Q&A: U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan

Originally Published: November 18, 2011
By Kelley Carter | Special to Page 2

Landon DonovanJohn Salangsang ( Donovan recently was in in the Los Angeles area signing autographs for fans.

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Landon Donovan can hardly believe this crowd.

There are more than 300 people lined up, way beyond the shoe section, down past accessories, outside the doors and snaked around the mall in a suburban Southern California Macy's. Many of them have been in line for hours, all hoping to get a glimpse -- and maybe an autographed ball -- of the soccer-playing superstar.

He shakes his head as he tries to take it all in. As recently as a year ago, Donovan couldn't have imagined a sight like this. Not for soccer, anyway. But it's getting better. And Donovan says he's bracing himself for what he hopes is a mainstream explosion of interest in the sport that's made him famous (and that he's helping to make more famous stateside).

One benefit from MLS' success? He's being asked to serve as a pitchman for luxury products. First up is Seiko, which recently debuted its Sportura watch, the reason Donovan is at this Orange County mall in the first place.

We talk with Donovan about his sport, his status and his stance on soccer's perception:

Are you starting to feel as much of a rock star athlete as a guy like Kobe Bryant?

"We constantly are trying to sell our sport. Kobe doesn't need to sell his sport. People know basketball, they love him, they love the sport, it's been around a long time, they have a big following. But for us, we're constantly trying to get people into our games. I think most soccer players understand that and it helps keep us humble. There's not this sense of entitlement. We know that literally almost every fan that we get, we have to work for."

[+] EnlargeKelley Carter, Landon Donovan
John Salangsang ( Donovan sits with reporter Kelley Carter during the big event.

Does that change the way that you play the game?

"It does. There's this constant knock on soccer that it's not entertaining, there's not enough goals, we need more scoring. At the end of the day, we're trying to win the game. But as time goes on and people become more aware of the intricacies of our game and how difficult it is to score, I think people understand that it's a really great game."

Do you think that there's still this perception that the best athletes play other sports in the U.S.?

"That's a good question. I still think, for the most part, the best athletes are playing other sports. It's starting to change a little bit. The good thing is there's plenty to go around. But we'll say in the locker room, 'Can you imagine what our national team would look like if someone like LeBron James or someone like Michael Vick or even someone like Allen Iverson had started playing soccer at a young age?' There's no question that we would benefit from getting greater athletes and I think it's starting to happen. It's just going to take a little time."

What's it been like with the U.S. national team's new coach? Do you think that his coaching style kind of suits your style of play?

"I've been very happy with Jurgen Klinsmann, but I think Jurgen's biggest strength is that he gives you confidence. It sounds simple, but a confident athlete is so much better than an un-confident athlete. He encourages us to express ourselves. For guys that are creative, attacking players, you need that freedom."

Do you find that you're more recognized here in the United States now or in places outside of the country?

"In the past it would've been outside of the country, particularly in Mexico or Central America, but now after our success last World Cup, there's a lot of people now that recognize us. It's nice and it's a testament to all we've done. I think it's important because when I was growing up I didn't really have 'star players' to look up to. There were a few recognizable faces, but not guys that played like me. It's good now that kids have a bunch of different faces they can look up to, they see players that they want to emulate."

There were about 300 people in line waiting for hours to see you at Macy's. What is it going to take for the next time you do something like that to see 3,000?

"First and foremost you have to do it on the field; you have to perform and you have to continue performing. Certainly having successful World Cups helps. The other part is we now have the ability to do more things in the public eye. Seiko wouldn't have come around a few years ago, and now they want to be partnered with soccer players. You see Hope Solo now on 'Dancing With the Stars,' this wouldn't have happened years ago. We have that platform now, and we've got to make sure we take advantage of it and we make the most of it when we're in front of people's faces."

Kelley L. Carter is an entertainment and pop culture freelance journalist.

Kelley L. Carter is an Emmy-winning entertainment journalist who has written for publications including USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, Vibe and Essence magazines. She also regularly provides expert pop culture and entertainment commentary for outlets including CNN, E! and the TV Guide Channel.