Widely regarded as one of the most successful soccer players in United States history, Landon Donovan has played in three World Cups and ranks first all-time in scoring and assists for the U.S. men's national team. But the 31-year-old California native currently finds himself at a crossroads, as he ponders life off the pitch and retirement.
During his time in New York City, Donovan caught up with The Huffington Post to discuss his commitment to the Skin Cancer Foundation, his recent sabbatical to Cambodia, why he wants to resume playing for the national team, and his "honest" relationship with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
How are you feeling right now? What did your recent sabbatical provide for you?
I feel very good. I feel like I’m back to really enjoying what I’m doing and for me, that was always the most important part, so it’s nice to do well. It’s nice when the team wins, but ultimately for me, the most important thing was to make sure I was happy and enjoying playing and that’s how I feel now.
Did you feel like that had gotten away from you?
Yeah, I did. It just felt way too much like a job and not enough fun. That balance has to be more incisive if you are really going to enjoy what you are doing. And that had gotten away from me a little bit, so I needed to sort of reset that and make sure that I was enjoying playing again. When I do enjoy playing, I play my best. And that’s the way it needs to be for me to be successful.
You have produced a great legacy for the sport, especially for American soccer. If I had to ask you what that legacy is to you right now, what would you say?
Well, there’s things I’m proud of professionally, but I think what’s equally important to me is how I’ve progressed as a person and trying to help others be better. Obviously soccer has given me a great opportunity to try to do those things. And I will continue that after [retirement], but I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do. I’m proud of the longevity and, you know, hopefully it continues.
You've played for Everton in the English Premier League, a league many believe to be the strongest in the world. How do you look back on that experience? Ten to 20 years from now, what will you remember about it?
I absolutely loved it. It was a few of the most exciting months in my life. Both times I went, I had this feeling from the people there of just real acceptance, excitement to have me there. I remember always wanting to reciprocate that, and that’s the way I have always felt in LA. It was nice to go somewhere different, where people didn’t know you. ... To me that’s the most competitive, intense league in the world and to go there and be a part of it, even if only for a small timeframe, was really nice.
You mentioned the acceptance factor. Both you and U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard enjoyed success with Everton. Were you surprised that you were so accepted? Traditionally that doesn't always happen, especially with Americans.
I don’t think there is any question that their willingness to accept me was in large part due to what Tim has done there and the precedent he set and the name he has made for all of us Americans. He has been such a great pro there -- the people love him -- and I think that was extended to me because of him. It’s a really nice feeling, and I think all of us feel like in our own ways we can help pave the way for guys of the future, and that’s a nice legacy to leave.
You're coming off a great game in Philadelphia for the LA Galaxy, but you just recently missed two penalty kicks. Where is your confidence and your overall comfort level on the pitch right now?
Well, it was a little disappointing because aside from those couple misses, I felt like I was playing relatively well, you know -- not my greatest, but I thought I was playing well. But of course you are judged on those moments so, um, any time as an attacking player you can hit the net or contribute with an assist or a play that matters, it helps your confidence. And it’s not like I was doing a lot of things right, but those things were sort of still lacking. So to have those things come around helps a lot, and I think it’s going to help push me forward now.
It’s a question that we talk about a lot: for the U.S. to be consistently elite, in that elite group where everybody wants it to be, what do you think is the most important factor?
It takes time. We have to continue to be patient; I know nobody in this world we live in now wants to be patient, but that’s the reality. My opinion is that we have to get it right starting at the youth level and we have to start developing players that are competing with other players around the world, other elite players around the world. To do that, you have to start young, you have to continue to tap into the immense talent pool that we have in this country and get kids who otherwise play other sports to now play soccer.
We need better coaching, there’s no question, but all of this stuff sort of comes with time, as we are learning more and more, as we are getting more resources, as my generation is growing older and having kids who care about the game the same way. Wll these things will come about and I just stress that if we can be patient, that it’s gonna happen.
Moving forward with the World Cup qualifiers, how important is it to you to be part of the U.S. national team?
I want to be a part of it. I mean, I miss being a part of the team, I miss being able to help the team, I miss that feeling when the game is over and you all look at each other and realize what a great effort you put in together. I miss all those parts of it, so if and when the chance comes, then I’ll be really excited and I’m looking forward to it.
What is your relationship with current players on the team, as well as with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann?
I keep in touch with guys on the team. Jurgen and I have had many discussions and a lot of contact over his entire time with the national team, and the good thing with us is that we’re always very honest. I’m sure he hasn’t agreed with every decision I’ve made, but at least he can tell me and at least we can be honest about it, and I think that’s important. I think it's very important in all walks of life and especially in a sport like this. That’s been good and now I’m just looking forward to the chance to get back in and be a part of the team again.
Either way, though, how much longer do you want to play at the professional level?
I don’t really know, to be candid. Obviously I want to play the rest of this year and enjoy myself, and if I’m still loving it and enjoying it then I want to keep playing. If I realize that I’m not, and that I want to do something different, then I’ll do that. But for now I’m going to enjoy the present and keep trying to have fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask me questions about anything sports-related at @Schultz_Report.