Every now and again I get a pitch from someone working for a public relations firm that offers an exclusive interview with a former U.S. national team player. I generally don't accept ones that are tied directly to corporate sponsors, but the latest opportunity came without any such strings attached. So I was happy to spend a good half-hour Thursday chatting with Brian McBride.
The former striker and current Fox Soccer analyst will be at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, though not as a broadcaster. He'll be signing autographs at the Fan Fest outside the stadium.
McBride is also giving a clinic at a youth club in New Jersey on Friday. After the clinic, he'll be surprising the club with all new soccer equipment.
The big news these days in American soccer, of course, is Landon Donovan's dismissal from the U.S. national team. McBride knows Donovan well, and he also had a front-row seat to the last time the U.S. went through anything like this.
(Some of you know what it is. If you don't, read on.)
I asked McBride to offer his reflections on the Donovan story, which he did at length. We also talked about a few top moments from McBride's decorated U.S. national team career.
Here's the transcript of our conversation.
Your Fox colleague and former U.S. teammate Eric Wynalda was recently quoted as saying that Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to cut Landon Donovan from the World Cup roster "is hands down the biggest decision ever made in U.S. soccer's history." Do you think that's a fair statement, or too strong?
Biggest decision? Boy. It's a pretty bold statement for sure. I think it could be justified as correct if it shows true that Landon would have made a difference in the World Cup. I mean, for all intents and purposes, everybody definitely assumes he would have, at least.
Maybe not a game-winning situation - though having said that, he's been known to have those performances, and has been counted upon to have those performances. But there's so much more to a game than just one person.
That's why - and I know Eric very well, but usually the biggest decisions are team decisions. Maybe from the standpoint of this being "the most impactful decision" in terms of creating a stir, for sure. It definitely was the biggest surprise that I can think of, at least right off the top of my head, leaving him off the roster.
But there are so many things that go on behind the scenes that coaches have to make decisions on, and those things tend to pan out over a long period. U.S. Soccer is such a big organization that picking the right coach and those kinds of things are huge, huge decisions.
Fans and players alike have started to move on from the decision to cut Donovan, because there is so much to do between now and the start of the World Cup. Still, what do you think the atmosphere in the U.S. locker room was like when the news came down?
I don't know. I'm sure Jurgen has talked to the group about the whole thing. It's so important that with decisions like this, the players know what and why decisions were made. It doesn't mean, as he has come out and said, that it's a decision you talk to the players about beforehand.
But I certainly think it's something you talk to them about afterward, just so players really know what's going on, because question marks are something that you definitely don't want to have when you're leading into a tournament like this.
That's part of the reason why I think he named the 23 so early, so that he can start building towards the main goal, rather than the main goal being making the team. Now it's getting out of the group, which should always be the purpose of this camp.
One of the reasons why I took particular note of Wynalda's remark was that he had a role in another very famous incident of a prominent U.S. player being cut from a World Cup team.
In 1998, John Harkes was dropped after then-coach Steve Sampson claimed Harkes had "leadership issues" and didn't want to play a more defensive role. It turned out that the real reason for Harkes' dismissal was that he'd had an affair with Wynalda's wife. Rumors and allegations flew around for a dozen years until Sampson finally let the truth out in 2010.
You were part of that squad, and you know everyone who was involved. The situation isn't entirely the same now as it was then: soccer is much more prominent in American culture, and social media can make anything into a big deal. But I wonder how you would compare the Donovan controversy to the Harkes controversy.
It's part of the reason why I said Jurgen should make sure he talks to the players about everything, and is open with his feelings, or his reasoning. It doesn't mean he has to tell them everything in detail, but he has to make sure the players know why the decision was made.
In '98, we didn't have that. Guys were always questioning and wondering, and of course there were rumors running around in the team. But no one really knew for sure until much, much later.
Question marks are a big thing. Any time players have excuses or have reasons to give for possible bad performances, a lot of players take those outs. What you need is to have a complete group aimed toward the same goal.
