Donovan: Now I'm a lot more focused
Following a disappointing World Cup performance, Landon Donovan has grown up both mentally and physically in the last six months. The Galaxy star married longtime girlfriend Bianca Kajlich earlier this year and has been appointed captain of both club and country.
Donovan sat down with ESPNsoccernet recently to talk about his new role.
ESPNsoccernet: How does it feel to be captain of the U.S. men's national team and the Galaxy?
Landon Donovan: How does it feel? It feels great -- when you get asked about it, it's pretty cool because I think most kids growing up would be ecstatic to say I'm a professional athlete. But to say you are the captain of your national team and club team, that's awesome.
ESPNsoccernet: Do you motivate the two teams in different ways? Are you laid-back or do you give a speech in the Galaxy or national team locker rooms?
LD: That's a good question. I don't ever get up and give speeches. I don't like to be that guy. If I feel it is necessary I will -- if I look around and guys are ready, then you don't need to say anything. I try to be honest -- it's nice to pretend everything is great all the time, but sometimes you need to say it's not good enough and we need to be better. Other times just a little encouragement to a certain player helps.
I have a feeling that I have respect from everybody [on the national team and Galaxy] and so that gives me freedom to say what I want. In the past I didn't always feel that way.
ESPNsoccernet: As a captain, do you prepare for games differently?
LD: I definitely do. My first five to six years in the league and playing with the national team, you kind of wake up and do what you got to do. Now I'm a lot more focused on how you make sure you are prepared and that starts even the night before the game. From what I'm eating, how I'm training, getting my body ready -- I've found that it makes a big difference.
ESPNsoccernet: You talked about your diet; can you be specific about what you are eating that makes you feel better?
LD: I want to say I didn't eat OK [in the past]. Bianca [my wife] eats a lot of good, clean foods, and it's helped me too, because it's around the house. She makes dinner, or we order and it's cleaner, healthier and it's more vegetables, more fruits and not a lot of dressings and sauces or extra fat that you don't need. I eat pretty much everything, but I eat it the right way. If I eat steak, I don't have tons of blue cheese, sauce and teriyaki on it. It's the same with any fish or meat that I eat.
ESPNsoccernet: How is life as a married man?
LD: It's great man. It is a different status but nothing has really changed. We lived together for almost two years before we got married. From our standpoint, it's not a whole lot different, but it's fun to say, "my wife." It's been fun for me, and it's probably all mental. I feel like I've grown up a little bit more. In my mind maybe I'm a little bit more responsible than I was before I got married.
ESPNsoccernet: With Bob Bradley as head coach, there is an influx of new and younger talent. How do you inspire the new guys on the team?
LD: I think the biggest issue facing the kids coming in now is they do not know how to be professionals. And that's because if you are a Benny Feilhaber at 20 years old, Michael Bradley at 18 -- whether you act like a professional or not, when you step on the field against other guys where it really means something, they are professionals and they are going to kick your ass if you are not ready to play.
Also I think there needs to be an understanding sometimes that [while] it is an honor to play for your national team, you don't get to just come in and feel like you got a cap. You have a responsibility; this team is used to winning and whether you are Bradley or Claudio [Reyna], you have to be on the field to win the game. That I think we'll get better at, but that's usually my advice to most of the young guys.
ESPNsoccernet: You've mentioned in the past that you are more locked into games. Describe what you mean by that.
LD: I'm just more focused in everything I do in games than I've ever been. Honestly almost the day I got back from the World Cup, I've felt that change. Every game I've been tuned in and focused. I've been in every game mentally, and for me that's rewarding, because I've always struggled with that.
ESPNsoccernet: The World Cup was months ago, but it seems like you took something away from it. What did you learn from your experience in Germany?
LD: It obviously was negative for all of us involved. But if you let that negativity define you, then you not only have a disappointing World Cup, you also have a disappointing rest of the year, the following year and maybe your career. If you learn from it, then you can take some positives.
I learned that I was not ready to play in two of those games [against Czech Republic and Ghana]. The Italy game I was ready to play and I think it showed, but the other two games I was not mentally ready. Guess what? In that stage you only get three shots at it. If two out of the three are not good, it's not good enough. We're not at a point like a Brazil where we can have an off day and still beat someone. That's what I learned, and given the chance to get there again, it will be a lot better.
ESPNsoccernet: What would have gotten you mentally prepared? Was there pressure to perform?
LD: I don't know, I never really thought about what the reasoning was. You have to remember in this country our soccer team has never played with that kind of pressure to perform especially in the World Cup. So maybe we were not ready mentally to carry that, because the casual sports fan watching expected the team to qualify for the next round. It's easy for me to look back now and ask questions. Going into those games, I honestly felt we could win all three games.
ESPNsoccernet: Now that you are matured with a different routine, what has changed?
LD: Not a lot, it's just mental. At the end of last year I turned over a new leaf. When I first came into the league -- and I think this happens to a lot of young, promising players too -- you come in and you are excited, everyone loves you, everything is great and you play well, because everything is going your way. Then you're at a point where you don't play well and it becomes a little heavy. There's a lot of games and you realize it is a business, such a grind and it's every day you have to be in there. You get to a point where you are burned out. Now the faster you can understand the whole business part of things, and get back to your roots where you are having fun, the better for you to become a great player. There is a new me and now I'm really enjoying myself because I understand that.
ESPNsoccernet: Are you tempted to want to take over games when teammates are not playing up to par?
LD: Yeah I do, but soccer is hard and it is funny, too. You have a couple of chances to score and you don't. Next thing you know, you are down. You put your game face on then you realize that you have 21 other guys on the field. Eleven of them are trying to keep you not only from scoring but also from getting the ball, period. People ask me all the time why I don't just get the ball and dribble through everyone. I wish it was that easy, but it's not that black and white and I probably could do more sometimes and that's another part of my game I am trying to get better at.
ESPNsoccernet: David Beckham is soon to arrive. Skeptics and fans have voiced their different opinions on his move to MLS. What is your expectation as a player and captain of this team?
LD: As a player, he is still a good player. You cannot play for Real Madrid and be a poor player, I don't care who you are, and people forget that. Honestly, I don't know how he is going to approach it. We can say he is going to be a great pro and he will come here, train and work hard, but you don't know. I don't know him from Adam, but I'm hoping and assuming that he will come ready to play.
You have to take him for his word when you see him say he really cares and wants to help this team win. People are skeptical -- but he's not going to go out there and embarrass himself, he will want to be sharp for the first game. From all accounts I hear anyway, he's a great guy. We'll reserve judgment till we meet him, but my hope is that everything will be great. How can someone like Beckham hurt us?
ESPNsoccernet: Do you ever want to return to Europe? Is it something on your mind and now that you have grown up?
LD: Sometimes it's tempting to watch a game and go like; I think I can play there. It'd be fun to play in that situation at that level where it is constantly competitive. If it did happen, good, but I don't think it would be for a while, because I'm happy where I am.
You also have to remember I'm married now; I have the dogs now too. It's not just what I think. I have to consider people around me. Does my wife want to go when her work is mainly in Los Angeles? What do we do with the dogs if that happened? If that could work out, I would consider it, but my guess is it wouldn't be for quite a while.
ESPNsoccernet: Speaking of your wife, how do you pronounce her last name?
LD: It's Donovan [laughs]. You are the second person to ask me that.
Sulaiman Folarin is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers MLS along with world soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.