Ex-US soccer star Donovan getting comfortable on TV

AP News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2016 8:19 PM

Landon Donovan keeps thinking back to a lesson from the teacher in his high school speech class: "Speaking is 10 percent what you actually say, and 90 percent how you're presenting it."

The former U.S. soccer star dabbled in TV commentary the last couple of years, and he concedes there were times "I didn't think I was any good at it." But with Donovan's recent switch from the studio to the booth, the executive producer of Fox's 2018 World Cup coverage is gushing about his future in the business.

The 34-year-old Donovan, who called two U.S. knockout stage games during the Copa America, is getting his bearings with the presentation part. Not that it came easily.

"I realized quickly I'm not a naturally energetic, outgoing, outspoken kind of person," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview Monday. "I have pretty strong opinions based on my experiences and think I have good input on what's going on and a pretty good grasp of what the players are going through.

"But I realized if don't communicate it in a somewhat entertaining way, people are not going to listen."

While other athletes-turned-analysts can lure in the audience by chatting as they would in casual conversation, Donovan has found he needs to feel as if he's "going overboard" to come across effectively on air.

"It's almost acting," he said. "It's almost like I have to fake it."

Before he called a Mexico exhibition for Fox Sports last month, Donovan's only experience in the booth had been a practice game that he felt didn't go well. But he enjoyed working the Mexico friendly and received positive feedback.

Still, it was a big promotion to analyze the United States' Copa America quarterfinal against Ecuador. It was also a bit of an awkward situation. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann cut Donovan before the 2014 World Cup, a choice the Americans' all-time leading scorer had vociferously and repeatedly derided.

Donovan knew he needed to move on from that anguish, so he asked to sit down with Klinsmann in the lead-up to the match. Their long talk was "cathartic," Donovan said, and also illuminating about how Klinsmann views his team and why he makes certain decisions.

The conversation also provided a valuable lesson for Donovan as an analyst. He figured he already knew plenty about the U.S. squad to call the game. By the time the 2-1 win over Ecuador was over, Donovan realized, "Oh, my God, what would I have done if I'd not had that meeting?"

David Neal, Fox's executive producer for the World Cup, said Donovan has embraced the depth of research an analyst needs to prepare.

"His work ethic is reflective of the best people in business," Neal said.

Neal mentioned Donovan among the current Fox commentators who are in the mix for the network's top teams during the next World Cup. Since the experiment of using Gus Johnson as the lead soccer announcer ended, Fox hasn't determined who will fill that role in Russia in 2018.

Donovan said he's interested in sticking with his announcing career but is also OK if it doesn't work out. He did some studio work for ESPN during the 2014 World Cup after he was cut and also had made appearances on Fox's shows before Copa America.

He said he and Neal agreed game commentary made for a better fit. It affords more time to explain strategy or tell a story than the 10- to 15-second snippets of the studio that still present a challenge for someone known for his introspective interviews as a player.

Play-by-play voices John Strong and JP Dellacamera and analysts Brad Friedel and Stuart Holden, both former U.S. players, also handled high-profile games during Copa America. Neal said the No. 1 team will be determined before next summer's Confederations Cup and likely will be comprised of announcers who worked the Copa America.

What Donovan brings is a lofty level of name recognition, someone casual soccer fans associate with success. As plenty of athletes-turned-analysts have discovered, though, playing prowess does not always translate to the booth.

Neal is optimistic Donovan can thrive in his new career.

"His instincts are absolutely amazing and the way he expresses himself is unique and fresh," Neal said.

Neal pronounced himself pleased with Fox's coverage of the Copa America, which the network considers a warmup for its first men's World Cup. Sunday's final between Chile and Argentina averaged nearly 3 million viewers for the English-language broadcast on FS1 and 6.8 million for the Spanish coverage on Univision, the networks said Monday.