s going to change.
SI.com: In what ways will that change?
Donovan: My expertise and what I have lived is on the playing side. So the more I can stay away from the political or business or legal or administrative or governance sides and focus on the soccer side, the better. So I want to put my energy and focus into doing that part right and making that part better. I’m not the expert and wouldn’t pretend I have all the answers, but I’ve spent 30 years of my life living this and studying it and learning it. As have many others. And I think many of us are now realizing that we need to be more proactive in this process.
SI.com: Are there any specific details of what you want to do to be involved on the soccer side?
Donovan: I don’t know what a specific role might be or what any of that might look like. I am going to spend the next three or four months putting together a plan with various people and thought leaders and key stakeholders that shows us a viable way forward. The hope is that whoever ends up in office as the president will take that seriously and want to start implementing that as soon as possible. A lot of people are understandably focused on the senior national team and who the next coach is and those things, but I think the way you build something sustainable is you start at the bottom and build something year after year. For me, that means player development and how we do a better job developing all our players.
SI.com: What do you think are the keys to improving development?
Donovan: I have some very specific ideas on ways to change that are probably a little outside the box. I think we spend a lot of time and energy and money—and understandably so—focusing on being more technical with our youth players and starting to teach them how to be tactically adept, focusing on the physical side and how we train players and how much or how little, and periodization and those things. I think we’re missing a big piece, and that’s the cultural piece of all this. We have an epidemic when I go to youth soccer fields of coaches and parents yelling at kids, telling kids what to do with every pass and every decision. What that has created is a dearth of excited, passionate soccer players and a dearth of decision-makers on the ball.
When I watch England vs. the U.S. in the Under-17s, the U.S. had a great tournament, but the differentiator is the English players were individuals who were making their own decisions on the field because they’ve had to learn how to make their own decisions. And some of our players, you can tell they’ve been told their whole life exactly what to do in what situation, versus understanding the circumstances of the game and how to make certain decisions. I think we’ve gotten away from that, and that’s something that all the best countries in the world focus on: Allowing their youth players to be decision-makers, and they’re able to do it without coaches and parents yelling constantly at them on the sidelines. I think that’s a massive cultural shift that has to happen, and I’m fully aware that’s extremely difficult to change. But I’m passionate about it and dedicated to helping.
The other thing is this crazy, unhealthy emphasis on winning. If you ask any young kid: How was your game? Their response is always ‘we won’ or ‘we lost’ or ‘we tied.’ Not, ‘Oh, I worked on something that I’d been working on in practice and it came off in the game.’ Or, ‘our team really came together and did this or that.’ It’s always about winning and losing. More than that, it’s the parents that make it about winning and losing. Kids are going to be competitive if you allow them to be competitive. If everything in their life is about winning and losing, eventually they forget about what’s important in the game at that level. There’s plenty of time to worry about winning or losing. You don’t need to do that as an 8-, 9- or 10-year-old.
SI.com: Would you like to have a job with U.S. Soccer after the election takes place in February?
SI.com: Ideally, how would you see that job? What would it involve?
Donovan: I don’t know exactly what it would be. I think having a group of people like myself involved who are helping to make some of these decisions at the lower levels would be really prudent and smart for U.S. Soccer to do. I have no interest in helping decide who the next senior national team coach is or who the Olympic coach is. Those are important decisions, and I’m happy to be helpful in any way I can. But those decisions are more temporary, short-term decisions. For me, I want to be able to have a long-term, lasting impact. And to do that it has to be with youth development in some capacity. I think whatever that looks like exactly is TBD, but I will be available and ready to help. The hope is no matter who is in office, they’re willing to accept that help and let me and others start to make this whole thing better.
SI.com: How many hours a week would you be willing to devote to this job?
Donovan: A million (laughs). I’ve been waiting a long time, really three years, since I retired, to find what I’m passionate about. And as this has come about, it has all made sense and come together in the right way at the right time. Sometimes your gut just tells you that this is right. I can’t think of anything more important or valuable or rewarding for me personally than being able to help produce better soccer players and better people. I can’t think of anything better than doing that on a big scale where you can have a large impact on how the sport moves forward. That has become very clear to me. I’m extremely passionate about it. It consumes me. It’s something I’m ready to do.
SI.com: Are you going to endorse a candidate in the U.S. Soccer presidential election?
Donovan: Unlikely. I think there are a few qualified candidates. I haven’t spoken to all of them. I have spoken to some of them. Some of them have some great ideas and thoughts, and I have no doubt that any one of them will have the ability to do some great things and help continue to make soccer better. But for me, this runs deeper. This goes back to my decision to not run. If I want to have a real impact, it should be done in a way that is sustainable and long-lasting and doesn’t get bogged down with any of the political or administrative or legal stuff that goes with some of those other roles. If I feel very passionately about something and feel like we’re losing the direction that we should be going in with one of the candidates and they’re gaining momentum—and I feel passionately that that’s not a great choice—then I will say something. But I think the candidates have good ideas, and there will be improvement no matter what happens, whether that’s with Sunil [Gulati] staying on or any of the other candidates.
