Some journeys are about the destination, others about the quest. For Landon Donovan, the sojourn over the last year has been a little of both with the best soccer player the U.S. has produced traveling to the farthest corner of the country to get a chance to coach.
That is where he found himself standing, whistle in hand, on a bluff overlooking the Mexican border on a cool and windy winter morning.
“I’ve been searching for the next passion in my life,” he said. “And I love this. Absolutely love it.”
Love can be fickle, though, especially when it concerns Donovan. He loved playing soccer, yet that didn’t stop him from retiring on four occasions — and unretiring on three others — in addition to taking a four-month sabbatical a year before a World Cup.
He’s on more solid footing as he approaches the next step in his career.
“I’ve known soccer since I was 15 as a professional. So it’s OK for me to have time to learn something new and find out where my passion is,” he said of coaching. “If it stops being enjoyable or I’m really bad at it, then I’ll step out of the way. I have no problem with that.”
Donovan, 38, will get his first chance to see if his new passion will be requited Saturday when he coaches the expansion San Diego Loyal of the second-tier USL Championship against Eric Wynalda and the Las Vegas Lights at the University of San Diego.
Wynalda was U.S. Soccer’s all-time leading scorer until Donovan passed him. And Wynalda was the highest-profile USL coach until Donovan eclipsed him. To say the two are rivals would be like saying Taylor Swift and Kanye West simply had aesthetic differences.
As a result, the game will be the first season opener in USL history to be televised nationally.
That’s the kind of spotlight Donovan knows well. He played in three World Cup tournaments in 15 years with the national team, setting U.S. records with 57 goals and 57 assists. In MLS, his 170 goals and 151 assists, including playoffs, and his six champion rings persuaded the league to rename its MVP trophy the Landon Donovan Award.
Coaches, on the other hand, do most of their work in anonymity, drawing attention mostly when things go wrong. That might be why so many legends, from Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky to Bart Starr and Ted Williams, found it difficult to translate their playing success into a successful coaching career.
The game came easy to them but teaching it to others? Not so much.
Andrew Vassiliadis — the Loyal’s chairman and, at 37, the youngest owner in the league — feared Donovan might be the next name on that list.
One conversation changed that.
“The minute he started talking Xs and O’s and he had plan and it was serious, I understood,” he said. “He said, ‘Andrew I found a passion in this that I didn’t think I had.’ Once I heard that I was like, OK.”
Donovan, who is also the Loyal’s vice president of soccer operations and has an ownership stake in the team, is far different as a coach than he was as a player.
As a player he was in the middle of everything, both a playmaker and a scorer. As a coach he prefers to stand to the side and observe quietly, only occasionally stepping forward to correct a player or offer advice.
“When he says something guys will listen because of who he is,” said defender Sal Zizzo, a San Diego native who played 11 years in Germany and in MLS, then came out of retirement to become the first player to sign with Donovan.
“He has that quality and that presence about him already. I don’t know anyone that isn’t at awe a little bit every day.”
Said midfielder Carlos Alvarez: “I’m getting coached by one of my idols.”
Donovan’s path to coaching and the USL Championship was a short one, borne of defeat and opportunity.
Donovan had been a major player in a two-year campaign to bring an MLS team to his adopted hometown of San Diego, an effort that ended in failure in November 2018 when voters turned down a proposal to build a stadium in Mission Valley.
In the wake of that rejection Donovan met with Warren Smith, a former minor league baseball executive who became instrumental in founding the Sacramento Republic and taking it a USL title in its first season. He saw similar possibilities in San Diego.
“He started asking a lot of questions about the USL. I could see there was a spark of interest,” Smith, the third member of the Loyal’s ownership group, said of Donovan. “It wasn’t something we were actively trying to make happen. There was a meeting where he got really excited and said, ‘You know, I thought about it and I want to be involved.’ So we worked through it.”
Last June 19 — a symbolic date given that 619 is San Diego’s area code — Smith and Donovan went public with an announcement they would bring a USL team to the city by 2021, playing in the University of San Diego’s 6,000-seat stadium. All they needed was a coach, some players, a name, uniforms and a deep-pocketed investor since neither Donovan nor Smith could afford the $10-million USL expansion fee.
