ASN Exclusive: Donovan discusses his transition to coaching in San Diego
April 15, 2020
WHEN IT COMES to American soccer, Landon Donovan needs no introduction and is the most accomplished player in the history of the U.S. men’s national team. But now with his playing career over, the California native is turning his focus to coaching where he is the co-owner, Executive Vice President, and manager of San Diego Loyal SC – a club in its debut season in the USL Championship.
To start the season, San Diego played to a 1-1 draw against Las Vegas in its home-opener and then posted a 2-1 away win over the Tacoma Defiance for Donovan's first win as a coach. Following that game, the USL joined the rest of the world in suspending its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ASN spoke with Landon Donovan at length during the shutdown about the transition to coaching and much more.
Brian Sciaretta for American Soccer Now: At what point did you know you wanted to be a coach? There had been signs this had been building when you showed up with Tab Ramos at a U-20 camp, coached the homegrown game, and then was at a USMNT camp last year. When was this decided?
Landon Donovan: It wasn't something I really wanted to do, to be honest, at the end of my career. However, as I got out of the game and I started experimenting with different things, I tried to figure out what it was that I was most passionate about. At the end of my career, it was it was helping players - helping younger players. And so I kept thinking to myself: okay, so how do I impact more people? How do I impact young players in a positive way? And what does that look like? And so at first it was possibly working with some youth teams or youth clubs. But I started to think about what it would look like coaching a professional team. And I couldn't be sure. But I started to have real passion about the idea. And when that came, I figured if there's a way to make that happen in a feasible way - then I want to do it. And then, of course, when this opportunity came about here in my new hometown, it was a no brainer.
ASN: You've gotten to know the San Diego market well. How ripe is that for professional soccer or is there a lot of competition between the LA teams to the north and Club Tijuana right across the border?
Donovan: We are far enough removed to where you wouldn't really consider this a L.A. competitor in that way. But it's good to have close proximity for rivalries, right? Same with Xolos across the border back. This is the eighth largest market in the country and it's hard to fathom that there hasn't been a Major League Soccer or USL Championship team here. So finally, we have that opportunity. I moved here four years ago with my wife. Soccer is one of my great loves and I've fallen in love with this city. I wanted the opportunity to help bring soccer to a really soccer starved town. And fortunately I've been able to do that.
ASN: And you mentioned working with young players. Do you envision your team to be active in youth development and have that be a hallmark of your team?
Donovan: The hallmark of our team is to positively impact the lives we are coming into contact with. That's players, that's the youth community, that's our fans, that's our staff. That's really the goal at the end of the day. Now, this is as I think you probably know, a soccer crazy youth market. There are hundreds of thousands of kids who play youth soccer here and so our challenge will be how do we support all the youth teams here? That is something which is near and dear to my heart - helping these young people have better opportunities in their lives while also not alienating anybody or being seen as competition to any of these clubs. They're doing a great job to help these young kids. We have to find a supportive role that makes sense and we've started that process for quite a while now. Now it's figuring out how to thread that needle accurately where we can be the next step in some talented young women and men's lives - and then also make sure that we're not stepping on anybody's toes. We have to do that if we want to really make an impact on lives. We have to dip into that youth community in a real way. We're still working through what that exactly looks like.
ASN: As a manager, how comfortable are you going to be with getting young players onto the field? In MLS we see some teams like FC Dallas make playing young players part of their identity. Then we also so other teams in the league only rarely play homegrown players from their own academy. Looking into the future, do you know what your approach will be?
Donovan: Well, as long as I am in the role that I am in - which is the executive V.P. on the soccer side but also as the coach, I will have a big picture view of everything. So I'm not concerned with playing the 32 year old who gives you an 80 percent greater chance of winning versus the 19 year old who gives you a 79 percent chance of winning this weekend, but has a much bigger upside. I will do what's right for the club and in the big picture. I'm in a unique position where I don't have to worry about every result, every weekend. We want to do what's right for the club in the long term. But if we do it right, we get the mix of winning, developing and entertaining perfectly right. So that we can do all three. You can play some younger kids, you can post older kids - and we are still winning and entertaining San Diegans who are paying money to come watch us play. So that's the ideal scenario.
ASN: The USL has a huge landscape at the moment. Both as a place with some MLS reserve teams but also in a lot of smaller and middle-sized markets. How much was this missing when you were a young player and how vital is this right now to the growth of the sport?
Donovan: This is a massive country. So, having 25 clubs, is that enough for this country? And MLS teams have done an incredible job in their markets - becoming institutions in their market. However, if you can fill in the next 30 or 50 or 60 or 80 markets after that with clubs that mean as much or more actually to their communities than MLS teams do, then that's great for the soccer landscape. So ultimately competition drives everything forward. So while USL and MLS aren't in competition head to head, they are in competition for what they mean to local markets and how that plays out. So it's important for USL to have had the growth that it's had, which is a huge testament to Jake Edwards and Alec Papadakis over the course of the last, in my opinion, five or seven years. And now there's a really vibrant, viable second division that is pushing everybody for it. I think that's crucial.
ASN: Who are your big inspirations as coaches that are going to influence you as you grow into this role as coach and implement your vision into the team?
