He was a savvy and creative force in attack, arguably the greatest player ever to pull on a U.S. jersey, and a pivotal figure in the rise of the American game, both at home and on the global stage.
Donovan also was, and is, something of an outlier in how he sees the game within the grander picture. It hasn't always served him well -- Jurgen Klinsmann's 2014 snub was a response to his more holistic approach -- and those who know him well will testify that he is an intensely intelligent man whose philosophy on the game encompasses far more than the game itself.
It is within this prism that Donovan, who turned 38 as the most recent USL Championship kicked off back in March, made an impact in his first professional head-coaching gig, as manager and executive vice president of soccer operations with the first-year San Diego Loyal. Donovan, who had his team in the running for a playoff spot until the final game -- in the most competitive of the eight post-COVID-19-shutdown groups -- brought national attention to the second-tier league with his response to on-field racism and homophobia.
After discovering that defender Elijah Martin, who is black, was called a racial slur during a 1-1 road draw against LA Galaxy II in the Loyal's penultimate game, Donovan attempted to forfeit the point gained, a protest designed to bring attention to (and work toward stamping out) racism within the game at what is a most vital juncture in the evolution toward racial equality in America. The point remained, but Galaxy II defender Omar Ontiveros was suspended by the league and then released by the club for the outburst.
A week later, with San Diego holding onto a 3-1 halftime lead at home against Phoenix Rising FC, Donovan pulled his team off the field and forfeited the game after midfielder Collin Martin, the only openly gay man currently playing in American professional soccer, was called by a gay epithet and accused Rising forward Junior Flemmings -- ultimately suspended for the playoffs, following an investigation -- was not removed from the game.
The decision might have cost the Loyal (6-5-5) a postseason berth -- it would have been eliminated, regardless, an hour later after a Galaxy II victory -- but Donovan's and the Loyal's principles outweighed any result, and the forfeit positioned the Loyal as a unique club, one that emphasizes ideals and ethics in soccer and sports and life, valuing them greater than who can put the ball into the net the most times in an hour and a half.
Donovan talked with Soccer America after returning from a brief vacation break following the campaign, speaking on the lessons gained as a rookie coach in a uniquely difficult year, why San Diego is the best soccer town in the country, how it pains him to see the Galaxy falter in MLS, and why he believes he found his “calling” with the Loyal.
Oh, and there's the controversies, too. Of course.
SOCCER AMERICA: How satisfied were you with the San Diego Loyal's first season?
LANDON DONOVAN: Well, my expectation before the year was that we would be judging the season based on how we interact with the community and then how we do on the field. And really, when I look back, the evaluation is how did we manage and deal with a type of season that will probably never, ever be repeated again in the history of mankind maybe. So I can look at it from a what I thought it was going to be.
But the reality is were we able to create an identity? Yes. Were we able to start to build a culture that hopefully lasts well beyond the time that any of us leave? I think so. I think we have the building blocks for that. And then are we connecting with the community in an authentic way? And it's hard to do that when you don't have games [with spectators], because that's your biggest showcase. But I do think we achieved that.
So I would say overall, given everything that went on, it was a relatively successful season for us.
SA: Everyone sees the product on the field, but the work to get there as a first-year club is enormous. And the pandemic, when it hits, just exacerbates that.
LANDON DONOVAN: Yeah, that's right. And any given year, it would be extremely challenging to start a club. But given everything else that happened, it was obviously exacerbated, as you said. So it was challenging the entire way. There's no question. But I will say on balance, I would still much prefer to have gone through this, because there was so much to learn along the way. I feel like I've gained three or four years' worth of managerial experience in 16 games.
Landon Donovan and Nate Miller.
SA: Is the job of head coach different that what you thought it would be?
LANDON DONOVAN: Some parts, yes. Some parts, no. I certainly expected that it was going to be challenging in some ways on the field. What I was not aware of was how much goes on behind the scenes to make the club successful. It's given me immense newfound respect for people who do it well. And I think I became much more of a teacher than I was a coach and much more of a manager than I was a coach.
I thought I would have to do some teaching -- meaning teaching guys things I know or things that I learned along the way -- a lot of coaching, as in the tactical X's and O's type of thing, and then managing: man-management, managing a staff, those kind of things. What it turned out being was very little actual coaching, mostly because of everything else going on, but also because I have an incredible [assistant]. Technically, Nate Miller is an assistant coach, but he acts as our head coach, and it's really what he's good at. And it allowed me to step in at the right moments to actually teach guys things and then stand back and manage the whole process, manage the personality. Much more of those two than it was actually coaching.
SA: Shannon MacMillan, a National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee who grew up in Escondido and was part of some of the legendary U.S. women's teams, was an adviser. How valuable was she?