That’s when Vassiliadis, a local businessman and philanthropist — and former youth soccer coach — stepped up. San Diego had long been a graveyard for professional soccer and Vassiliadis was determined to change that.
“I watched it fail so many times,” he said. “I studied it and studied it and I figured if we could get the right group together we could do it.”
The timing couldn’t have been better, which is why Vassiliadis accelerated the timeline by a year. The USL Championship has tripled in size — to 35 teams in 24 states since 2011 — and total attendance is expected to top 3 million for the first time this season.
The league has a three-year TV deal with ESPN that will triple the number of televised games, and will stream the rest; expansion fees have risen 500% in the last six years, and USL president Jake Edwards says more than $1 billion in stadium construction has either been pledged or is already under way.
“It’s a gold rush right now,” said Vassiliadis, who hopes to build a new soccer-specific stadium in San Diego by 2023. “Everybody’s trying to get in, every city is trying to open up a team.”
But if Vassiliadis is the money guy and Smith the idea guy, the team was still without a coach and general manager as recently as November. That’s where Donovan fit in.
Although he had done neither job at any level — let alone the second-highest level on the U.S. Soccer pyramid — Donovan was undeterred, quietly obtaining his coaching licenses last year, then surrounding himself with a group of advisers that included former Sacramento Republic coach Paul Buckle, retired U.S. women’s national team player Shannon MacMillan and a coaching staff that included assistants Nate Miller and Carrie Taylor.
Taylor, the league’s highest-ranking female assistant, said Donovan has proven to be a quick study.
“He takes input from people, he’ll sit on it, he’ll process it and then he’ll come to his decision,” she said. “It goes back to the culture that you set. If he were to come in like ‘this is my way’ with a big ego, some of the guys would be like ‘whoa.’
“But he’s very collaborative. We had individual meetings with the players and he tries to get to know each person.”
Even though Donovan appears to be uninvolved in practices, Taylor said that’s by design.
“We usually meet after training and we go through what’s going to happen the next day,” she said. “He wants to be able to see all of it and sometimes it’s hard when you‘re actually in the session to observe what the player way over there is doing.”
Bruce Arena, who coached Donovan with both the Galaxy and the national team, said he was surprised his former captain wanted to coach but says he has the tools to be successful.
“Landon’s a bright guy, had a really good feel for the game, understood what was going on. So I think he has all the qualities to be a very good coach,” Arena said. “Patience is important. You have to bite your tongue. Dealing with professional athletes is … not easy.
“Landon is uniquely qualified to do that job if he wants to do it.”
If he wants to do it.
Arena, more than most, knows how quickly Donovan’s attention can shift. Donovan missed the start of the 2013 MLS season during a self-imposed sabbatical, retired a year later, and came out of retirement at the end of the 2016 season to help Arena and the Galaxy qualify for the playoffs.
When the team didn’t offer him a new contract he retired again, only to resurface a year later in Mexico, where he played for León. Six months later there was another retirement, which ended when he signed with the San Diego Sockers of the Major Arena Soccer League.
“It takes a lot of hard work,” Arena said of coaching. “I think that would have been the question: Could Landon dedicate himself to that on a daily basis?”
It’s a fair question, says Donovan, adding that his wife asked the same thing. But the father of two boys said he’s more mature and less selfish than he was during his playing days.
“I’ve grown,” he said. “Having kids changed a lot to where I’m doing this for the right reasons.”
But just to be sure, the Loyal sent out a press release clarifying that Donovan won’t be playing for the team he owns, unlike former teammate Tim Howard, who this week came out of retirement to play for USL Championship side Memphis 901 FC, for which he is an owner and sporting director.
“I tried to never say never, but I’m not playing,” Donovan said. “I’m not even close anymore to this level.”
For the best soccer player the U.S. has produced, that’s quite an admission — one he had to travel to the farthest corner of the country to discover.