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Landon Donovan: On His Return With León, U.S. Soccer's Present and USMNT's Future

Landon Donovan has returned to the playing field in Mexico with Club Leon, and he explains his decision to come out of retirement–again–and chimes in on U.S. Soccer's Election and whether he has a USMNT future in a revealing interview.

On the new Planet Fútbol Podcast, Landon Donovan gave his most detailed interview yet since deciding to come out of retirement and play for Club León in Mexico. His interview touched on a wide range of topics, from what led to his decision to play in Mexico to what he’s capable of in pure soccer terms these days to his reaction to the U.S. Soccer election and who he would like to see as the next U.S. men’s national team coach.

Here are some of the standout quotes for Donovan’s long and candid interview, which can be listened to in full in the podcast console below (to subscribe to and download the podcast, you can find us on iTunes here):

On why he wanted to come out of retirement and play for Club León:

“It’s a simple question, not a simple answer. It wasn’t a slam-dunk yes, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk no when it happened. I was home, very happy in retirement with my family in San Diego, enjoying life, doing what I wanted when I wanted more or less. And I got a phone call from my agent, Richard Motzkin, asking if I had any remote interest in playing again. And I said, ‘No thanks. I appreciate it, but no.’ And he said, ‘OK, just so you know, a team in Mexico called and asked if you would have any interest in it.’ Kind of left it at that. So I went to sleep, didn’t think much of it. The next day he called back and said, ‘Listen, they’re really interested in having you come. They’re looking for a player that’s got experience and someone who can help them on the field, help them off the field. They would really like a chance to speak to you.’ And it sort of developed a little bit from there.”

“I maybe gave it a 1 percent chance at that point and told them I would keep an open mind about it. And as the day went on, I thought about it. I spoke to my wife quite a bit about it. And they kept calling and reaching out. The owner called and wanted to speak to me. In the end, it kind of goes to the power of going after something you want. And I give them a lot of credit for convincing me and making me feel wanted. I told my agent that I would make a trip down here to watch a cup game they had and kind of get to know the city a little bit and get to know the people involved. And I would come with an open mind. And sure enough, the minute I got here I really fell in love with it and thought it would be a great opportunity for my family, a great life experience and fun to play soccer again with good soccer players.”

On wanting to play the game again when he still has the opportunity in his life:

“It’s interesting. Because when you’re away from it, and you know as we’ve spent time on different road trips doing Fox telecasts, you see the game differently and it’s been enjoyable for me to be up in the booth commentating and watching the game and learning the game from a different perspective. But you also get excited, you know. The gamedays make me excited when we’re there in the MLS playoffs or we’re there at national team games. The gamedays are exciting, and that energy can’t be replaced or manufactured anywhere else in life. And so I have had some time to gather some perspective and realize that I’m 35, I’m going to be 36 soon. Just physically, there’s no way I could do this for many more years. So if it is something that in any way interests me I should think about it seriously. That was sort of the processing that I went through. Now it’s not like I was waking up every day wishing I could go play soccer again. I had played enough and long enough and done enough in my career that I was satisfied. But there is something special about being able to go out on a soccer field every day and run around and kick a ball. And I’ve really enjoyed it in the month that I’ve been here.”

Landon Donovan Confounds Again with Surprise Move to Club León

On whether he had ever come close to signing with a Mexican team in the past:

“I had. My second stint that I went to Everton [in 2012], during that time Club América had reached out to my agent and told him that they were very interested in having me come on a short-term loan, like I did with Everton. And in the end I decided I was definitely interested in it. In the end I decided to go to Everton. It was something I knew. I knew the people. It was an enjoyable experience the previous time, so that was the decision. But it was certainly something I considered. For long stretches of my career, although it was very intriguing, candidly I just was concerned from a safety perspective, because I had said and done a lot of stupid things when I was young regarding the Mexican soccer team and the rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico. I just didn’t know how I’d be received. I think as you get older and you have perspective and experience I realized that if not for that rivalry and if not for growing up playing with Mexicans I wouldn’t be the player I was. I wouldn’t have had the success I’ve had. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy playing as much in those rivalry games. I wouldn’t have learned to speak Spanish. I mean, there’s so much I can credit to the Mexican culture and society and people. And so when this opportunity came about, that was a big piece of it too.”

On what he wanted to communicate when he joined Club León and said, “I don’t believe in walls”:

“Unfortunately, as you know when you travel a lot, people perceive us as being the same as our politicians and in particular our president, right? So unfortunately everywhere I go these days it’s, ‘You guys are all racist. You all hate Mexicans. You hate Africans. You hate everybody else in the world.’ And everybody assumes we are like our president. And I just wanted to make sure that I was very clear with how I feel. I grew up in Southern California, so I have an affinity for not only Mexicans but all Latin-Americans. And my family is Canadian, and my dad came to America many years ago. So while I can understand some people’s political points of view in not wanting open borders, I’ve benefited greatly from it in many different ways. And I know many, many, many hundreds if not thousands of people who have become Americans or just contribute greatly to the American society. So I wanted the people here to know where I stood on that and make it very clear.”

On what has been the hardest thing to adjust to in pure soccer terms playing again:

“Just the physical piece of it. And it’s not just the running. I could run at home for five weeks, but you’re still not soccer fit. And then at altitude it’s at a whole different level. So the second day I trained, we did some drills where there are two big goals with goalies and you just play 1v1 against the player. And so you try to score and if you don’t score the other guy gets the ball and they try to score against you. And after like seven seconds I was exhausted, just because physically confronting someone like that is so different than even running or training. Then you throw in the altitude, too. So that piece of it—just getting my physical elements back—has been the hardest part, and I think we’re a month in and just now do I feel like I’m physically able to perform at the level that I want to.”

