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Landon Donovan: "If we play well, we can beat them"
CSN's Keiran Downie talks with Landon Donovan about the World Cup, MLS, and his unhappy experience at Bayer Leverkusen.


by Keiran Downie

Seoul, South Korea, 19 June 2002 (CSA) — After Bruce Arena's press conference on Wednesday afternoon, I had a chance to sit down with Landon Donovan and talk to him about his experiences in Germany, his future plans as a professional, and his thoughts on the World Cup.

For about forty minutes, Landon answered our questions at the same press conference table that Bruce Arena usually uses. He was confident, poised, and genuinely happy to be there. When talking about his experiences in Germany, I was struck by how emotionally hard it must have been for him, and how happy he seems now that he's found a home in San Jose.

If the future of American soccer looks anything like Landon Donovan, then the US has a bright future indeed.

* * *

On current German coach and former Bayer Leverkusen coach Rudi Voller:
"He was always great to me. He's a nice, first-class person. That still doesn't take away the fact that he didn't play me when he was the coach. So, I'll remember that for sure (on Friday)."

On playing on a German team:
"You don't have to be as good as them (to get playing time), you have to be a lot better. That's unfortunate, but if we keep doing well that will change, I think.

"If you can play in a World Cup, theoretically you can play anywhere, right? I was hoping that things would go well here, that I would get a chance to play because I want to show that I can play at this level."

On Bayer Leverkusen's expressed interest in his return:
"I just have to make a decision, really. If I decide that I want to be elsewhere, it's just a matter of things working out and them allowing me to, really, because it's up to them to some extent. I love San Jose, without a doubt, I hope it's in my control and I can make a decision, but it might not be.

"I think they thought I would go to MLS and not do well, and they'd bring me back and see what happens. I don't think they imagined that all this (national and international success) would happen. Thank God!"

On prejudice against American soccer and players:
"It's pretty evident. They don't come out and say it, but at the end of the day if it's between you and a German player, you're not going to get the start, you're not going to be subbed in at the end of the game. Unless you're a ton better, you're not going to be playing. Maybe they're scared, maybe they don't want us to succeed. Maybe it's just easier for the coaches to justify playing a German player over an American one.

"Nobody ever straight-out said anything like 'You guys suck', but we would get into little arguments. I'd let them know that we beat them the last two times, and they'd say 'Oh, those were friendlies, they don't matter, we beat you in the World Cup, blah blah blah.'

"It's the playing thing — they're great to you, they're nice to you, but when I started making progress on the national team, then all of a sudden they're not your friends anymore. It sucks, but that's the way it is, I guess.

"I remember the first time I trained with them — we were playing on clay — I was so excited! I was running around everywhere, calling for the ball, but nobody would pass me the ball. I'm thinking 'What the hell is going on?' because I was always used to touching the ball and being in the middle of the play. We went and played tournaments with that team (Leverkusen reserves), there was one in England where I got so frustrated because they were blatantly ignoring me. 'I'm here, I'm in a better position, I can score from here,' and they wouldn't give me the ball. I definitely remember that. I was sixteen.

"American soccer is like a joke to them. They don't say it, but they have a smirk or an aura about them that says 'Oh they were lucky', 'They can't succeed.' It's like American soccer is not real, it's like it's fake or just for fun or not a real league."

On the Leverkusen fans:
"I don't think the fans care (about nationality). The fans just want the team to win and play exciting soccer. They'll be the first to jump on you when you do poorly, but when Frankie Hejduk was there everything was fine."

On playing rivals Mexico and then Germany:
"It's kind of coincidental that we're playing two teams that we don't get along with. First Mexico, and then Germany, who a lot of the guys on the team are not too fond of. If we can beat Germany after beating Mexico, that would really tell it all.

"I don't think (the possibility that Germany could lose) is a reality to them. I saw an article where, I think it was Beckenbauer, was saying 'We're going to get the Mexicans in the quarterfinals and we're going to beat them, and go to the final four,' totally disregarding us. I don't think they're scared at all. From everything I've seen and that I can imagine, they just think that they're going to kill us."

On fufilled expectations and less pressure:
"Yeah, but at the same time we know we've done a lot so far, a lot for American soccer, and brought a lot of attention back home, and there's a lot of media, but if we beat Germany and we're here for two more games… Yeah, we have nothing to lose, but that doesn't mean we're not going to go out and try to win the game. It's a team we can beat, for sure. Everybody knows that.

"Getting this far now will make it easier the next time. There might be higher expectations, but a lot of people at this Cup will also be at the next one. Having the experience and knowing that it's possible is priceless."

On German tactics:
"They're probably like Mexico, they're going to have a lot of the ball. They're all about crosses and using their size and physical strength, so we've got to match that. When we get chances to get at them and chances to score we have to finish them. Plain and simple."

On the German friendly before the Cup:
"It helped a lot — they were men against boys that day. Maybe 9 out of 10 times they should beat us, but if we play well, do all the things we need to do we can beat them."