Donovan: As you can imagine there are lots. Bruce, I was with for so long that unless not listening to it, I wouldn't pick up anything. So, I picked up a lot from Bruce, but also from lots of different people along the way who had a short-stints or longer-stints who had some sort of impact on things I can think back and remember to. So, for instance, my first MLS coach was Frank Yallop. Frank used to allow me to go on Saturday after the game - I would drive home six hours down to Southern California from San Jose, spend two days with my family and then come back up Tuesday morning. And he had no issues with it, no qualms with it. He would just let me do it. And I just realized how important that was to me individually as a player. Some guys didn't need that, but that was really crucial for me. And he was wise enough to see that and let me do it. So little things like that you pick up along the way that you realize are important to players, I think are really valuable. So there were lots along the way. But certainly, Bruce, having spent so much time with him and spending a lot of time with Bob Bradley. My youth coaches, John Ellinger - are the ones that do stand out.
ASN: Do you know what you want to be the identity of a Landon Donovan-coached team? What values or style to you want your teams to possess?
Donovan: The one thing I did in my career that I asked of my team so far is that how do we do anything is how we do everything. And what that means is that if we're going to commit to training on a day - that we train properly. If we're not going to do it, fine. But then if we are going to do it, we're gonna do it properly - don't come out and be half-assed about it. Now, every training session we had in preseason except for one or two were with that attitude. On the days it wasn't, I brought the team in and said: "listen, if you'd rather be at home and not be here, that's fine. But don't come out here and give that kind of attitude, because if you do, you're just wasting everyone's time." I think that goes over into every part of the game. Everything you do matters. If you take a throw-in lazily, that matters. That might make you tune out for a second in the 92nd minute and we lose the game. So that is what I hope we will start to impart upon our team. Obviously there are lots of other things, but those little attentions to detail and being tuned-in over the course of the match, I think really add up over the course of the season.
ASN: People often say that the best players don't necessarily make the best coaches? Why do you think that is and did that give you any hesitation with becoming a coach?
Donovan: I have my opinion, but it's not based on any facts. I think what happens is, and I've already I've already come across this - to be candid, you as a coach, assume that players will understand the things that you understood as a player. So by way of example, we'll work on some movements and finishing and scoring goals with our players in training and certain movements that were really obvious to me by the middle or end of my career, I expect that some of our players will know how to make those movements properly, but they don't always. And then I have to take a step back and realize that I also didn't always know. I had to be taught to be taught over and over and over until I got it. And so you have to have the ability to take your time, keep teaching them over and over and over until it clicks and they get it..... And I think what happens a lot of times with coaches who were high level players, they assume that people should just know that stuff. And I've had to remind myself not to assume anything and also take the time to teach guys. And I am lucky, I come from a family of teachers. So that's in my blood. But I think that's where a lot of the disconnect comes - there's players who are very good at it, don't want to take the time to teach it, they just expect people to know. And I think that's hopefully what will separate me and that I can help them learn, help make them better, and then I understand them as people. So I'm always going to be someone who understands them and treats them respectfully. And hopefully all that combined will help me succeed.
ASN: How is it how's your team dealing with the the shutdown, and the uncertainty of it all? Are you doing Zoom meetings for training purposes? How are you dealing with the human element of the team in addition to online meetings for tactics and sending them physical fitness regimens?
Donovan: It's not easy. There are two sides to it: we're all really miserable, but we don't get to play and do what we love. At the same time, everyday I turn on the news, I see a higher death count. And I realize that there are people who are fighting for their lives right now. As frustrating as it is for us, we have to be acutely aware that it is much worse for a lot of people in our country and we have to have that compassion. So that's the personal side of it we're trying to practice and also share with our players. Then logistically what we do is we have to work out from home a couple days a week with our strength and conditioning coach. We've had a lot of time to use video and show them things individually. But we're also balancing that with not burning them out as well, because at some point, hopefully, we will have some version of another preseason. So all these players just got through six and a half weeks of preseason and got to play two games. Now they're sitting out for a while and the last thing they want to do right now is go to another preseason to get fit. We don't want to burn them out, but we do want to keep them tuned in so that if and when we do start again, they are ready to go and compete from the first game.
ASN: You've seen a lot of eras of American soccer with a lot of ups and downs. When you came up, you were part of a generation that accomplished a lot and your youth teams had players like Beasely, Onyewu, Beckerman, and O'Brien. When you look at the current generation and their progress, does that leave you with a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty view of youth development at the moment?
Donovan: Probably both - probably a little glass half-full and a little glass half-empty. I am encouraged at the potential that's out there, but potential is just potential until it is put into action. In fairness, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams and Christian [Pulisic] haven't had a lot of opportunity to play or even play together. I think they've only played together one time....That being said, we should envision a day soon here where there are 8, 10, 12, 15 players like that on our roster. There's no reason in this country with the athleticism and the types of players we have that we can't get to that level….I still think we're not a good enough job developing players. And that's a big conversation with a lot of pieces to it. But the reality remains, as we should be doing a better job developing high level players like that. There should be players like Christian, Tyler, and Weston every year breaking onto the scene. I don't see that yet. Those guys should be the norm. They shouldn't be the exception. And that's where we need to shoot for. If you ever want to really, really compete at the highest level in World Cups.
ASN: It comes down to the first steps those players are making in this country before they start their professional careers. Those stages are important. What is the key there?
Donovan: We got a handful of kids that are 16, 17, 18 who have some basis of the ability to be difference makers at the next level, but not nearly as many as you have in other countries. And that just means that at the youth level, we're not doing a good enough job. And the question is how do we change that? And what's the answer?...This is much more nuanced than in the one statement I'm about to make - but we need to find a way to incentivize people for developing players vs. winning youth soccer games. That is the simplest way I can put it. And how we do that is a big discussion and a lot of people can have input on that. But that has to be. Otherwise. we're going to keep getting, a 7 out of 10, 17 year old as opposed to a nine out of 10 who have the chance to really be a difference maker.