Landon Donovan didn’t wander far from the soccer field once he finally retired as a player.
Turns out, he’s merely moved to the sideline.
Donovan, one of the greatest U.S. soccer players of all time, has revived his passion for the game as coach of the expansion San Diego Loyal of the professional second-division United Soccer League. He’s spent the last eight months helping to build the team, and on Saturday night he and the Loyal will debut against the Las Vegas Lights at the University of San Diego’s 6,000-seat football stadium.
“I am absolutely loving it,” Donovan said before a recent practice.
“I said to my wife probably a week ago, I feel like I found my calling. I think for athletes who retire who have been so involved in a sport their whole life, it’s really hard to find passion again, because it’s all I knew, and you weren’t practicing anything else. I was so singularly focused on playing. Now I feel like I‘ve found what I’m supposed to be doing, again, which is a really nice feeling.”
Now 37, Donovan last played for the indoor San Diego Sockers last spring, one of the “little fun things” he did after his MLS and U.S. men’s national team careers ended.
“But that’s not sustainable. This is something that can be sustainable,” he said.
“It’s allowed me to time to find my love again and in a different way,” he added. While not missing the grind of training, “It’s fun to get that same energy while also trying to make a positive impact on these young men’s lives. That’s what’s been really great for me.”
Donovan and his family were already living in soccer-mad San Diego when Loyal president and CEO Warren Smith secured the rights for the franchise and asked the former star if he wanted to be involved. Donovan had been involved in an attempt to bring an MLS franchise to San Diego as part of a massive development to replace SDCCU Stadium after the NFL’s Chargers left for Los Angeles. That effort lost a bruising battle against San Diego State, which won the rights to the site for a campus expansion and 35,000-seat football stadium.
Once Donovan accepted the offer to be coach and executive vice president of soccer operations, he hired assistants Carrie Taylor, who has coached both men’s and women’s teams, and Nate Miller.
Donovan said “nothing and everything” have prepared him to coach.
“There’s nothing like doing it, but all my experiences, paying attention through the years, to things I liked, didn’t like, would do, wouldn’t do, give you the platform to do things the way you want to do it,” he said. “A lot of it is just trial and error. I’m learning every day as I go. Fortunately I have really quality people who know what they’re doing so I can learn on the job and I can contribute in the parts I’m good at, i.e., my experiences, and then we’re trying to put that all together and make it work well.”
Miller and Taylor run training sessions, and “when I see something, I say something,” Donovan said. “I let them do that because they’re good at it and I try to focus on what I’m good at and so far, that’s worked out really well.”
Taylor had also worked on the failed MLS bid. Donovan said he wanted to interview women candidates, “and I realized she was the most qualified person I was going to be able to hire. We had a conversation about it and she said, ‘You know what, I have a great job and I’m getting great benefits and all that, but I love soccer and I want to be on the field, too.’ We kind of had this come-to-Jesus moment, where we both said, ‘This is right, let’s do it.’"
Donovan said he likes to give people opportunities, and realized during the search for assistants that women haven’t been getting opportunities.
“Any woman can learn as well, if not better, than a man, but you have to be given an opportunity,” he said. “There are thousands of men who have been hired and then fired because they weren’t good enough. If someone’s qualified, why wouldn’t you give a woman that chance? It became very clear to me.”
Taylor played at Michigan and coached both men’s and women’s soccer in college.
Donovan also hired women as head of performance, team manager and as trainers. Former U.S. women’s national team player Shannon MacMillan is a technical adviser.
“Soccer is that united sport that can transcend the gender stereotypes a little bit,” Taylor said. “So kudos to Landon. ... Women can do the job, be it coaching a women’s professional team or a men’s professional team. There are some differences, obviously. I can’t walk into the locker room. I have to knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, is everybody decent, can I come in?’ Those things are simple to work around.”
In doing market research, Loyal officials found that 28 professional teams, in many sports, started in San Diego and either moved or failed.
“There’s a lot of scar tissue people have, and a reluctance to get involved,” Smith said. “In those conversations, we heard, ‘We want to be loyal to something but we want what it is we’re being loyal to, to be loyal to us.’ That’s the word we heard the most.”
The Loyal want to be fun and entertaining. The kit reveal party was held at Stone Brewing, whose name is on the front of the jerseys.
“It’s a tricky town,” said Donovan, who’s lived here long enough to know that the main competition is not the Padres or the city’s minor league teams, but rather “the sun, the beach, SeaWorld and Legoland. We've just got to make sure we’re putting a product out, and an event on, that people have to be at.
“We’ve got an opportunity, but it’s also a big challenge. We’re not naïve. Let’s take it and run with it.”