What to Expect From Landon Donovan's Return to Action With Club Leon

On what’s realistic to expect from what he can do on the field at this stage of his career:

“I look at it maybe differently than other people do. For me, the expectation is winning. And so I’m not worried about if I score, how I play, if I can still run the same way, if I’m getting assists. I want to help win. And I said that to the coach when I spoke to him the first time. I don’t want to come in and be the guy who’s taking someone’s spot or who’s being a distraction for the team. I just want to help. I don’t need accolades. I don’t need those things. I want to lift a trophy and be a part of something like that that’s special. So any way I can do that, I want. Now from the outside, I don’t know what people are expecting or what they think. But my expectation is to help in any way I can, even if it’s at halftime and I’m helping a young player position himself better so in the second half he doesn’t get beat and we don’t get scored on. That’s where my mindset is.”

On whether he can be a 90-minute player now:

“I haven’t thought about it much, but as you ask the question, I can be a 90-minute player, just probably not 35 times a year. So if there are games where that’s what’s asked for, of course I can do it. It’s what I’ve done my whole life. But if you ask me to do it three times in a week that’s probably not with a high quality of play. Again, the objective is to help, and if that means five minutes a game or a half-hour a game or 45 or 60 minutes a game, then that’s how I want to help.”

On how he feels about Carlos Cordeiro winning the U.S. Soccer presidency:

“In the end, there were probably three or four people I personally would have been O.K. with had they become the president, one of whom was Carlos Cordeiro. What I think I was worried about, and I think a lot of people in the soccer world were worried about, was one of the other four people becoming president and what that might have meant for U.S. Soccer. So it’s really easy when you’re sitting at home every day watching TV and sitting on the Internet to pick apart U.S. Soccer, to pick apart what’s good and what’s bad. But the reality is that there’s so much more involved, and 99 percent of the people have no idea what’s involved on a real level. And so I think in the end the right person won.

Carlos is someone I’ve always gotten along well with, someone who despite what fans think is not the establishment, is not the same as Sunil [Gulati] in any way. Carlos was the one person from everything I have heard who would stand up to Sunil in board meetings and stand up for things he believed in, even if they were unpopular. And so he is I think a good choice for the job, and I think he’ll do a very good job. I just think it was probably more than anything time for change. Sunil has done so much for soccer in this country and he has literally dedicated his life to making this thing better. And most people in our soccer world are relatively new fans, and so they don’t understand all that Sunil has done. I certainly do, and he’s going to be a big part of everything we do probably until he decides to not be, and it should be that way. And so he should be respected for that, but I think everyone realized, probably including Sunil as time has gone on, that it was time for change for everybody. And that change can be good if it’s handled in the right way.”

How Carlos Cordeiro Wound Up Winning U.S. Soccer's Presidential Election

On the four candidates he would have been O.K. with as U.S. Soccer president:

“This is not necessarily an indictment on the four who I would not have been O.K. with. It’s just that I didn’t get to know enough from them. So I never spoke to Mike Winograd. I never spoke to Hope Solo in this circumstance. I briefly communicated with Paul Caligiuri, and I briefly communicated with [Eric] Wynalda. The other four reached out to me consistently and asked questions and kind of pitched their ideas. And I think although [Kyle] Martino wouldn’t have been the perfect choice in a lot of ways because of his lack of experience, I think his heart was in the right place and he would have done a good job. Kathy Carter is someone I’ve respected for a long time and has done a lot for soccer in this country. Obviously had some conflicts of interest that probably are what crippled her in the end. Carlos, I alluded to. And I spoke quite a few times with Steve Gans, who I grew to like and respect quite a bit. And I think his heart was absolutely in the right place. And this was something that he was really passionate about. So those four left a good impression on me.”

On what he thinks is most important that needs to change in U.S. Soccer:

“The part that I personally am most passionate about is youth development. And that goes for boys and girls, men and women. I don’t have the experience on the women’s side, so there would be people much better suited to handling that. But for me, the part that I’m most passionate about and that I think we still have a long way to go with is the youth development part. I just see too many really good players being developed around the world, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why we aren’t doing the same. My goal is I want to win a World Cup. Not me as a player, but as a U.S. Soccer fan I want to win a World Cup. And the way you do that is by developing players that can win a World Cup. And I just don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of it.”

On being tied with Clint Dempsey as the all-time leading goal-scorer for the U.S. men’s national team, and whether Donovan has any interest in playing again for the national team:

“Nobody knows this, but the only reason I decided to play again was to get another goal [laughs]. Of course, I have interest to play for the national team. But what I would say is my interest at this point, considering there’s no meaningful real games on the horizon—meaning qualifying or World Cups—and certainly by that point even if I want to keep playing my body won’t allow me to. What I would be interested in is helping. And if the idea is that for the next couple years there’s going to be a group of young players that are being brought in to get experience and learn, I would love to be there to help them through it. Not even necessarily playing, but just being in camp to help them and use my experience. So if that’s possible—and whoever the coach is is interested in that—I would absolutely love to do that and be a part of that. That would be fulfilling for me.”

On who he would like to see as the next coach of the USMNT:

“Personally, I would like to see an American. I think Americans as a general comment understand the American player better. They understand the league better. They understand the culture better. And it’s better for the development of our coaches in this country to have that experience. So there are a few coaches that I think would fit that bill as Americans … I think Peter Vermes has been excellent in Kansas City. I got to know him a little bit last year. [Gregg] Berhalter I think has done a really good job with very limited resources in comparison to some of the other teams. I think Greg Vanney has been terrific in Toronto. Caleb Porter has done a great job. Times are much different, and now there are a number of good young American coaches who have really done a good job, and they’re more in tune with the modern game and I think would be well-suited to coach the national team.”