For hardcore U.S. Men’s National Team supporters, it is still difficult to comprehend the concept of their boys missing out on the World Cup, but that reality has officially set in with the start of the competition in Russia.
It is that failure though that has prompted several former USMNT greats like Alexi Lalas, and more recently, Landon Donovan, to call on Americans to support Mexico and CONCACAF nations Costa Rica and Panama as they begin their journey on the world’s biggest stage.
Again, it’s probably hard to wrap your mind around if you’re an avid USMNT supporter.
Mexico — who is and has been thought of for decades as the U.S.’ greatest foe — couldn’t possibly be uttered in a positive way by USMNT fans. Or could they?
Donovan, who currently plays for Liga MX side Club Leon, has partnered with Mexican beer company Modelo, along with former Chicago Cubs catcher David Ross, to shed some light on breaking curses.
In the case of the Cubs, Ross and his teammates ended a 108-year World Series drought, while Mexico is hoping to break a rough streak of its own in Russia as El Tri aims to advance past the Round of 16.
El Tri has failed to reach the quarterfinals in each of the last six World Cups appearances, with their last final eight appearance coming in 1986 — when Mexico hosted the World Cup.
Pro Soccer Talk recently spoke with Donovan in an exclusive interview about a wide array of subjects, including his newfound affection for Mexico, the future of the USMNT, World Cup 2018 and much more.
Matt Reed: Was there anything in particular that changed your perception of Mexico? Because I’d have to imagine you’ve gotten a decent amount of backlash given your ties to the USMNT and what you’ve meant not just to them but how heavily you were involved in the USA-Mexico rivalry.
Landon Donovan: Any time you have the opportunity to actually see things firsthand, and meet people face to face and immerse yourself in their culture, I think you’re going to become more sympathetic. You’re going to have more respect. The only Mexico I had known was being in a stadium of 100,000 people booing me. I didn’t know any other Mexico. Having the chance to be around these people and make friends there has really given me a new appreciation for everyone.
MR: The intentions are obviously good. But simply put, why should Americans root for Mexico at the World Cup given the massive rivalry between the two countries?
LD: I see the world a little bit different. We’ve got enough hatred and divisiveness and nastiness in the world right now. I don’t believe that’s sustainable or frankly enjoyable to be around. In the big picture, forget that I just spent four months of my life in Mexico, if Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama do well at the World Cup that bodes well for us. That helps CONCACAF in the end. And conversely, iff they go out and bomb out in the first round and don’t advance, what does that say about us? What does that say about the fact that we couldn’t even qualify? I think if you take a little bit of that emotion out of it and look at it objectively, you can at least have a bit of an appreciation for wanting to see Mexico and these other teams do well.
MR: What do you see from this current Mexican side, and ultimately how far can they advance in Russia? Again, this is a classic situation of a talented squad underperforming in the lead up to the World Cup.
LD: I think from a talent standpoint they are a quarterfinal(-ish) type team. It’s interesting because when I talked to David Ross about this he had an interesting comment about the Cubs and how their 2016 season played out. He said, “On paper we’re as talented as any team in the league, but talent only gets you so far. We had a fighting spirit and belief in our group that we were going to be the team to break the curse.” They were being hounded every day about the fact that they weren’t going to do it, so when I think about this Mexico team they have to get in a room together and say maybe we’re not the best of friends. Maybe we don’t see everything eye to eye, but if we want to be a special team we’ve got to be something different. Because getting to the quarterfinals would immortalize this group. They’ve got to be willing to lay it all on the line to get there. It has nothing to do with their talent. They have plenty of that.
MR: We’ve all had a lot of time to dissect and mourn the USMNT failing to qualify for Russia. You can probably name one of a million reasons why that’s the case, but can you pinpoint an area that proved to be their downfall?
LD: I think what happened was that on the surface everything seemed fine and dandy. We got out of our group in 2014 and took Belgium to extra time. Everything seemed fine, but under the surface there were a lot of red flags. People, including myself, overlooked that. We didn’t see that there were real systemic issues going on. We paid the ultimate price of not going to the World Cup because of it, which has haunted all of us. The question as to what went wrong. There are a number of things, but I just think eventually not doing things the right way caught up with us.
MR: Do you believe not qualifying was a blessing and a curse for the U.S.? This, of course, is assuming that the program learns from its mistake and addresses the issues that set them back.
LD: No question. The only saving grace in a situation like this is if you learn from your mistakes and get better. Otherwise it’s only going to get worse. I think of the things that have happened in my life, some of the bad ones, which have fortunately not been many. If I was able to look back on it and better myself then I can say I’m glad that happened. Until I get to that place though, there’s really no benefit. That said, it doesn’t mean the USMNT needs to throw everything out. We absolutely needed to peel back the layers though, and address where we went wrong. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made so far.
MR: Just speaking about unity, and the relationship you’re aiming to help build between the U.S. and Mexico. The United Bid received the rights to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first time three nations have co-hosted a tournament of this magnitude. What’s the overall importance of hosting again, and even more so doing it with our neighbors to the north and south?
LD: Let’s just put aside the soccer aspect for a second. From a political and global perspective this shows the rest of the world that we have three massive countries coming together to do something really great. Especially amidst our political climate and some of our leaders and their feelings towards our southern neighbors, I just think it’s a massive message of positivity and unity when we desperately need it. I’m really proud of the efforts that everyone involved put in to achieve this and I think it’s big for society as a whole.
MR: June 23, 2010. Does that date ring a bell? In all seriousness though, how often do you still think about the Algeria game and that last-minute goal?
LD: It honestly does because like you said it’s what people remember. It’s the strongest emotional moment on the biggest stage. It’s one thing if intellectually something like that happens. You don’t always relate to it. But when something emotional like that happens to you I think it sticks with you forever. It’s just this profound moment in a lot of fans’ soccer lives. For many, it’s when they became soccer fans or really connected with soccer for the first time. It’s just a moment etched in everyone’s memory, and I love talking to people about it because it’s so much bigger than just what I did.
MR: I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your final thoughts on the World Cup. Who wins it all and why?
LD: I think in the end Germany is the logical choice. I do think from a talent standpoint France and Belgium are super talented if they can find a way to become a team. And then oddly every World Cup in my lifetime has had people talking about Brazil. I really don’t hear many people talking about them, which I think is crazy. In some weird way, maybe that will be good for them to fly under the radar a little. There’s no drama. They can just go about their business.Follow @MattReedFutbol