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A chat with Landon Donovan about un-retirement, player development and Swansea vs Everton

LD isn't as retired as he used to be. In August, he shared his thoughts at the time about un-retiring and a few other things.

Captain Morgan

You heard the news? Landon Donovan is going to unretire.

Or not.

Nope, he's definitely unretired.

Landon Donovan has always done things differently. MLS had (still has, to a certain extent) a reputation as a "retirement league" for top players for pretty much LD's entire career. Now he is reportedly going to make MLS an unretirement league.

About a month ago, the greatest American soccer player of all time was sitting in a Manhattan sports bar at the invitation of Captain Morgan (the rum, not the Leicester City player: we've been over this), ostensibly to talk politics.

Just another day on the sponsors circuit for a retired legend of his game. As it happens, the conversation did turn to the question of unretirement.

LD spent almost his entire career from the age of 19 (bar a few loan stints at Bayern Munich and Everton) in MLS, retiring at just 32 years old. He is still just 34 years young. The league he dominated - for so long they named the MVP award after him - is awash with older men. Steven Gerrard is 36: Andrea Pirlo is 37; 38-year-olds Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba are still playing, still scoring goals.

On an August afternoon in Manhattan with Captain Morgan, does the league’s most accomplished player grab those boots that were hung up-- could he still kick it in the MLS today?

I think if you gave me six months then I could probably last for a few months  -Landon Donovan on returning to MLS

"Today? No," said Donovan convincingly. "I think if you gave me six months then I could probably last for a few months. It wasn't that I couldn't play anymore, it was that I couldn't effectively get through an entire season physically, emotionally, mentally. That's why I said it's time."

There wasn’t an ounce of regret in his voice.

"I didn't want to be a guy like— you see a lot of people that are forced out or play way past they're good anymore and I didn't want to be that guy," said Donovan.

Such are the standards of a player with an MVP trophy named after him. The conversation moved on. He’s underway with the process of getting the coaching badges required to manage professionally. So head coach is the next step, maybe?

"I don't know. I want to see, one, if I'm passionate about it and, two, if I'm any good at it," said Donovan. "That's the reality. I don't want to be a person who sucks at it, you know, where's the fun in that? I want to make an impact, so you want to be good at it."

At the moment, Donovan’s coaching experience begins and ends with the Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game.

"We'll see. I really enjoyed the Homegrown Game," said Donovan. "I'm also smart enough to know that's not real coaching, there's no pressure, there's nothing, you know? I get it all. But we'll see."

In 2015 he was given his coaching debut in the match that has become the curtain-raiser for the MLS All-Star Game. His MLS Homegrowns team fell on penalties to Club America’s U-20 side. In 2016, Donovan was asked to coach again. His team lost 2-0 to Mexico’s U-20 National Team. Other than being 0-2 in his managerial career, his biggest takeaway from 2015 to 2016 was the talent he had at his disposal.

"From a talent standpoint I was blown away by how good these kids were, much more this year than last year," said Donovan.

How’d he enjoy the whole ordeal?

"Really fun. [The players are] so impressionable, they're so eager to learn," said Donovan. "They haven't been successful in their career yet, to a large extent, and they want to be good. So they're willing to listen and willing to apply things. When you get older, and again this ties in, you're kind of set in your ways, you think you know everything, you're not open minded about things. I think that's why I enjoyed it so much."

My problem is these kids aren't always getting opportunities to play -Donovan on player development in MLS

With Donovan being such a transcendent talent back in his day as a young player trying to make it, it wasn't too difficult for him to find playing time when he left Bayer Leverkusen for San Jose. But not all players are Donovan 2.0’s. Honestly, none of them are - at least, not the ones in MLS. And the league's salary cap and roster restrictions, despite gradual effort to encourage youth development, still seem to conspire to offer less opportunity to younger players than they might find at bigger clubs in Europe.

"My problem is these kids aren't always getting opportunities to play," said Donovan. "So you're seeing a bunch of kids 18, 19, 20 who aren't playing games. Anywhere else in the world if you're a talented 18 year old, you're playing games."

Donovan has a few thoughts on the matter, though.

"This is the analogy I use: coaches, and I understand this, have to win on Saturday, that's their job.

If you have a guy who's an 8-out-of-10 and he's 28 years old, then you have a kid who's a 6-and-a-half-out-of-10 who has the potential to be a 9-and-a-half-out-of-10 and he's 18, you're going to play the 8-out-of-10 every time because you want to win the game. But if we want to be a soccer country that's winning things one day, this kid has to play. My sort of goal is how do we figure that out? Because that's a big problem."

Is it as simple as clubs being more patient, maybe allowing managers greater job security in exchange for a longer-term view?

"I don't know if that's the answer, it might be, it's a good starting point probably, I don't know what the answer is," said Donovan. "I don't know if it's that, I don't know if it's bringing these kids in who aren't playing for some reason. You ask every coach, ‘so why isn't this kid playing?’ ‘Well, their 1-on-1 defending isn't good enough and they don't pass the ball well enough.’

Well, we need to work on that, right? We don't have enough resources where coaches are actually working on these things, or enough time. So send them somewhere where they can, or bring in a coach who can help them with those things."

In other Donovan news, he’s part of the ownership group that purchased Premier League club Swansea City. Is it too early to start rumors that Donovan will be the manager in like three years? Yeah, probably.

He doesn't need me to help him -Donovan on Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins

But Donovan opened up on how much he’ll be involved in decisions: Not very much.

"As far as real decisions I will have very ittle input, which is smart because I'm not in it every day," said Donovan. "They have a chairman there in Huw Jenkins who has been there 15+ years who knows that city, that club inside out. He's got them from the lower leagues in England all the way up to the Premier League and he's done an unbelievable job so he doesn't need me to help him."

In 2011, Swansea made their long awaited return back into the Premier League. They’ve been able to avoid the dreaded yo-yo club tag and have found some consistency in the top flight, avoiding relegation since they got back up. Huw Jenkins has a lot to do with that.

Jason Kaplan and Steve Levien are the ones calling the shots in Donovan’s group. Well, their group that Donovan is in. Kaplan and Levien have taken a back seat to those who’ve been there longer, something that Donovan commends.

"What I think is very smart, what I've given the owners Jason Kaplan and Steve Levien a lot of credit for, they know they're not the experts so they're bringing in people around them who know what they're doing or who have some experience. I've played there, I've lived this game I have some experience. If there's a player that they're thinking about signing they'll say 'do you know anything about this?' And it may be ‘I played with that guy and he's kind of a jerk.’ Or 'I played with that guy and he's such a great guy, great leader, great captain,' whatever, and that can help influence decisions.

That's sort of my behind the scenes and I'm really enjoying it, it's been really hectic, a lot more than I thought because the transfer window is going on right now and there's a lot of moving pieces so it's been really fun for me," said Donovan (in August, remember).

As far as England and the Premier League are concerned, Donovan had long been in a monogamous, happy relationship with Everton. After two successful loan stints, Donovan will always have a strong attachment to the club.

What happens on November 19th when his new love Swansea travel to Merseyside to play Everton, who will Donovan be rooting for? Who’s the side piece and who’s the main?

"Good question. Uhm, I wasn't expecting that question," Donovan said, wrong-footed for the first time since he sat down. With due deliberation, he made his choice: "I have to say Swansea now, first of all I'm invested financially and emotionally in it, so I want them to do well.

But every other game Everton plays I want Everton to win."

Sorry that you had to find out this way, Everton.