'It's not about me anymore' - Inside the coaching mind of Landon Donovan

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SD Loyal

What can make a coach decide to throw away an entire season, a chance at making the playoffs, to send a much-needed message?

What could make a legendary player come back to the day-to-day grind of American soccer's lower divisions after years of giving all he has at the highest level?

Perhaps most importantly, what is it that makes the sport of soccer so damn special? What is it that makes this game resonate with so many?

For Landon Donovan, the answer to all of those questions is exactly the same: humanity. It's the people, not the ball, that make this sport what it is. It's the trust, the connection, the stories.

If you've followed Donovan's career, you'll understand that side of him. This was a player that once stepped away from the game to find himself after years of constant battles on and off the field.

This was a man that has long spoken about his own mental health, his fight with depression and his search for fulfillment in whatever form he could find it in.

And this is also a man that has somehow, perhaps improbably, always found his way back to the game no matter how many times he stepped away.

And so here he is, heading into his second season as head coach of San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship, American soccer's second division.

It's a long way from South Africa, the site of his most famous moment. The lights are nowhere near as bright as they were in Los Angeles or at Goodison Park. But it's exactly where Donovan wants to be because it's a place and a situation that gives him a chance to do the very thing he wants to do most: connect with people.

"What I have realized is that the competitive fire is still there," Donovan tells  Goal , "but I don't want to do it in a way that's about me anymore and, admittedly, for almost my entire career it was about me. I knew that winning was going to be the best way to satisfy my own personal desires but now I want to do it in a way that other people can enjoy it.

"The last few years of my career, when we won, seeing a guy like Gyasi [Zardes] flourish and do well made me happier than winning my fifth and sixth championship. It just felt really good being in the locker room and seeing other guys celebrate it, drinking out of the trophy at the after-party and what that meant for their lives. That gave me so much joy.

"This feels the same and that's why I love it. I come from a family of teachers and we just love to help and give. I come from a very generous family, and this is my way of giving, and I'm loving it. I mean, it is selfish because I love it, but I think it's helping people and having a positive impact on their lives."

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Donovan's biggest impact as a coach, at least so far, hasn't come from his team's exploits on the field. Instead, it came with a decision to walk off of it.

In September, SD Loyal's Elijah Martin was reported to have been called a racial slur by Omar Ontiveros of LA Galaxy II. Donovan and his club decided to forfeit after learning of the incident from the referee postgame.

One week later,  Donovan's side walked off the field after halftime, refusing to finish a match against Phoenix Rising FC after midfielder Collin Martin, who is openly gay, was called a homophobic slur by Junior Flemmings. For the second week in a row, SD Loyal took a stand by backing their player , forfeiting a second consecutive match and missing out on the playoffs as a result.

For Donovan, those decisions were relatively simple . It was the human over the game, the feeling over the result. Marking the playoffs would have meant a lot, of course, but not as much as taking a stand. His players, their thoughts, their feelings, their beliefs, their rights – those are the things that really mattered.

It may be hard to believe, then, but during his first days as a coach, Donovan struggled to connect with his players on a human level. No matter how much he tried, he felt like he wasn't resonating in the way that he always imagined he would. He looked around and saw skepticism among the men he was now tasked with leading, many of whom immediately distanced themselves from their new head coach.

What could he know about their lives, their fights, their struggles? How could Donovan understand what they're going through? Why would he even want to? Those were the questions Donovan had to answer, the points he had to prove because, without that trust, what was the point? 

"What I realized early on is that players have this natural distrust of coaches," Donovan says, "and I think the reason why is because probably 99 percent of the coaches they've played for are interested in progressing their own careers. The players are just the means to an end. They're used to coaches, I don't want to say using them, but they're not as focused on them as much as people as they are as players.

"So, when I tried to speak to players early on about things other than soccer, when Covid hit and we would have open conversations about what it means and how it's impacting them and their families and what types of things come about with those hardships, I kept getting this sense of skepticism from our players. It was like, 'Why are you asking us? You don't give a sh*t about me.' And it was really weird for me.