On the value of previous Cup experience:
"It's important, I think. You can come into this and succeed two ways, you can have experience and have been there before and know what you're doing and use that to help you, or you can come in blindly and have no idea what's going on and play and whatever happens, happens. We've got a good mix of both — for Pablo, DaMarcus, and myself, and some of the other first-timers, it's like 'Who cares? Just go out and play!'"

On being nervous:
"Don't be fooled! I was nervous before the first game! But once the whistle blows, it's just soccer.

"It's just hitting me now — we could beat Germany, and then beat Spain or Korea and then we're in the final. It's just incredible."

On catching Portugal early:
"That's been crucial to our success. It was such a plus to play Portugal first — they were expected to do well as favorites and they didn't know how to play that role. If we had played them second or third we might have lost."

On winning the next game:
"If you don't want to get beat, you've got to do everything in your power not to get beat. You've got to concentrate for ninety minutes. Look at Frankie. His mindset is that he's not going to get beat, no matter who you are or how tall you are. That's how we have to play.

"The three defenders that played against Mexico I think would match up well against the Germans. I'm ready to play anywhere."

On defending:
"You're almost always playing defense. It's the international game, if you want to succeed as a team you have to defend. That means the forwards as well as everybody else. I knew this year that if I didn't do that I wasn't going to be playing. Coach wanted to use me as a midfielder more, and I'll admit that I'm not the greatest defender, but if you work hard and get around the ball that's enough."

On his options if Leverkusen demands that he return:
"Well, you always have a choice, right? If I gotta quit, I still have a choice. They can say 'We want you back, you're coming back this day.' And I can say 'Okay, I'll come back,' or I can say 'I don't want to come back, you'll have to work something out,' and they could say 'No, we're not working anything out,' and I can say 'Okay, I'm going home to Redlands and in five years I'll try playing again when my contract runs out.' If I felt strongly enough about it, yeah, I would say that. I was close to doing that last time, as crazy as that sounds.

"People say that if I had been playing at Leverkusen I would have been happier, but how much happier? I don't know. I can't tell you how much I enjoy my life. I'm so, so lucky. Why would I want to change it? Unless the perfect opportunity came up… I don't like to change, anyway. When things are going well I don't like to change them. I'll go back if it's the right circumstances, that is if I'm going to be happy. I don't want to go back and sit on the bench for five years. To be honest, I still haven't completely decided what I want to do. Last time it wasn't the right circumstances, it was bad. I'm sure in a lot of places it's not bad — I'm sure Steve Cherundolo loves his life (playing in Germany) and it's good for him. It's unfortunate that that one experience makes things bad, but that's how life is. That's probably partially why I love San Jose so much — it was something different. It grew on me really quickly."

On the experience abroad:
"If you love playing soccer, if you're not playing you're going to be miserable. I know it sounds great, to go to the big clubs and all that, but that's not my motivation — I want to go where I can contribute."

On the Bundesliga compared to MLS:
"There's a lot of teams in that league that are good but not great. A lot of them wouldn't do well in MLS. I think San Jose would do fine in the Bundesliga. I don't know if we'd win it, but we definitely wouldn't get relegated."

On gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated:
(Shaking his head and with a sheepish grin) "That's crazy. I'm so focused on Germany and all of a sudden — I don't know. It's amazing."

On any desire to go back to Germany to prove his skills:
"Kind of — the competitive side of me says yes, but then I'm giving in to them, to what they want. I won't go back just for that reason. Besides, believe me, ninety minutes (on Friday) can make up for three years, for sure."

On success in teaming up with DaMarcus Beasley:
"It's just a comfort level. I know where he wants the ball, how he wants it played, I know what he eats for breakfast, I know when he goes to bed, I know everything about him — probably more than I want to know. It makes it easy, and if you're in any trouble, or you're not feeling comfortable in the game, that's something that just settles you down and gets you back to just playing soccer.

"There's a lot of guys who have done a lot to get us qualified, and for Beas and I to start, it might bug some of them a little. 'These guys are 20, they've got plenty of World Cups ahead of them, this might be my last,' I can understand that. But if they're thinking that way they haven't said it, they've been positive, they're still nice and they're still your friends."

On challenging for the World Cup by 2010:
"It's probably more realistic than we thought. If we keep developing, there's no reason why we shouldn't. It takes a lot of luck, a lot of bounces, a lot of hard work, but it can happen."

On winning this World Cup:
"Why do you come into a tournament if you don't think you can win it? If you don't think you can do it, don't go. I don't want to be content with beating Mexico and being this far. Things aren't as tense, but we still want to win."

On talking to Earthquakes teammates:
"I talked to Richard (Mulrooney) today, I talked to Joe (Cannon) — more than I'd like, probably! I've talked to Coach (Yallop) a couple of times, everyone's so happy and excited. I watch all their games on the internet. If we didn't beat Mexico, I would have been happy to go back and play this weekend. I miss the guys — but this is all right."

On getting out into Seoul:
"I haven't gotten out much — the heat wears you out. I'd rather stay in and take a nap. Maybe I'm just lazy! When I've gone out, I've been recognized — the Koreans are very aware of who I am."

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