Thursday, December 7, 2023

Landon Donovan opens up on USMNT time with Clint Dempsey: ‘We loved winning and we were competitive as f—‘

In a wide-ranging interview, former U.S. men’s national team star Landon Donovan reflected on his career, including his complicated relationship with former teammate Clint Dempsey and his controversial choice to spend much of his club career in MLS.

The comments came in the latest episode of Kickin’ It, CBS Sports Golazo Network‘s new weekly interview series hosted by Kate Abdo as well as Dempsey and fellow ex-USMNT players Maurice Edu and Clint Dempsey. Wednesday’s episode was the first of a two-part interview with Donovan.

The USMNT’s joint all-time goalscorer spoke freely on a handful of topics both on and off the field, including his mental health journey. For Donovan, no topic was off limits as he dove into his perspective on his career and soccer at large.

“I’m the most open,” he said. “I’ll talk about anything — publicly, privately, whatever and I like to be open.”

Here are some of the highlights from Donovan’s conversation with the Kickin’ It crew.

Relationship with Dempsey

Donovan and Dempsey were the USMNT’s figureheads during their careers and ended their careers sharing the national team’s goals record, but their connection on the field was cooped with a rivalry off it.

“We had the same intentions,” Donovan said. “We loved winning and we were competitive as f—, and so sometimes we went at it different ways.”

Donovan talked with Dempsey about their clashing personalities. “I hated, because of the way I grew up, confrontation. You don’t mind confrontation in any way.” But they were both battling to be the star of the national team. 

Dempsey agreed, adding that they both competed for the same spot on the USMNT. “We both wanted to be on the left side and come in on our dominant foot on the right.” But perhaps where they differed most was their club paths.

Dempsey spent much of his club career in England, chiefly with Fulham, while Donovan famously played most of his club ball with LA Galaxy in MLS. Donovan said the comparison between their club play fueled some jealousy on his end.

“He was doing things I couldn’t do,” Donovan said about Dempsey. “There were times where I was like, ‘F—, he’s doing things I wish I could’ve done’ but that also drove me. When we came together, we were on the team together, but probably wanted to one-up each other and do better and that drove the national team.”

It impacted their USMNT dynamic. Edu said the pair notably did not celebrate with each other.

“Normally how it would happen is if Landon scored, Clint would go drink water on the sidelines,” Edu said. “If Clint scored, Landon would drop down and tie his shoes so they really had to avoid celebrating together.”

Things changed in 2011, when both had to leave the USMNT’s Concacaf Gold Cup camp to attend their sisters’ weddings. Upon their national team return, Donovan said the opportunity for them to be on the same footing for once. The pair then connected for a goal that Dempsey scored in the team’s 1-0 semifinal win over Panama, which was the first time they celebrated together.

The pair insisted that despite the rivalry, they always had respect for one another on the field, with Dempsey saying, “No matter what, I know if we’re in a big game, I know I’d want you out there because you’re a difference maker.”

They also noted that the rivalry is officially in the past.

“Now it’s been really fun,” Donovan said. “Being in Qatar together [covering the 2022 World Cup for Fox Sports], [it] was nice to spend time away from the competitive vibe, kind of get to know each other better and I think in the end, we’re a lot more similar than we are different.”

Choosing MLS over Europe

Donovan also addressed his club career, which started with an unsuccessful stint at Bayer Leverkusen as a teenager. The retired player said his rough adjustment to life in Germany paved the way for his return to the U.S., first with the San Jose Earthquakes.

“It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle pressure,” Donovan said. “It was just that I was miserable there. It was dark and cold most days. I would go to training for an hour and a half, which I enjoyed for the most part, and then I’d go sit at home and do nothing all day for 20 other hours of the day.”

He also said he was not prepared for the struggle to fight for a spot on the team, and had no one around him to explain to him that he should not be playing every game from the moment he arrived in Germany.

“I was 17, 18 and I thought in my head — what an idiot — I thought I should be playing, too,” Donovan said. “That was so stupid to think about that at the time. … You’re not getting the opportunities you think you should get even though I was nowhere near good enough for that team and then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I wish I had people who said, ‘Hey man, just stick with it.'”

MLS suited him, he said, because he wanted consistent playing time.

“At that time, playing in MLS was easy from a pressure perspective,” he said. “I always saw myself as a soccer player. I play soccer. I don’t practice, I’m not traveling, I’m not part of a squad. I play soccer. That’s what I do, so I wanted to play soccer. Could I have gone elsewhere and played as much? Not as much, no. Not the way it was in MLS.”

Donovan also said that in the eyes of some, he knows he did not live up to his potential, and admitted that he “could’ve played at a higher level, no question.”

Despite the question marks in his career, Donovan still thinks MLS could be an option for current USMNT stars like Christian Pulisic ahead of the 2026 World Cup on home soil.

“I don’t think this will happen and he’s shown already that he’s doing very well there but as you guys know, there are periods you go through where you might not be playing,” he said. “If it’s January of 2026 and he’s not playing through then, it’s a risk, it’s a risk. Now, the other side of that coin is if he’s playing at the highest level leading into the World Cup, then that’s great for him and he’s going to be performing at a really high level. … My point is, he needs to be playing ahead of the World Cup.”

Mental health journey

Donovan said he began therapy when he was 25 after he was introduced to a therapist by his now ex-wife, actress Bianca Kajlich. With his therapist, Donovan said he talked about matters from his personal and professional life.

“We talked about you, Deuce,” he said about Dempsey. “Some deep shit. She would pay attention. She would watch games. She didn’t know anything about soccer but she would watch because she could see in my face during the national anthem or on the field, she could tell when things were going on. She was very perceptive in that way. … I did a lot of healing because I had a lot of pain from my childhood.”

Donovan also said the best years of his careers came after he made a breakthrough on his mental health.

“Soccer was the easy part for me because that’s where I was at peace,” Donovan said. “It was all easy, and when the off-the-field got better, the soccer got better. In the height of my therapy, three or four years in, I was 28, 29. Those were my best two years, ’09 and 2010. Not even close. Confederations Cup, I was at my best, best and that was when I was really shedding a lot of all of this old shit in my life and coming to terms with it and being at peace with it so that time, I was just free. It was the first time I felt free in my life.”

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