Landon Donovan, American Soccer Star and Manager of San Diego’s Loyal SC, Gets “Highlight Real” About His Love for the Beautiful Game

Goal-Oriented—Landon Donovan Is Determined to Take the Game to New Levels and Support His Players With Compassion

Written By: Kaylin Waizinger
Photographed By: Nick Isabella Landon Donovan San Diego
Styled By: Melissa Souza Landon Donovan San Diego

Three World Cup appearances, six Major League Soccer championships and 213 professional goals only begins to define the legend that is Landon Donovan. As a player who put US soccer on the map, Donovan continues to take the game to the next level. But instead of lacing up his own cleats, players from around the world have come to play for him at San Diego’s newest professional club, Loyal SC. And within 30 minutes of talking to the seasoned soccer star, one thing became crystal clear: Donovan’s passion for the game lies far beyond the goals, the wins and the fame. For Donovan, soccer is the ultimate equalizer—a game that unites and ignites people from around the world. Landon Donovan San Diego

“It’s the only sport where you can step into a bar—there’s a game on—and you find yourself sitting next to someone born in Kenya, who’s sitting next to someone born in Argentina, who is sitting next to someone born in Kansas. They have a mutual love and respect for the game, and they care about each other just because of what this game is. I’ve never seen that in any other sport, nothing even close,” says Donovan as he slips on his sneakers. 

“And that right there is very special.” Landon Donovan San Diego

Before “Landon Donovan” became an American soccer household name, there was a humble beginning for the young footballer. As his mom puts it, from the time Donovan could walk, his older brother eagerly awaited a playmate. “If we had a chance to go outside and play soccer, or basketball, or tennis, we would do it,” says Donovan. “I got an initiation into the sport really early.” His relationship with soccer was unique, however. Growing up, Donovan and his brother weren’t allowed to watch TV in the house. “Because of that, I had no knowledge of the bigger soccer world. I literally just liked to play,” says Donovan

At the ripe age of 14, Donovan had the opportunity to try out for ODP (Olympic Development Program), and he successfully made the team. After moving from the state and regional teams to the national team for youth players in the same year, Donovan was approached by a scout for a club in Germany. “Until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that this could be something serious,” says Donovan. But after a few short years in Europe, he made a decision that would change the scope of US soccer forever—he returned stateside to play Major League Soccer.

His move to the states lit a fire in the hearts of Eurocentric American fans—fans who had faith that Donovan would raise the game to new heights in this country—and that he did. After 32 goals and three years with the San Jose Earthquakes, Donovan made a move to the Los Angeles Galaxy to be closer to his family. “I’m an LA boy at heart,” admits Donovan. “It was home for me. Having my friends and family—and eventually my wife and my kids—come and watch was really special.” His success with the LA Galaxy sparked a movement among young players. “I think by playing in my home city, it gave other American players who thought they were ‘supposed to be playing on the bigger stage,’ permission to come back and help build something here.”

For Donovan, there’s no place like home, but when it came to stepping onto the South Korea World Cup stage at the mere age of 20, it wasn’t something he shied away from. “I remember walking down the tunnel to the stadium and looking over at one of my teammates (Demarcus Beasley, who I had played with since I was 16) and realizing how lucky I was to play in a World Cup. It sticks with me to this day.”

While his World Cup debut in the moment seemed to be a nod toward his rising stardom and tremendous talent, he quickly found it meant something so much more. “Not everyone lives like we do,” says Donovan, with an emotional pause. “Being able to see the world really helped me as a human being. It gave me a level of compassion. And if you don’t travel, you never know that—you can’t understand it,” he explains.

Admittedly, Donovan has dealt with a series of tumultuous ups and downs in his personal life. “I am crazy driven and crazy ambitious,” he says, “so how I do anything is how I do everything—I commit myself. But that’s exhausting.” As someone who comes from a family with a history of mental health issues, he’s learned how to understand and manage his own. “Seeing a therapist has positively impacted my life as much or more than anything else I’ve ever done,” says Donovan. These challenges, paired with resilient dedication and love for the game, have granted him the ability to understand people and their own struggles. “My number one core value is compassion, and I think the majority of that comes from this sport.”

His heart for the game and passion for people will provide the foundation for his next venture. “When you’re in a team environment, you’re not successful by accident. You learn how to impact games, impact seasons and impact people.” And Donovan will continue to do just that. This time, however, it will be from the sideline as coach of San Diego’s Loyal SC.

As players from Africa, Jamaica, Panama, Great Britain and other countries filtered into sunny San Diego to play for Donovan and his team of coaches, his perspective remained the same. “I want to help these young players make better lives for themselves. It’s selfish, honestly, because it’s what gives me the greatest pleasure,” he smiles. In order to do what he does best, Donovan brought in assistant coaches Carrie Taylor and Nate Miller to work with the team from a tactical and organizational standpoint. “These are two really driven, hard-working people who have earned it every step of the way,” expresses Donovan.

After several months of time off due to the COVID-19 crisis, Loyal SC resumed play in early July with an updated season structure. The team will continue their 16-game regular season with hopes of qualifying for the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs. “It was certainly challenging to have COVID hit right as our season started,” admits Donovan. “But our organization handled it extremely well. I feel very fortunate to be part of such an incredible club.” Loyal SC continues to work closely with San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital to get each player tested.

Despite his strong leadership and playoff ambitions, Donovan surprisingly dials back when it comes to raising his two sons. “I don’t want my kids to be forced into anything,” he says. His wife points out, “He won’t even kick the ball around with them.” With a strong belief in allowing his kids to be who they want to be, he adopts a hands-off approach when it comes to parenting. “When they’re born, I want to open the present and see what I got,” he explains with a smile. 

Donovan’s accomplishments feel less like trophies on a shelf and more like experiences that have shaped the man. He continues to impact the game of soccer and its people with humility, grace and a competitive spirit. And when it’s all said and done, and people hear the name “Landon Donovan,” he hopes they say one thing:

“He cared.” Landon Donovan San Diego

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