Yeah, I think there are similarities. At the time, John was our captain and certainly one of our most influential players. But hopefully it's being handled differently by the coach. I think it is, knowing his willingness to communicate with players in the group, but more importantly, as individuals.
There is a theory among some fans and pundits that by cutting Donovan, who is one of the U.S.' only real big-game players, Klinsmann isn't doing everything he can to win at this World Cup. I'm sure you've seen the conversation out there and I wonder what you make of it.
Well, I hope the theory isn't true. I hope that's not the reason. I understand he [Klinsmann] has got four more years and he definitely wants to build, but I think it's an injustice to the players for whom this may be their last World Cup, or this may be their first and only World Cup. To work that hard together, you would never want to see them going into a situation that is basically set up to fail.
I think if anything, Jurgen, as he has shown, is very bold in his decision-making. He feels strongly that Landon wasn't going to be as influential as we all thought. And of course, the truth will come out after the World Cup about whether his decision was right or not.
It really can go two different ways: it can go strength to the players that he believes can do it, or it can start tearing apart the team when things don't go well, and they're wondering where a player is who has the ability to come in and change games - whether he is starting or coming off the bench, with that pace and that ability to dribble with the ball and really cause problems for teams defensively.
Do you think that Klinsmann's decision was in any way personal, instead of being purely soccer-related?
No, I don't. I know there were concerns with the sabbatical and the commitment, And I think any time you get that, you wonder as a coach how deep does the commitment go? Do you fight through?
If we look at Landon in 2006 compared to 2010, in 2006 it wasn't about fight for him. It was more about other things. In 2010, in games where he wasn't as technically influential, he fought and he worked incredibly hard on the team.
You need that from every player, from your stars on down to the last player to make the roster, to really get the team through especially such a difficult group. Maybe he [Klinsmann] saw that wasn't the case.
Landon has come out and said publicly - and I think this probably had some effect - that when he met with Jurgen, he told him there was no way he could do 12 days straight of training where he was on and effective every day. He's not recovering as quickly.
As a player, you respect his honesty, but you've also got to remember what the coach is probably thinking: "I need everybody committed, regardless of whether they can feel committed for 12 days straight." That's all hypothetical. I really don't know what Jurgen is thinking, whether it's personal or not. But it certainly was a surprise.
Alright, enough about Landon. Let's talk about the guys who are on the World Cup team. We know who the veteran leaders are - Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard. Who are some players that you think have the opportunity now to step up into leadership roles?
I want to see Matt Besler. I think he's right on the cusp of feeling comfortable enough to really be as influential as he is with Kansas City. To me, he's a huge cog in this team as far as the back four, regardless of who he's playing with. Geoff Cameron has good pace, but if he's playing with Omar González, it is imperative that Besler is there for his pace. For sure, he would be one of them.
And then you want some of the guys with experience - I don't know [Aron] Jóhannsson really well, but I really like him as a player. You could see Besler and possibly [DaMarcus] Beasley. I haven't talked to him in a long time, but he's going to have plenty of experience to provide for those guys of what happens off the field, in preparations and stuff like that.
I also wonder who you think are going to be the kinds of guys who will step up in big moments the way Landon has. And that probably comes down more to the attacking players, in terms of what I'm thinking, but I presume you can understand why.
Well, yeah. I think the obvious ones are pretty good picks, with Clint [Dempsey] and Michael Bradley. When [Jermaine] Jones is in there, Michael can get forward. I would love to see Jozy [Altidore] have a breakout World Cup after a year when integrating into a new team was difficult.
And like I said, I touched a little bit on Aron Jóhannsson and the fact that I like him. I think he has got a lot of great attributes that help this team, that especially without Landon we don't have. What I mean by that is he's a very forward-minded player. I don't just mean that he plays forward - when he gets the ball, his first thought is to look forward.