LANDON DONOVAN: Shannon's been incredibly helpful throughout. She is a highly respected human being in this community, and she's also a highly respected soccer person in this community. So whether it was coming out and helping with training, she ended up being our commentator for our home games, and she has had a huge impact on our connection with the youth community and how we go about that, because she's dialed in there. She's just a great sounding board for me. And it's really fortunate to have her.
Shannon MacMillan (with goalkeeper Jon Kempin).
SA: What were the biggest or most meaningful lessons you gained over the season?
LANDON DONOVAN: I think that the biggest learning for me this year was that when I actually communicate, and I'm in the moment of communicating, I'm a very good communicator. What I didn't do well this year was I wasn't proactively communicative enough. I needed to take the initiative to talk to a player about something or speak to the staff about something. And that was the feedback I also got from our staff. So I needed to do a better job of just going and having conversations even when I didn't think there was an issue there, being more aware and then going in and talking through it. And so that for me is probably the number one learning lesson.
I would say on the field, the No. 1 learning lesson was players even at this level -- and I'm sure at the MLS level and beyond -- still have a lot to learn about the game. And they're not going to learn by me saying it one time. It's constant reminders, using film very effectively to show them. And then doing it in training. I would have expected, I think, that guys would pick things up after one or two times that I said it. But they actually need the practice, they need the repetition, they need to see it on film, and then they needed the constant reminders. So that I will be a lot better at now, because I realize that that needs to be done.
SA: Do you come out of this season with more fire for the job? Is it something you want to pursue in a greater sense?
LANDON DONOVAN: Yeah, I feel like I found my calling. And I don't know if [I will pursue that] here, assuming I don't get fired, or if I decide to move on somewhere else at some point, if that's intriguing or makes sense. But I do feel like this is really challenging for me everyday, which is very good for me. I'm learning exponentially more about the game and how it works than I did as a player. And I really enjoy the opportunity to have a positive impact on young men's lives. That part of it I really enjoy.
SA: How did the way you see the game evolve?
LANDON DONOVAN: When you're a player, you see it through the lens of mostly yourself and then other players around you on the field. And as someone who had a lot of experience, at the end of my career I sort of could grasp how every little piece of not only the 11 on the field but every player in the club has an impact, a real impact. And some guys who don't play a lot of games have more impact than guys who do play games. I never had that awareness.
But also just tactically about the game, I have learned so much from Nate Miller, and how much he's taught me has been really enjoyable. We will see the same thing, but I know it through the lens of “oh, I can do that. I was a player. I can make that adjustment.” And he shows it to me through “OK, but how do you get everybody on the team to understand that? How do you put it into practicality in a training session? How do you show them in a film session what that means? How do you talk to them about it?” All of that. He's just been such a blessing for me.
SA: This was an interesting season in many ways, and San Diego Loyal was the biggest news out of the USL Championship with the situations -- the racial and homophobic slurs directed at your players -- against LA Galaxy II and Phoenix Rising FC. And that positioned you as a very different kind of club, one with principles that matter, something bigger than just a soccer club. It also seems a reflection of you and your ideals. I'm sure it's beyond that within the club, but the Loyal appear to stand for something more than soccer.
LANDON DONOVAN: As you know, I've always seen it as more than just a soccer game. It all starts at the top. Just like the team becomes a reflection of the coach, the club becomes a reflection of the coach and sometimes the president, but always the owner. For sure, the owner. We have an incredible, incredible owner in Chairman Andrew Vassiliadis. And I have felt from day one here that he cares about this more than just from a soccer standpoint. He wants to have a real impact on San Diego. He's from San Diego, grew up here, and he will die here. He is extremely connected to this community in a real way. And he wants this community to thrive.
So I could not have taken the stance that I did, and our players could not have taken the stance that they did, if they were not supported by him. He has said to me numerous times, “I will support whatever it is that you want to do here. Whatever you feel is right, I will support that.” Some owners say that, but he means it, and he means it over and over and over again.
And so by the end of the season, when the most adverse moment hits us in the face [in the Phoenix game], I would guess 95 percent of coaches and owners would have said, “No, no, no, no, no, just play the game out, we have a chance to make the playoffs here, we'll deal with this later.” And Andrew was there that day, and I talked to him at halftime, and he said, “Whatever you feel is right, I will support you.” And that was it.
SA: What was the response to pulling your team off the field in that game and how has that response changed as time has gone on?
LANDON DONOVAN: The response has been actually a little unexpected. I thought people would say, “Wow, that was a really special thing you guys did, to stand up for that.” What I didn't expect was the flood of messages, via every platform: texts, Twitter, email, phone calls. From people who sent me really emotional letters saying, “Thank you so much for standing up to something that I have been dealing with my entire life.” Literally thousands and thousands of messages like that.
