Landon Donovan talks El Tri support, USMNT and more

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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.

[ MORE: What will hosting 2026 World Cup mean for USA? ]

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.

Courtesy of Modelo

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.

MRThe 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.

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.

It’s hard to be humbled. Anything less could cost Berhalter his job

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
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Wild nights, positive or negative, deserve reflection one day later. Here’s our bid to put the USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Canada in context less than 24 hours later…

The humbling of Gregg Berhalter is one of two distinct hopes for his survival as United States men’s national team coach.

The other is an unreliable route, one filled with long-term health for his best players on some pie-in-the-sky road where he utilizes the same 12-14 players per game for the rest of his tenure.

So, yeah, the first one is pretty key.

Coaches are by nature arrogant, and Berhalter earned his confidence by nurturing a suboptimal Columbus Crew roster into an over-performing playoff mainstay despite owner and former showgirl Rachel Phelps trying to move the club to Miami (Movie reference No.1, achieved).

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

When Berhalter beat out the field of two to lay claim to the USMNT position, he won over the media with Powerpoint slides about Pep Guardiola-inspired possession, which assumed to the delight of the American fan base that the nation had the immediate tools to out-class most of CONCACAF simply by being organized. He even had people handing him cute nicknames and defending the idea of using a Bundesliga regular defensive midfielder as a right back because he was generous with his time. Who needs La Masia when you’ve got the DA?

It should be pointed out that the philosophy’s failure through nine months doesn’t entirely destroy the idea to try it, but Berhalter’s often bizarre player selection and tactical destruction at the hands of Jamaica, Mexico, and now Canada have hastened the end of his honeymoon period almost as effectively as his the federation’s refusal to interview anyone other than Berhalter and Oscar Pareja. I mean, who needs Sergino Dest’s optimism when you can keep trying to jam a Wil Trapp-sized Wil Trapp through an Andrea Pirlo-shaped hole?

So you get what we had last night, a tire fire of a match in which his midfield had no idea what to do with the ball and his forwards might as well have been on a monastic retreat. According to the broadcast, Berhalter thought a miserable first half was due to his men not moving the ball fast enough side-to-side. His answers via subs, even before they were down, were to take off Christian Pulisic and leave creative minds Sebastian Lletget and Tyler Boyd on the bench. After the game, he claimed his players weren’t working hard enough and didn’t match Canada’s desire.

Here’s the problem, though, that’s on Berhalter, too. There were myriad articles out there, including several on this site, detailing Canada’s desperation to get results in the CONCACAF Nations League in order to move into a Top Six CONCACAF spot on the FIFA Rankings and qualify for the Hex.

(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

All it takes is a cursory look at the Canada roster to see that their electric attackers were their hope of winning the match, and that pressing their relatively weak group of defenders — one of whom has only been a defender for a year — was probably a great idea.

But Berhalter again stuck with his idea that the United States men’s national team program, even without several of its best players, could implement his system anywhere, against anyone.

And it failed spectacularly.

The thing is that Berhalter is actually quite a decent coach, as he proved in Columbus, but whether or not he lives to show it to this American audience in this particular job depends on his accepting the shortcomings of his depleted roster.

I want to talk to you about Aaron Long, and not because of his “Stranger Things” lifeguard haircut (TV show reference No. 1, achieved).

Aaron Long is a mauler, the sort of player who’d be beloved by many segments of the USMNT community in several generations. He gets stuck in, has a good work rate, and can factor on set pieces in the attacking third.

What he does not do very well — and I’ve covered this a lot in this space — is pass the ball and aid in possession. Since breaking into MLS in 2017, the now 27-year-old center back has completed 76, 69, and 65 percent of his passes with the New York Red Bulls.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Part of that is a function of the Red Bulls’ system; The team doesn’t really care at all about possession, passing at a terrible 68.6 percent, and not one of their players had a completion rate above 80 percent this year. By comparison, 197 players in Major League Soccer completed 80 percent or more of their passes this season (WhoScored).

This is not an argument that Long shouldn’t be in the U.S. system. While he’s had a rough couple of months in the shirt, he’s in the mix for the toughest American center backs in the game.

Might this possession-based idea look a lot better when healthy? Of course, that’s what we mentioned above. John Brooks is by far the best passing center back in the pool, and has been out of the mix for sometime due to injury. The same is true for the side’s best No. 6 in Adams.

But what the Yanks were for so long was difficult to break down, a hassle to play against. Berhalter needs that right now, and he’s got the horses to do it (Watch Jordan Morris’ legs keep moving for 90 minutes if you need proof). Success could then require admitted in front of a microphone that his team can’t hack his system right now, and that he talked down to an entire room last month when they just spit facts his way. That’s humbling, and it’s not fun. But it’s needed.

Adding to the issue is that it’s easy to see the Yanks still emerging from their group by beating Canada in Orlando next month and then walloping Cuba. But if Berhalter hasn’t been humbled and sees victories against the 53rd and 145th ranked teams in EloRatings as validation, well, I’ve got some truly valuable early 1990s baseball cards to sell you for a premium price.

Arrogance does nothing for you if it’s ill-founded. That confidence has felled countless executives, coaches, and players over the years (and yes, even average writers). Being outfoxed by Tata Martino is one thing, but having no reaction to the plan of John Herdman is another (That’s not a shot at Herdman, who had done well with the New Zealand and Canada women, but let’s be real).

We won’t learn whether Berhalter has learned from his errors via results next month, rather by what he does to try and get those results. When Martino beat him in the Gold Cup Final, the rematch two months later was far worse. He gets a second chance to match wits with Herdman next month, and it really cannot get much worse. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice (Movie reference No. 2, achieved).

Last month, I wrote that Berhalter’s duties including the following bare minimum goals.

  1. Qualify for the World Cup
  2. Reach the final of all CONCACAF competitions
  3. Look like an adequate footballing nation in other competitions
  4. Make sure he doesn’t lose any talented dual nationals (also the GM’s job)

No. 1 is still far away, but 2-4… woah. We’re one Alphonso Davies star show away from finishing 2019 without a Gold Cup and no place in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal. Sergino Dest might’ve skipped town for Ronald Koeman‘s Netherlands set-up either way, but being shoehorned at left back last month probably helped his decision.

Finally, a number of people on Twitter pointed out that Canada is due plenty of respect for out-dueling the USMNT on Tuesday. Absolutely! But if you think a nation with under 1 million registered soccer players should be absolutely clowning a nation with 4 million-plus, a side they hadn’t beaten let alone dominated in 34 years, then you’re not getting the point. There’s room for Canada and the U.S. to both be good, but the Yanks looked like a steaming hot mug of spoiled milk to Canada’s well-chilled bag of the fresh stuff. No good.

Your move, Gregg. Do what you did last night, and last month, and you’ll get the same results. Your only other option is Voodoo dolls of Alphonso Davies and Scott Arfield.