In the first half of this last game, we* [the U.S.] didn't do a lot of that. We played a lot of side-to-side, and the penetrating balls came mainly from up the wing and then crosses got in. Aron Jóhannsson provides a little bit more of connecting in the middle and going forward with Clint and Michael.
* - Even though he's in the media now, I think most people would excuse McBride for using the first person.
I can't help wanting to ask you to reflect on a few of the big goals you scored in your U.S. national team career.
Let's start with the one against Portugal at the 2002 World Cup. remember waking up a few minutes before 5 a.m. Eastern, as so many of us did, and being completely stunned to watch the U.S. go up 3-0 in the first half. You scored the third goal, a fantastic diving header of a cross from Tony Sanneh. What was going through your mind as that ball came toward you?
(Apologies in advance for subjecting you to Jack Edwards, but I can't find any other standalone clips of the goal.)
You know, there are times when you feel like you have too much time, and you over-think. I played with Tony with the Milwaukee Rampage before I went to Wolfsburg in the summer of 1994, and of course with the national team. That ball was just so perfectly placed.
Really for me, it was about trying to lose my marker. I took a step to the near post and then went to the back post and the ball was right there. I don't have to over-extend on a diving header, I just have to lay out.
I remember so many things about it. It was just a great feeling. I knew exactly where my wife and daughter were in the stands, which happened to be just toward the corner after scoring, and I was able to celebrate that with them, which made it even more special. It just all fell right into place - and thank goodness the game wasn't 15 minutes longer.
You also scored against Mexico in that same World Cup. Sports Illustrated recently ranked that goal as the seventh-biggest of all time in American soccer history. What was that moment like, and how important was it to the team to beat Mexico on that big stage?
The goal came from a foul, and I could hear Claudio screaming as he was running up the line, "Play it! Play it!" So I passed it to him. And what a great run, to be able to beat a defender early - he played it around him, let the defender slide on by.
Then he played a really nicely-weighted ball to [Josh] Wolff, who continues his run past the near post. You'd think he'd stop and wait for a ball to be served in, but he had the knowledge to look around and find me. And talk about a perfectly-weighted ball, with the outside of his foot he feathered it into my path, and I really just had to make sure I missed the goalkeeper.
You know the defenders are closing down the space, but I had plenty of time to pick out an opening and finish it.
And then the feeling afterwards was that it justified our whole togetherness and feeling that we could do something. We had that belief in the Portugal game. We had that grit and fight in the Korea game. We had an off game against Poland, and that's where I think people thought that was it for us. Quite honestly, it would have been, if Korea didn't have the integrity they did, as they went on to beat Portugal.
We were confident going into that [Mexico] game. But people were like: "So what? You won the first game, but you tied and then lost in the last two. How could you be confident going up against the group winners?" We all felt confident we could beat Mexico anywhere but Mexico City. We felt we matched up against them, we felt we understood the style of play.
And again, we definitely needed to have some amazing performances - Brad [Friedel] was excellent in goal for us, defensively we were just so solid and committed, and then we just took our chances. It's not like we had a ton, but that justified our feeling of togetherness and working for each other.
Lastly, I want to ask about a goal that I admit is one of my personal favorites. In 2000, you scored the only goal of a 1-0 win over Guatemala at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The U.S. was down a man at the time, and just about everyone who watched that game remembers the crowd blowing the roof off. Where does that goal rank for you among your personal highlights?
(Jump to the 2:43 mark of the video below. Apologies again for subjecting you to Jack Edwards, but this call was actually quite good.)
Gosh. I don't think about goals or certain scenarios until they are brought up. And of course lately, a lot of the World Cup stuff has been brought up.
That goal, yeah, I vividly remember. It was a situation where I knew I had to get there first, and if I did, I knew I was going to take something on it. And hopefully, regardless of what I took from the goalkeeper, I'd be able to put it by him. Certainly, it was a lot of fun - and at the time, it was probably the most important goal I had scored in my career.