What we were doing, and what I feel like I was doing and really the team was doing, was protecting one of our teammates, right? And we did not want to see them, Elijah and Collin, treated that way. We were not OK with that. Your actions matter in life, and people are probably sick, especially at this point, of people talking about things but not actually standing for it when it matters. So do we want to do that? Of course, not.
It was the best game we had played all season, against the best team in the league. Nobody wanted to walk off the field. That wasn't enjoyable. But from day one, like I said, we felt like this is more than just a soccer team, that this is something we want to be an institution in this community and something that represents San Diego accurately. And the response in San Diego was overwhelmingly appreciative and grateful and positive.
SA: How did you gauge the responses from the USL and U.S. Soccer?
LANDON DONOVAN: USL has a process they have to go through in order to make any changes. And so it's a difficult situation that they were in, because they can't just unilaterally do something. They have a maximum of six games they can suspend any player for [as Junior Flemmings was assessed], but there's not a whole lot more they can do than that.
To their immense credit, what they've done now is agree to have a real conversation and discussion about this, to figure out how we change this behavior. And let's not be foolish: This is not the only league in the world where these things happen. It's not the only teams that have experienced that. They're not the only players that have experienced that or said those things. This happens all over the world. So the league to its immense credit and both teams to their credit have been very helpful in their response and, I think, genuinely want to to eradicate this kind of behavior.
I've even had close friends who said, you know, “Did you guys have to walk off the field? Was it really that big of a deal?” And I can understand that argument. But the problem is it's easy for people to say that when they're not the ones being impacted directly. I had to look in Elijah's eyes all of the following week and see the pain he was going through, and also have the conversation with both he and Colin and hear them both say to me at different times, “Well, it's not that big of a deal, because people have been saying this to me my whole life.” And that was the problem. That's exactly what the problem is.
[These slurs] should not be said to people. And some say, “Well, it's just a word.” The problem is words lead to actions, actions create behavior over time, and then your behavior becomes your belief system. So if you say that word, if you say the “N” word over and over to someone who is black, eventually you start to see that person as a black man instead of just a man. And then your actions may represent that, because, subconsciously, you might treat them differently, and then that becomes your belief system: “Well, they should be treated differently because they're black, because he is a black man. He's not just a man, he's a black man.” I don't agree with this notion that it's just a word.
Can we all be thick-skinned and not react to things? Of course, we can. And that's fine. But we are role models and examples, and people are paying attention. So you can't do that and expect that there are no repercussions or no consequences.
And then the only way to really make people take notice is through consequences. And so the consequences were now USL had a real problem, because one of their teams walked off the last game of the season. Now they have a PR problem. Now they've got to look at this seriously. They have no choice. Phoenix and LA had to look at it seriously and react or respond, because there were real consequences now. And so I wish it weren't that way. I wish it could easily be solved through a simple conversation and some education. But we both know that it wouldn't have been treated the same way had the drastic actions not been taken.
SA: Phoenix coach Rick Schantz told you at the time that it was “part of the game” and received criticism, and a brief suspension from his club, for his part in the controversy. He made a public apology. Were you satisfied with that apology?
LANDON DONOVAN: I don't get caught up in what people do publicly or not, because that is what it is, but he has been extremely apologetic to me. He's reached out to many people with our club, and Rick, in my opinion, just kind of got caught up in the moment. I don't think it reflects who he is. I don't think he's homophobic. I don't believe that at all. He just got kind of caught up in the emotions of the moment. And that's totally fine. I've done that many times in my life and made a lot of mistakes.
I'm very happy that Rick was reinstated. I wish he had the chance to to coach in the final [against the Tampa Bay Rowdies]. That was unfortunate that it got canceled [after several Rowdies tested positive for COVID-19]. But I was very, very happy with how he responded to it and the steps he took. And I am really appreciative of that.
SA: How about U.S. Soccer?
LANDON DONOVAN: No, I have not heard anything from U.S. Soccer. I don't know how that would function.
SA: Let's look at the Loyal season. You started strong, then went through that six-game winless streak all of August and into September. Change one or two results and finish with a victory in that game against Phoenix, and you're in the playoffs out of the most competitive of the eight groups. The team got better later in the season, and adding Rubio Rubin, Miguel Berry and Alejandro Guido in attack down the stretch seemed to push you guys to a different level.
LANDON DONOVAN: Yeah, that was the missing piece. And that was part of my learning process, because in some ways I did a good job building the roster and in other ways I didn't. In the middle of the season, we made three really difficult decisions to let three attacking players go who did not fit the culture of what we were doing. And it was challenging because we were relying on those guys for a lot of goals, and we suffered for it. I think it was four games we didn't score [in a five-match span].
