Landon Donovan talks 2026 World Cup, Klinsmann's snub, rooting for Mexico
NEW YORK -- When you talk to Landon Donovan, you are talking with a living legend of American soccer. A chat with the veteran footballer, still an active player with Club Leon in Liga MX, opens the door to stories from one of the most important ages of football in the United States. Undoubtedly, he is one of the country's most authoritative voices when it comes to the game and its football authorities could certainly use some of his recommendations. Besides, after playing this year in Mexico, Donovan now has a broader perspective of what football means on both sides of the border.
The striker was part of the first class of the IMG Academy, based in Bradenton, Florida, when U.S. Soccer started to invest heavily in order to build a real professional football league in the nation. Donovan played in Europe, with Bayern Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton. He also led the best U.S. national side in history to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals and suffered rejection after being cut from the U.S. team for the 2014 Brazil World Cup at the last minute by manager Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan retired from LA Galaxy after the team won the 2014 MLS Cup, came out of retirement with them in 2016 and then returned to professional soccer again this year with Leon.
After hearing the news of the United Bid, compiled by the United States, Canada and Mexico, winning rights to host the 2026 World Cup, he was thrilled for the unique opportunities hosting the event brings to the three countries.
"You can't imagine how happy I am," Donovan said to ESPN. "A lot of people don't know I'm half American and half Canadian. That's why I know both cultures quite well and I know what this means for both countries. Besides, I have been based in Mexico throughout these past four months, playing with Leon and I quite relate to this nation and its supporting base.
"I know Mexicans and their passion for football. Hosting a World Cup is the biggest thing they can ever get. And for the United States, it undoubtedly represents a huge morale boost after being eliminated from the current tournament. It is something tangible to hold on to and something we can work on. It will be the best sporting event in the history of our planet, no doubt about that."
Donovan feels proud of the role soccer will play in order to bring some sanity to U.S.-Mexico relations, after the political and diplomatic turmoil between the neighboring countries.
Donovan said: "Having three countries hosting a World Cup for the first time in history is a milestone to enjoy and it also proves that, by working together, you can build more things than by dividing people. This appointment sends a very strong message of unity. I grew up surrounded by the large Mexican community in California. I have plenty of Mexican friends and now I have been living in Mexico during these past four months.
"I fully disagree with so many things that are happening in the current U.S. political landscape, and I believe that there is plenty of hatred and bad energies surrounding the world today.
"The 2026 World Cup is a unique occasion for bringing people together, for building bridges between communities and for saying that we are all part of something much bigger and important. That's a key message we must send to the world."
The World Cup is an event that marks the career of any football player. Donovan tasted glory in 2002 by leading the U.S. side in a historic run to the quarterfinals and extending the so-called quinto partido (fifth match) curse of Mexico, which has not advanced to the quarterfinals since they hosted the World Cup themselves, back in 1986. However, in 2014, he also tried the bitter taste of defeat by being cut by Klinsmann at the last second, surprising American supporters, right before the team left for Brazil.
"All of us who have been in such a situation know exactly how that pain feels like," Donovan said. "I feel great empathy with my peers who, just like me, have been in such a situation. I can only imagine how Nicolas Lodeiro of Uruguay, or Leroy Sane of Germany, must feel like right now, by being so close and not being able to get into the roster.
"It is such a complicated moment because we all think we deserve to be there. In the end, there are only 23 spots, and someone will be cut. That's a reality we must know how to deal with and it's a tough moment for someone like me, who has given it all in a football pitch trying to play a World Cup."
The striker's personal sense of disappointment at not being able to play in Brazil was extended to a whole nation this year, when the Stars and Stripes were unable to advance to Russia, marking the first time the United States did not clinch a World Cup spot since 1990. Donovan regrets his nation had to get to that point and said that one of the reasons why the team ended up in such a dilemma was facing the CONCACAF final playoff round with an excess of confidence.
"Maybe we thought there was no way we would be left out [of the World Cup]," he said. "However, we went to that final match in Trinidad with everything at stake. And if you let things to get that far in such a critical moment, you are leaving too many loose ends. Unfortunately, things did not go the way we wanted, and that is why we are not in the World Cup right now.
"Now that the Russia World Cup is here, I'm happy and sad at the same time. Every day, I must deal with the constant memory and regretting the fact I cannot see the U.S. playing there. After all, I think we weren't as good as we thought we were back then, but we are not as bad as we think right now. The reality is that, when you're playing the qualifying rounds, a couple of bad games will send you home. It has been a huge lesson for us. However, that doesn't mean we have to throw away everything we have accomplished thus far."
Klinsmann was a key figure in the fate of the U.S. side for the past few years. The German manager was appointed to lead the American side after the 2010 World Cup and it was he who made the final decision of leaving Donovan, an idol among American supporters, out of Brazil 2014. However, Donovan believes that Klinsmann left many positive things for football in the States throughout his tenure.
"Jurgen was an amazing player and it was great to have all that experience for us to take advantage of. He is a great motivator and brought a huge amount of energy to the side. He professionalized so many aspects of football in the United States and that has huge value, long-term," Donovan said.
"However, as many other people have pointed out, I think that, from a technical standpoint, he was not able to surround himself with a side with enough quality in order to achieve such lofty goals. Things in Germany were different because he had [current German manager and 2014 world champion] Jogi Low with him.
"Low has demonstrated he is one of the best tactical masters in the world. Sadly, despite the fact there was so many positive things throughout his tenure, him and Bruce Arena will have to bear the cross of having the United States out of a World Cup."
And, since there will be no U.S. side playing in Russia, Donovan has already made up his mind when it comes to the team he will root for in this tournament.
He said: "I have lived in Mexico these past four months. You cannot imagine how obsessed they are with the possibility of reaching that elusive fifth match and advancing to the quarterfinals. It's everywhere: on TV, radio, newspapers, on people debating on the streets.
"I did not know that Mexico hasn't played a quarterfinal match in so long. During an advertising campaign for Modelo beer, I was able to talk to [former] Chicago Cubs catcher David Ross. Recently, the Cubs ended a 108-year World Series drought, and I told him of my experiences of seeing Mexico's obsession for ending a curse that has lasted for more than 30 years and which I, without my knowledge, helped extending in 2002 when we beat them in the round of 16.
"Now that I live [here], I can see how important this is for them, I see the fighting spirit and how they want to overcome all obstacles, how bad they want to break this curse and that is why I fully support them. I want them to do well, I want them to reach the quarterfinals and I want them to feel that huge sense of happiness that you feel when you're able to break such a long losing streak.
"Mexico has a very talented side, that is very clear. They have been working with Juan Carlos Osorio for quite some time now and that stability is always positive. But when we start to talk about things such as that so-called 'fifth match curse,' for example, it complicates things.
"Like I said, the whole country is obsessed with it and even though a great side can help you win a couple of matches, I believe you need something much more special if you want to go all the way. You need passion, swagger and that fighting spirit if you truly want to try and break the slump.
"That's what they really need. They need a group of players that say to themselves: 'We will achieve something important and we will change history.' If they can do that and if Osorio can take them throughout the right path, they have huge chances, because of the high amount of talent this group has, added to their desire of achieving big things."
This story originally appeared on ESPN Deportes.