After an iconic MLS and US men's national team career capped by two comebacks and adventurous stints in Liga MX and indoor side San Diego Sockers, one of the greatest living American soccer players seems to have finally, firmly and fulfillingly transitioned into his second life, as a coach and executive.
We’re talking about Landon Donovan, of course. And in this case I’m talking to Landon Donovan over the phone at 7 am Pacific Daylight Time, the best chance to catch him as he drives east from his home in San Diego into the foothills of the San Ysidro Mountains and the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.
That’s the current practice venue for San Diego Loyal SC, the first-year USL Championship team he coaches, builds as executive VP of soccer operations and part-owns. And while he’s worked through many thousands of training sessions over his lifetime in the game, it’s a completely different experience for him these days.
“You go from worrying about yourself – and maybe a few other players at a time, if you’re the captain, because you’re trying to help guys with a few different things – to you don’t care all about yourself and you’ve got to take care of 26 young men, plus a staff,” Donovan said, showing far more introspection than most of us can muster on our morning commutes. “So it is definitely a different dynamic. I tell my wife, it’s like the most selfless thing I’ve ever done.
“I love it. I’ve loved every minute of it, to be honest.”
"There have been some really hard days"
As much havoc as COVID-19 has wreaked on sports around the world, it poses a particularly menacing threat for fledgling North American soccer organizations like the Loyal. Donovan’s team were two games into their inaugural season, one a sold-out home opener at Torero Stadium and the other a road win over Tacoma Defiance. Then the pandemic brought everything to a grinding halt, since when the country has been consumed by a national conversation about racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Navigating these unprecedented events has segued into a winding path toward a resumption of play, expected to occur on July 11, when the USL Championship aims to become the first professional league in North America to get back to action in clubs’ home markets. For those in Donovan’s situation, that process started with painstaking work at the local level, from managing budgets, rosters and health protocols to simply finding a safe and appropriate location for individual and small-group workouts.
“In this time there have been some really hard days, really difficult times dealing with everything going on, from COVID to the protests now to dealing with trying to figure out a place to train," he said. "There's all kinds of issues that come up. I knew I was going to lose hair, but I thought it was going to be from, like, a three-game losing streak. Now we’ve played two soccer games in six months and I feel like I’ve aged like 10 years.”
I’m so incredibly proud of this club, our staff, our players and this community for making a difference in so many lives. This is the spirit of compassion our country needs so desperately right now. Thanks to all who participated and made this happen 🧡💙💚🙏🏼 https://t.co/MCFDe0TvPt— Landon Donovan (@landondonovan) May 28, 2020
He makes a point to praise the leadership and commitment of Loyal chairman Andrew Vassiliadis, the youngest principal owner in the second-tier league.
“We have a really, really, really fantastic owner, and I promise I’m not pandering. He just really gets it and he really cares about the club and the players,” said Donovan. “When you're starting a club, obviously this is not the way that you want it to go, because we’re trying to build momentum and we had a great first game and it was sold out and people were excited about it.
“But we're just trying to get on with it, and he allows us to just get on with it. Nobody's had salaries cut, nobody's had to worry about anything like that. And it’s allowed us to just continue moving forward as best we can.”
Now 38 and a father of three, Donovan still remembers the player’s perspective, and he’s trying to put it to good use as his club, and the American soccer community at large, grapples with the United States’ troubled legacy of prejudice just like the rest of society.
"We don't feel obligated to speak about it... we choose to."— San Diego Loyal (@SanDiegoLoyal) June 20, 2020
Landon Donovan on the team's culture that allows for open and authentic conversations about LGBTQ+ rights and Black Lives Matter. pic.twitter.com/lt9mh1j0TY
“Nobody cares what I or any other person in the public eye has to say,” said the former LA Galaxy star. “I appreciate people asking, but what do I know? But the approach to all of this is, one, we are very transparent with our players; we’ve spoken to our players about this. We have many, not only Black players but players from all over, different parts of the world. And we just try to give them a forum to speak upon it, and let us know how they feel.
“Compassion is a big focus. We try to get people to walk in other players’ shoes, other people's shoes, so they understand how people feel and where they’re coming from,” he added, sharing one example of a player who explained the fear that struck him during a recent interaction with a law enforcement officer. “That's a real thing, right? That's a real feeling and we need to talk about that so that people, especially people who are not of color, can understand that that's a reality that one of our players and teammates and brothers is living with.”
He’s taken the same tack when it comes to the coronavirus, presenting the public-health data to Loyal’s players and staff and encouraging them to make the most sensible choice for their particular circumstances. In one case early in the return to training, that led to a player abstaining from training in order to limit the risk of exposing his parents to the virus.
“I believe that people should be able to make decisions for themselves,” said Donovan. “We're not experts. We’re just trying to use the info we have and then make good decisions, but to this point all of our players feel safe and confident and they want to play.”
Making real change
That mentality also reveals itself when the conversation shifts to U.S. Soccer’s recent decision to ditch a policy intended to force national-team players to stand for the national anthem, a pregame ritual Donovan experienced 157 times as a senior international. The USMNT legend supports the change but urges the federation not to stop there.
“I think any human being should have the right to express themselves in any way they want,” he said. “There is power in U.S. Soccer making a statement like that and I was for it.
“However my hope is that it goes beyond that, so we can have real conversations to make, hopefully, real, lasting change," he continued. "And I think some people, or some corporations or companies, have fallen into react mode instead of responding. So reacting is doing something quickly that will make your customers happy, or could be considered that way. But responding is actually doing something in a real way that makes change. I’m much more for that. In addition to agreeing with what U.S. Soccer did, I’d also like them to now take the next steps to really work with people, and have discussions so that we can all better understand each other.”
For the time being, LD believes cultivating that outlook in his immediate environment is the most important way he can contribute to the larger process.
“I try not to be someone who just throws up a social media post in a selfish way to pretend like I'm part of something I'm not,” he said. “I've taken the approach to try to impact our players and try to show them that we love them and care about them, and we're here to listen to them. That’s the impact I can make in a real way, as all of our staff, as can all of our players. So that's what we've been focused on.”