Photo: Gregory Bull/AP
On a warm September afternoon in Southern California, Landon Donovan stands where he has so often stood: on a field with the ball at his feet.
Now the manager of San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship, the USMNT’s all-time leading scorer, hands out passes while advising his players. Donovan analyzes their runs as he prepares another precise through ball for anyone to hunt.
Once the session is over and his players go home, Donovan joins me on a simple silver bench overlooking the empty practice field.
“We’re really starting to learn and connect,” said Loyal’s manager and executive vice president of soccer operations, who helped build the fledgling organization that made their debut in the USL Championship, essentially the second tier of North American soccer. in 2020 “We build day by day and the most important thing now is just continuity, experiences together, time together.”
For all his success making him widely recognized as the greatest player in American men’s soccer history, it’s interesting to note that a conversation with Donovan is less about tactics or success on the field, but more about the bigger picture and the players themselves.
He is as competitive as ever, as evidenced by his progress at Loyal, including the USL Championships Coach of the month award for June. But earning points and accolades isn’t his only focus.
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Donovan says he wants his players to join the San Diego community, and one of his goals is to “connect emotionally” with his roster.
“One of our guiding principles here is, this is the people first and the footballers second,” says Donovan. “We say that all the time.”
These are not empty words. As seen last year, the organization stepped up when it mattered.
During a 1-1 draw with LA Galaxy II in September 2020, the Galaxy’s Omar Ontiveros would reportedly directed a racist slur towards loyal defender Elijah Martin. Two days later, the Loyal denounced the incident, saying: they would give up the point they earned from the game.
“We don’t even want to acknowledge that we’re part of a competition where this kind of action takes place,” San Diego Loyal president Andrew Vassiliadis said at the time. “The Loyal in our name symbolizes the diversity in our community and as a club we will not stand for this.”
A week later, Loyal walked off the field during a game against Phoenix Rising after a homophobic slur was used by Phoenix’ Junior Flemmings. midfielder Collin Martin, who is gay. Loyal’s loss of points from the games meant they missed the playoffs.
“When we see Collin and Elijah and our team as people, very disturbed and hurt by this, the football part came second,” said Donovan, looking back on the incidents 12 months later. “Football didn’t mean anything at the time because as people they suffered. We had the chance there to live what we speak and it was really important.”
Loyal was thrust into the spotlight following their forfeitures, and while Donovan says he doesn’t want to be on moral ground all the time or shout from rooftops, he recognizes the responsibility he and his players have as athletes.
As for Donovan himself, it’s easy to forget that the forfeits – and the fallout from the pandemic, which caused a serious restructuring of the USL 2020 season – all came during his first year as manager.
The 39-year-old is still learning as a coach. He made his name as a player by adapting his approach, and he has done the same as a coach – and was honest in our conversation about his weaknesses. He says he can “see the issues and the problems very clearly” when he watches Loyal, but needs support from his fellow coaches when it comes to implementing solutions on the training pitch.
When it comes to his strengths, he believes he is at his best when he gets along with his players. “My best quality is my… ability to connect emotionally with people. Our team gets the most out of that when I’m on the field,” says Donovan. “What I’m good at is interacting with the players and how I help them.”
And it’s the human side of football that Donovan wants to continue to focus on, in addition to success on the pitch.
“In the end we are playing a game. I know it’s serious, I know it’s people’s livelihood, but we’re playing a game,” Donovan says. “There are many people watching and paying attention, including young people, children. What kind of example are we giving? If we positively influence lives in that way, it is much more important than winning a football match. It is real.”