"I realized that players just have this massive mistrust of their coaches, so I took time to explain to the players at different points during the season, that the only reason I was doing this, and this is true, is because I want to have a positive impact on their life. And that can mean on the soccer field, that can mean off the field."

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One thing Donovan instituted was including mental health as part of the team's injury report because, sometimes, life can take its toll. If a player breaks up with a girlfriend or if a family member passes away, those things matter, and Donovan's own journey allowed him to understand what those moments can do to a player if not discussed openly.

Still, while Donovan is focused mostly on the human side of the game, that doesn't mean results are secondary. In their inaugural season, SD Loyal did more winning than many could have expected. Despite having a brand-new team with brand-new players and a first-year coach, the club should have been a playoff team. In the end, they went 6-5-5, with two losses due to forfeit.

In Donovan's experience, winning certainly tastes a lot sweeter than losing does and, in many ways, Donovan's coaching ideals are a blend of those that he played under. 

Bruce Arena? "From a man-management perspective, as good as it gets."

Bob Bradley? "Pushed me out of my comfort zone quite a bit and,, at the time it was frustrating, but now I look back and I'm really grateful that he pushed me to be open-minded about different things that maybe I didn't agree with him on at first."

David Moyes? "From just a tactical, how-to-adapt-to-the-opponent standpoint, [he] was unlike anything I had ever been around."

But Donovan makes it clear: he's learned just as much from the bad as the good. 

"I had one coach, in particular, who was the last person at training every day and the first person to leave," he says, "and so I realized very quickly that that sends a horrible message to your team.

"I had another coach who was all about making things unstable for the players and keeping them on their toes so they didn't know what was coming next. And, in theory, that's okay, but at the end of the day, if you don't know what your role is, if you don't know who's going to play, if you don't know what the expectations are, that's when things can go really badly. I learned that was something I never wanted to do."

Still, Donovan is fully aware of his own deficiencies. He's heading into his second year, after all, so he's still transitioning from player to coach. It's a transition that, in some ways, began years ago.

Donovan's first opportunity at coaching came at the MLS Homegrown game in 2015 and, in hindsight, it was that moment that truly made him want to coach, even if that didn't resonate until years later.

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In that game, he managed some of MLS's youngest stars, players whose futures were totally up in the air, leading to his realization that he enjoyed working with those still trying to make it, not those that had already reached the mountaintop.

Even now, he's still making his own transition. Like all great players, there is a difficulty that comes with explaining what made you great. At the highest level, players just see things differently, and Donovan is no exception.

"It has been one of the biggest challenges," he says. "I have this conversation a lot with our coaching staff. I'll say, 'I just don't understand how he would make this decision instead of that decision', and they will always say to me, 'Because they didn't see the game the same way you did.'"

"Learning how players learn is important," he continues, "because there are all different ways that people learn. Just spending the actual time talking to them, and working with them on it, versus, 'Gosh, why doesn't he just get it?' Well, he doesn't get it because he didn't have the hundreds of hours of practice that I had. And so the biggest thing for me is having that awareness."

Now, Donovan heads into year two, one that he hopes will be a bit less bumpy than what certainly was an unprecedented first year in charge. SD Loyal have 12 players back from last year, including both Elijah Martin and Collin Martin. That's 12 players that know what to expect from Donovan, both tactically and emotionally, as he continues his evolution into a coach.

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That process is ongoing, as are many in life. There are still things Donovan is searching for, still lessons to be learned and taught. But Donovan has fallen in love with that process and all of the highs, lows and everything in between that comes with it.

"I made a lot of mistakes," Donovan says, "but being on the field was where I felt the most joy and where I've felt I've had the biggest impact. I've shifted most of my energy now to the field and being really present and focused and energetic with the guys every day. I think that's the best spot for me, so that part, I'm really enjoying it. It's early. We'll see how this year goes but I do feel like I have the ability to be very good at it."

He adds: "It's a lot of work, a ton of work, but I'm willing to do it. And I just want to make sure that I am giving them the best opportunity to grow. That's really, really important to me, even if it is frustrating at times. I just want to keep working with them so that they can grow and keep getting better."