We had a six-game winless streak. We were suffering only in the attacking third of the field. So we were playing very well, our game model was starting to show up on the field as to how we wanted to play, and our players were getting it, but we didn't have that final product. And so that was really frustrating. And it was a good lesson for me in just being patient, because we actually could have -- once or twice during that stretch -- changed things and probably picked up another point or two, [had we] just gone away from what we do and what our identity is. But I have the great advantage of being able to see this from a long-term perspective. So I'm not worrying about each result on each Saturday. I want this to be sustainable and long lasting. And so we stuck by our guns and we found some pieces that we could add that would provide that final product.
And then it all came to fruition. And I said to my assistant coach, right before we went on that final six-game or seven-game [with the 3-1 lead over Phoenix in the final] unbeaten run at the end of the year, that there are a lot of clubs that are on the brink of collapsing, a house of cards. And they're getting results for whatever reason, but you just know the culture is bad. You know that one bad result, and it could go south really fast. And we were the opposite. We were playing well. The culture was good, the guys really believed in what was happening. And we were one good result from exploding.
And it all came together in that first game [Sept. 9] in L.A., when we won, 3-0. That's when they came together, and the team finally had a feather in their cap, and then the confidence changed and then we were almost unbeatable.
SA: Something to build upon in 2021.
LANDON DONOVAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, we learned what we needed. I mean, it's not like any player can come in and play in [one of the] back-seven positions, but we know what we can get out of very good USL players and be good on that side of the ball.
The difference is you need players -- especially at the USL level, because they're hard to come by -- who can just make a difference and score a goal. And make a play by themselves that really impacts the game. So that's what we were lacking. We're very aware that that is something we need, because the rest of it we got right for a long time, and we needed that final piece.
SA: How would you like to see the club and the team evolve next year? Where would you like to be a year from now?
LANDON DONOVAN: I can't really think of anything. I think we've built a foundation, and now you keep growing on it, and now we've got to be demanding and hold ourselves accountable. So there's no excuse, right? We know what we can be on the field, for sure. We know what we can be off the field -- leading up to our first game was fantastic. The first game was sold out.
So I think we have the blueprint now, and now we've just got to hold ourselves accountable, and it's got to be everyday. Everyday has to be living to our values and and continuing to improve.
SA: As we go on, where do you see San Diego Loyal in the landscape? Where would you like to see this lead? What role do you see for the club within American soccer?
LANDON DONOVAN: Long-term, I don't see any reason why San Diego can't be the soccer capital of the country. It's challenging, because we have a big deficit to make up, not having a professional soccer team that's stayed around for the last 25 years, [whereas] a lot of other markets have. But what we do have is incredible, incredible passion and support.
There's almost no city that watches and consumes soccer more than San Diego. Every World Cup, it's top of every ratings list: English, Spanish, doesn't matter if it's women's, men's. Champions League, MLS. San Diego consumes more soccer than any city in the country. And we also have the youth dynamic here. There are hundreds of thousands of kids and adults playing soccer here. So there's no reason why that can't be the long-term objective and why we can achieve that. So that's going to be the goal.
SA: The Galaxy is looking for a head coach following Guillermo Barros Schelotto's dismissal. Is that a job you'd be interested in?
LANDON DONOVAN: I have always dreamed of staying a part of that organization in some fashion. I've always wanted to. I moved here to San Diego because my family wanted to move here, And I love San Diego now and I consider it one of my three hometowns, [along with] L.A. and Redlands, where I grew up. I love it here.
If that opportunity arose, I would absolutely have to take it seriously and consider it, because it's been pretty difficult, to be honest, to watch what's happened over the past few years. I can't help but care. I can pretend like it's my former club, but every time I watch a game and I see a bad result, it impacts me. It hurts me. So would I want to be a part of fixing that? Of course. Of course, I would.
SA: Have you had any conversations with them?
LANDON DONOVAN: I talked to Chris [Klein, the Galaxy president and a former teammate] after one of the recent games, but it wasn't sure that they were going to move in another direction.
But we have bigger-picture conversations about what does the club need, not to get back to the results it had in the early 2010s, but to get that soul back and to have the culture back. And to me, that's what's missing. There's good enough players there to get results, and they shouldn't be near the bottom of the table. Maybe they shouldn't be top of the table, but they're good enough players there. I see a little bit of the soul missing. That's not easy to do, because you can't just fake that. You have to actually care and actually have players who care. You can't just fake that.
So that's the part we talk about. And he understands that and sees that. And like I said, if there's a way, you know, I don't know what form that might take, but if there's a way that I can help, I absolutely want to help.
Photos courtesy of San Diego Loyal.