It’s impossible to talk about the growing popularity of U.S. soccer without mentioning Landon Donovan. The 32-year-old is the National Team’s all-time leading scorer with 57 goals and Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in regular-season goals with 134. If he makes the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup, it would be his fourth appearance in the event – and likely his last.
Donovan talked to Men’s Journal about the his role on the U.S. Men’s National Team, on the L.A. Galaxy, and, more broadly, as a standard bearer for the sport.
Let’s hear your assessment of Team USA’s World Cup chances.
Well, you never know: That’s why we play the games. But I think we’re all quietly confident that we can do well. In the World Cup, you get three chances and you have to be good in all three of your first-round games. Sometimes when you play with your club team – in my case Galaxy – you have ups and downs during a season and it’s okay; you can get away with not playing well in one or two games. If you do that in a World Cup, you’re eliminated. We have to play well for three games. If we do that, I think we’re all optimistic that we can advance out of our group then see what happens.
Can you talk about what your role will be on the team this year?
This would be my fourth World Cup if I’m there and my role has changed over the years. My first time was as a young, sort of bright-eyed child who didn’t really know what was going on. The second time, I was a little more mature. Last time was sort of in my prime, where I had the maturity and still had the legs and the youthful exuberance. Now, I’m older. I have a lot more experience and the game is a little different for me. I’m not exactly sure what my role will entail, but I hope to be there, and I think my experiences both on the field and off the field can be very helpful for the group.
What is it like to know this is likely your last World Cup?
I see it in a different way now. When you get near the end, you can sort of take the edge off of it a little bit and just enjoy it more. You have the same intensity, the same competitiveness, the same desire to win, but you’re not held hostage by it. It’s actually helped me a lot because I approach the game in a much more calm fashion and I can enjoy myself.
How did your sabbatical last year help you prepare for this year, which has been extremely busy?
It gave me my love for the game back. I had reached a point where I was pretty burnt out, and I think a lot of people can relate with that in whatever job they do. I needed a chance to step away, take a break, realize that I still enjoy and love playing this game. It really helped me a lot.
I understand that, despite the rest, you have a knee injury?
I’m feeling good. I have some old-age issues like all old people do. I have some tendonitis in my knee, but I’m feeling good. I feel confident and strong and I’m really excited for the summer.
And what do you think your role will be on the team?
That’s obviously up to the coach. I’m more than capable of starting and being an effective player for 90 minutes or even longer if I have to. I’m also comfortable and effective coming off the bench. Either way, I understand what each role means and what’s expected of me, and I want to be a part of it. I want to contribute in whatever way I can.
Can you tell me a bit about the young talent coming up?
We finally have real talent coming through our system consistently. All the other teams, the reason why they’re successful is they’re continually streamlining young players and developing players. That’s not something that we’ve been able to do consistently. We’ve had a few players here or there, but we haven’t done it consistently. And now we have all sorts of mechanisms in place so that we can do a better job of that. So we have quite a few young players that have a chance to make the World Cup team – some that already have a lot of experience.
There’s a young man who plays in Holland named Aron Johannsson, who I think will be a very good player for years to come with the national team. And we have some young defenders, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who have done very well through qualifying. We have a lot of young goalkeepers in our pool that could make their way up. There are some exciting, talented players coming through.
Back in America, you’ve tied the record for MLS regular-season goals. Is breaking that record something that’s weighing on you?
It’s not, actually. It’s something I will be proud of when it happens. I can’t get too caught up in that because the reality is that my teammates, coaches, and the fans want that, but the bigger thing is everybody wants to be successful and win. As long as I keep doing my part to make that happen, I think the goal will come when it comes. It will be exciting when it does.