LOS ANGELES – Landon Donovan's return to the soccer field, as manager of San Diego's new USL Championship club, is a product of mere happenstance.
It wasn't part of the plan, even as he became the face of an unsuccessful effort to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to his adopted hometown. But when he was approached last year about becoming coach of a team he would “prefer not to” identify, it stirred something within his soul.
He will be on the sideline next year guiding USL Championship expansion side San Diego Loyal, for which he is is a co-founder, part-owner, executive vice president of soccer operations and, when preseason camp opens on Jan. 20, the boss on the field.
“I am excited,” Donovan told MLSsoccer.com from LAFC's Banc of California Stadium earlier this month following the announcement that next year's MLS All-Star Game will pit MLS's best against a Liga MX all-star squad. “You know, right now it's a lot of administrative [work] — talking to players, talking to agents, helping build the club – but it'll be exciting just to get on the field and play.”
Donovan, arguably the finest American man ever to play the sport, had done his share of camps and coached MLS's Homegrown team in the annual Homegrown Game in both 2015 and 2016, but he wasn't thinking about coaching as a career until it became a real possibility.
“As I went through the process of trying to see whether or not it was of interest,” he said, “I felt passion I hadn't felt previously in anything, since I've stopped playing. I kind of attribute it to having kids. When I had kids, my mindset changed, and I really like the opportunity to help young players, or players, improve and get better and – ultimately at this level – move on to the next level if they can. That was sort of the impetus.”
Donovan and businessman Warren Smith, who had worked in minor-league baseball and co-founded USL powerhouse and future MLS expansion side Sacramento Republic FC, founded the San Diego Loyal last June. Two weeks ago, Donovan was announced as the first head coach of the team, calling it “the right place at the right time with the right people for me to begin my managerial career.”
To reach this point, he sought advice from coaches he'd worked with during his playing career.
“The obvious ones, right?” Donovan said. “Speak to people I've been around my whole career. Bruce [Arena]. I went and spent time with [former LA Galaxy teammate] Gregg Berhalter, with the national team, last summer. And then I also have mentors who are college coaches or people who have been in these situations: building a team, building a roster, understanding how procedures work. All those things, because those are foreign to me. So I've had a lot of help.”
Former Luton Town and Bristol Rovers manager Paul Buckle, a former Sacramento Republic head coach, and San Diego-bred former US national team star Shannon MacMillan are senior advisers for the Loyal, and Donovan tabbed Carrie Taylor – a veteran coach at college (men and women), club and high school levels – as his assistant.
How will the Loyal play under Donovan's command? What style does he favor?
His is a practical approach.
“I've had a lot of influence from a lot of different coaches over the years, a lot of different players over the years,” he said. “I'm trying to learn how to say this succinctly: If you watch press conferences around the world for coaches coming in, 99 percent of the time [they'll say], 'We're going to attack, possession-based, we're going to score goals, we're going to be high-energy,' and I always think to myself, 'What happens when you play Barcelona? You gonna do that?'
“That always bothers me," he continued, "because I can say whatever I want right now, but the reality is how do you win, how do you entertain, and how do you be true to who you are as a coach and true to who your players are on the field, right? So it can be a mix of a lot of things. At home, for sure, we want to be assertive, on the front foot, make the game fast, make the game entertaining and exciting. Because we need to do that, and we will play better that way, no question.”
Hit the road, and the approach changes.
“When you go on the road, it depends on a lot of different factors: travel, weather, who you're playing, who's injured, who's healthy,” he said. “I mean, there are a variety of effects. I always thought [the we're-going-to-possess-and-attack rhetoric] was so naïve. It's, like, telling people what they want to hear, but I don't think it's really genuine.”
Donovan is working on his USSF B License at the moment and hopes he can complete his A License “quickly, at the beginning of next year” – players who have competed at a top level can bypass the C License – and has started to build a roster, a task he calls “in some ways enviable and in some ways not enviable.”
The club has not yet revealed any signings and is staging tryouts next month in San Diego. But Donovan's aim is to develop young players, mostly, to prepare them for opportunities to play at higher levels. At least for now, he insists, that is the limit of his ambition.
“I don't have aspirations,” he said. “My aspiration is to help these young players get better. It's a very weird thing to say; I know people don't see things that way, generally.
“I'm not aspiring to be an MLS coach. I'm not aspiring to go somewhere in the world or a national team," he added. "I just want to do the best job I can and do the best job for these players. If those things come along, and I'm loving it and I'm good at it, of course, I'm going to listen. But that's not where my mindset is.”