News Live Scores
Landon Donovan

'I will act, I will speak' - Donovan setting precedent in San Diego Loyal management role

21:00 GMT+3 02/10/2020
Landon Donovan
The San Diego Loyal boss' career was defined by a belief that some things are bigger than soccer, and that belief extends to the team he manages

Landon Donovan is fighting battles which are bigger than results in the game of soccer.  As head coach of San Diego Loyal, Donovan is committing to making unprecedented decisions, not because they are easy but because they are right.

Donovan and SD Loyal made headlines for the second time in a week on Wednesday for forfeiting a second consecutive match. A first-year club in American soccer's second division, SD Loyal's inaugural season will not necessarily be remembered for what they accomplished on the field but the stances they have taken off of it.

Last week, SD Loyal's Elijah Martin was reported to have been called a racial slur by LA Galaxy II's Omar Ontiveros, prompting the club to forfeit after learning of the incident from the referee postgame.

In a statement, the club said it did not want anything to do with a match tainted by racism, even if the consequences of forfeiting that match could have ramifications for them on the field. The Galaxy have since parted ways with Ontiveros following the incident. 

On Wednesday, Donovan's side walked off the field after halftime, refusing to finish a match against Phoenix Rising FC. Midfielder Collin Martin was reported to have been called a homophobic slur by Junior Flemmings. Flemmings has since denied the allegation, stating that he stands "in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ movement". Martin is openly gay, a pioneer in this sport.

Originally, Martin was given a red card due to the referee's misunderstanding, with the official thinking Martin had said the slur towards another player. Donovan, too, was dismissed for coming onto the field to defend his player. But Martin's card was rescinded and a meeting was held between the referee and the two coaches.

During that meeting, Phoenix Rising boss Rick Schantz said that the two teams were "competing", asking Donovan: "How long have you been playing soccer?"

Schantz has since stated that the question was asked in regards to Donovan's own behavior, not as an excuse for the alleged homophobic slur.  Donovan says he asked Schantz to remove the player that is reported to have said the slur and when Shantz refused, SD Loyal opted to act.

The USL Championship issued the following statement on Wednesday night: “We are aware of the alleged use of a homophobic slur in tonight’s match between San Diego Loyal SC and Phoenix Rising FC. Foul and abusive language of any type has absolutely no place in our society and will not be tolerated in USL matches. An investigation is currently underway to determine the facts surrounding the incident and more information will be provided as soon as it is available.”

The Rising also issued a statement, declaring the club "is actively anti-homophobia and anti-racist and has a zero tolerance policy for actions which run contrary to these core values." Furthermore Cummings and Schantz have been placed on administrative leave and the USL and the club's investigations are now fully underway. 

At the time, SD Loyal were up 3-1, cruising to a victory that would have kept their playoff hopes alive. But, to Donovan and his players, there are messages more important than a playoff run.

"This club, our players, the organization have been through a lot in the last week," Donovan said to the Loyal's media channels after the match was called off.

"I understand that most people watching from afar probably don't really get it, but we've been living it. We went through a really hard incident last week in the LA match and we made a vow to ourselves, to our community, to our players, to the club, to USL that we would not stand for bigotry, homophobic slurs, things that don't belong in our game.

"So much so, on our signboards, we made a saying: 'I will act, I will speak'. If something happens, I'm going to speak about it and I'm going to act about it. Last week, our one regret was that we should have done something in the moment when Elijah was racially abused. That was our regret. From our players, from me, I wish we would have done something. Had we known what had happened, I think we would have done something."

He added: "When I heard [what happened on Wednesday], I lost it because I know what this team has gone through. I know how hard it was to even take the field tonight given everything that happened and then for it to happen again one week later, it's just devastating for me.

"It was a really difficult 20 minutes because our players in the heat of the moment, the passion of the moment, still wanted to play because they were kicking Phoenix's ass, and that's a great feeling as a soccer player.

"But, if we want to be true to who we are as a club, we have to speak and we have to act. After halftime, we all decided that, if the player who used the slur was not removed from the game either through the officials or through their coach, we were not going to play. If they're not going to act, we have to act. We have no choice."

In reality, Donovan and SD Loyal had plenty of choices. They could have simply played on, turning the incident into some form of motivation. They could have filed complaints to the proper officials, waited for an investigation and potential discipline. They could have handled things like virtually every other team in the world would have. That would have been the easy choice.

Walking off is the difficult choice. It comes with plenty of risk and little on-field reward but, for some, that choice is the right one.

 

And that is the one Donovan and his team landed on. The coach gives his players the credit but, make no mistake, Donovan deserves his own credit as well. A team is a reflection of its coach, and this team's decision to send a message bigger than soccer mirrors everything we've learned about Donovan's off-the-field priorities.

This is a man that put mental health over the demands of his club and national team. This is a man that put comfort and happiness over the almighty European dream that virtually every American soccer player would kill to achieve. And this is a man who believes some things are more important than winning a soccer game.

In the hours after SD Loyal's walkout, Donovan and co. have earned plaudits from many throughout the American soccer community. Megan Rapinoe, perhaps the sport's most outspoken advocate for equality, said she was "so proud" of how Donovan and SD Loyal handled the situation. Jason Collins, the NBA's first openly gay player, hailed Donovan's response while adding that Phoenix Rising "should be embarrassed for their behavior". And, perhaps most importantly, Collin Martin thanked the organization for having his back, for sending a message simply by standing with him.

Now, this is a decision that is easier to come to in Donovan's position. He's an American soccer icon with more credibility than most when it comes to this sport in this country. This is a team he owns and manages, a club where he makes the decisions. And the USL, by all accounts, isn't the highest level this game has to offer. Wednesday's match was no Champions League final.

But, for Donovan and his team, moments like Wednesday's carry more weight than any trophy or accolade.

"When we're all on our death bed, no one is going to remember if we beat Phoenix 3-1 at home," he said to the club's in-house media. "No one is going to remember that. But they will remember that they all stood up for something they believed in and they supported their teammates and supported what's right in the world. That, to me, is what matters more than anything.

"I love soccer, I love this game, I love competing more than anything. The last thing I want to do was not let them go play that second half the way they played the first half. I was enjoying watching it. Forget about the coaching, it was such a joy to watch.

"But you can't claim that you have these values if you don't act when it really matters. We could have turned the other cheek and let it go, but our guys didn't want to do that. They wanted to stand up for what was right and support their teammate. If it happened once, shame on whoever did it. If it happens twice, shame on us. We need to be very clear that we're not accepting."

At a time where virtually every team is saying they're committed to equal rights, Donovan and SD Loyal are proving it. All over the world, teams are taking a knee to honor the Black Lives Matter movement, showing their commitment to equality. It's a gesture that former England star Emile Heskey says could become "a gimmick" if teams don't truly act when actually confronted with those moments of injustice.

It remains to be seen when SD Loyal will take the field again. The USL is still deliberating what to do with SD Loyal's pair of forfeits. As a result, their season remains uncertain.

But, whether or not the club qualifies for the postseason, the 2020 season has been one to remember for all the wrong, yet all the right, reasons. 

"Our guys said we're not going to stand for this," Donovan said. "They were very clear in that moment that they were giving up all hopes of making the playoffs, even though they were beating one of the best teams in the league handily.

"It doesn't matter. There are things that are more important in life and they took a stand for what they believe in. They made the decision to walk off and I have tremendous pride in this group and I'm really proud of this organization."

At the end of the day, some things are bigger than soccer, and Donovan has once again shown that he understands that more than most.