SI.com: Do you think Gulati should get four more years in the job?
Donovan: Let me start by saying this: Sunil is a good person, and he has been in my opinion treated pretty unfairly in this whole process. He has literally dedicated his life to making soccer better in this country. He is a great father. And he cares about this. That being said, and he knows this and I’ve said this to him, he’s made some pretty big mistakes that he has to own up to. Just like when I made mistakes on the field and had to own up to it, he’s dealing with the same right now. He understands that. I think Sunil has learned a lot in this process, and I think he’s willing and able to make some significant changes to make this better. Regardless of what happens with Sunil, he’s going to be involved in U.S. Soccer for a long time, and he’s going to be an important and powerful figure in all this. If you held a gun to my head, I probably think it’s time for some new voices in there and change. Sunil is going to be involved regardless, but I think having someone new in that role would probably benefit everybody.
Similar to Sunil, Bruce Arena has been treated a little unfairly in this whole thing. He knows he didn’t get the job done and he’s going to have to live with that. That’s something all the players will have to live with as well. But Bruce didn’t become a bad coach overnight because he didn’t get the result in Trinidad, just like Sunil isn’t a horrible president because they didn’t get a result in Trinidad. So I think there has to be a place for minds like Bruce Arena and Sunil Gulati in American soccer going forward. There’s no question. We would be stupid to excommunicate people like that because of one result. We all know that things need to get better. There’s no question about that. But to completely excommunicate two brilliant minds like that in my opinion would be foolish. We need to use that knowledge and experience to continue to help make us better—along with new minds and fresh ideas.
SI.com: Are there any particular names of people you would like to see in consideration for the next USMNT coach?
Donovan: My gut reaction would be having an American who understands the American players and the league is my gut. But that doesn’t mean a foreign manager can’t be successful. I would say guys in the league who continue to impress are Gregg Berhalter, Greg Vanney and Peter Vermes. But that’s a decision for people smarter than me.
SI.com: Pay-to-play and promotion and relegation have been hot-button topics. What are your stances on those things?
Donovan: I think in a perfect world pay-to-play is eliminated. But we don’t live in a perfect world. So to me this isn’t black and white. There are nuances and ways to improve it without eliminating pay-to-play. It’s impossible unless we have a multi-trillionaire who’s willing to pay for all these kids to play for free. One way to change the paradigm is to have a training compensation element, which I understand there are legal issues around. But that’s the best way to incentivize clubs, because it also helps with the winning-vs.-losing paradigm shift and changes clubs’ mindsets into ‘let’s develop players because that’s where we can make the most money.’
As far as promotion and relegation, my thought is it’s absolutely something that should be looked at and talked about. It’s nearly impossible to keep the sport alive in the way it is now if some of the founding owners who have invested so much money into this sport are all of the sudden not involved because their team got relegated. But I think having some semblance of a 15- or 20-year plan to move toward promotion and relegation would be a good compromise and something people should be able to get on board with. In addition to that, I don’t see any reason why you can’t start having some form of promotion and relegation underneath MLS relatively soon to start understanding the impacts and learn more about it. And then eventually if it makes sense, to move it up to MLS level as well. But to do it abruptly is logistically probably impossible and I think would damage our sport in the near term. Long-term, if we do it with a plan the right way, I think it’s something that could help our sport for sure.
SI.com: How tough has it been for you to see what’s been happening with the U.S. men’s team?
Donovan: It’s tough on a lot of levels. It’s tough because I know these players well, I know these coaches well, I’ve known Sunil since I was 16. And so it’s painful to see people go through that. And as someone who missed a World Cup for a different reason, you know how painful that is. So that part of it, you really feel for the players and the coaches and Sunil and the fans. There are fans who reached out and said, like, ‘I’ve been saving for three years to go to this World Cup.’ Or ‘I took out a second mortgage on my house.’ You hear these stories. So for everybody it’s really difficult in that way. Then when I looked in the mirror the next morning [after failing to qualify], I asked myself: Have I been doing enough to help? And the answer was unequivocally no. So in that way you blame yourself a little. You realize that you need to do more. So that’s frustrating. And when you think about the big picture and how many kids will now not be watching the World Cup next year with American players in it, and not be motivated and inspired by that, it’s hard to swallow because it’s an opportunity lost.
For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this, every four years is such a massive opportunity to grow this thing and build it. We’re missing out on that. There are myriad things that are difficult for all of us, but if we can learn from this and get better, then in the end it will be for good. Because we probably all needed a wake-up call. But now it only works if we learn from it. If we don’t learn from it, then it’s all for naught.