ARLINGTON, Texas — Players around the world are already thinking about the 2018 World Cup and the chance to perform on the sport of soccer's biggest stage. The same applies to Landon Donovan, who won't be playing in his fourth World Cup as a player, but instead is hoping to take part in his first World Cup as a television analyst calling games for FOX Sports.
The U.S. national team legend has jumped into life as a television analyst, providing color commentary for FOX Sports' coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Partnered with former U.S. teammate Stuart Holden and play-by-play announcer John Strong, Donovan has hit the ground running, offering honest assessments of the team he spent more than a dozen years playing for.
Donovan hasn't been shy about criticizing U.S. players, including former teammates, but he is doing his best to strike a respectable balance.
"I feel like I always err on the side of positive because I’ve been there, and it’s not as easy as it looks on TV," Donovan told Goal. "But I think as you get more comfortable, I feel okay saying something negative or critiquing in the context of the game. There’s a difference between saying ‘this guy’s a terrible player’ versus ‘this guy made a bad play’.
"I try to phrase it in a way where I’m being respectful to the player, but if Eric Lichaj gives a ball away in the third minute, what the hell’s he doing? Or Omar (Gonzalez) lets a ball bounce in the six-yard box, Omar’s one of my best friend teammates I’ve ever had, but you have to say ‘What the hell was Omar doing’," said Donovan, who will work as an analyst in Saturday's USA-Costa Rica Gold Cup semifinal. "I think you have to do it out of respect for the game, and your job, but also out of respect for the players. I’m trying to figure out that line, but I’ve been more critical this tournament for sure."
Donovan has already shown considerable improvement from his work as a studio analyst for ESPN during the 2014 World Cup. That stint came shortly after his surprising omission from the U.S. World Cup squad in 2014.
"It wasn’t a nerves thing because I was used to being in front of a camera, but I didn’t understand the things you need to do to be good at it, or to even be competent," Donovan said. "It was a bad situation because I was sitting talking to a camera, as opposed to being in an area where you’re with other people. Where you’re at a desk, where you have energy. It was a good learning experience to kind of get thrown into the fire, but thinking about then versus now, it’s like anything. The more practice, the more you learn, the better you get. So I’ve come a long way."
Donovan and Holden have been partnered up as color commentators by FOX just four years after they played as teammates on the U.S. team that won the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
"My ex-wife was an actress, and she would always talk about how important chemistry is on camera, and I’d always say ‘That’s stupid," Donovan said. "Like you’re an athlete, you do your job, you do your job’. But it’s just like on the field. There’s certain guys you have chemistry with. Like Brian Ching, I just knew exactly where to go, what to say, where he wanted it. Same with (DaMarcus Beasley), you just knew it, because you spent so much time together."
Donovan and Holden are developing a good chemistry, working off each other, and trading opinions that don't always line up with each other.
"There’s a balance that Stu and I figure out and we’re continuing to figure out," Donovan said. "If he’s hammering someone and I see the other side, like for instance Paul Arriola. The other day (Holden’s) going after him and he said he should have scored this deflected shot that bounced in front of him and had all this spin, and I’m saying ‘Stu, hold on, that’s not the easiest chance to score on’.
"If a guy has a horrible game and we both see it, we’re going to say it," Donovan said. "But if, like Paul Arriola, I don’t think he’s been poor. I don’t think he’s been his best, I don’t think his passing and finishing has been the best, but I think he’s been energetic and lively, so when Stu says that I’m fine to say ‘Listen, I don’t think he’s been that bad’. And it’s okay. Everybody looks at the game and has eight different opinions. That’s the way soccer is."
Donovan knows all too well about how fickle opinions can be. As a player, he was one of the most polarizing figures in American soccer history. Now, as an television analyst, Donovan finds himself once again trying to prove his value, and facing criticism of his work. Criticism he admits to seeking out as he works to sharpen his skills.
"I’m aware of (the criticism), and since it’s new to me, I look for it a lot. I’m on Twitter looking to see what people say," Donovan said. "In the end it’s so I can understand what I’m doing right and doing wrong, but I've realized that, just like my playing career, I could score a hat-trick and someone will say ‘You’re terrible, you got lucky to score three goals’. And it’s just based on whether someone likes you or not. I’ve obviously been, in some ways, somewhat polarizing."
Donovan's next goal is to be part of the FOX Sports coverage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, something he has a good chance of achieving if he continues to improve as an anaylst. Donovan admits that he's enjoying being a full-time color analyst much more than he ever expected, and says now that he wouldn't rule out making a career of it, but the married father of two, who just last month welcomed the birth of his second child, isn't sure what the future holds just yet in terms of his next career.
"I would have said a year ago absolutely not, but I’m really enjoying it, and I’m enjoying the pressure of it because you’re live," Donovan told Goal. "When I think ahead to next year, in the World Cup, and 20 million plus people paying attention, so there’s the adrenaline going, and it’s performing. I like that part of it.
"Do I see myself doing it long term? I don’t know," Donovan said. "I don’t see myself traveling every week, 52 weeks a year doing it, but if I could do it in a way where I’m doing enough of it so I’m being respectful to everybody but not killing myself, then maybe."