Landon Donovan was laser-focused for months on the March 7 debut of his San Diego Loyal, the new second-tier professional club that the American soccer icon co-owns, coaches and runs.
The inaugural match wound up being a hit off the field, with an overflow crowd of 6,100 packing into San Diego State University’s Torero Stadium, but disappointing on it. Against a Las Vegas Lights side led by another U.S. men’s national team great in Eric Wynalda, Donovan’s team settled for a 1-1 draw.
The next game was scheduled for March 11 in Tacoma, Washington. As the Loyal settled in for dinner at their hotel the night before, Donovan’s phone started buzzing. The contest would be played without fans because of the worsening coronavirus pandemic, he was told. By the next morning, it was unclear if it would happen at all.
“It was a really delicate situation, because I didn’t want the players’ minds on that six hours before the game,” Donovan told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “In the end we just decided that we had to be transparent. This is real life.”
The NBA suspended its season minutes before kickoff, but the Loyal’s game went ahead. They beat the Tacoma Defiance 2-1 in one of the last pro sporting events played in the United States. “Life shut down really quickly after that,” Donovan said.
The paradigm-shifting COVID-19 crisis has touched everyone in some way by now. Donovan is no different. Given the multiple hats he wears with his club, he has been forced, months into his post-playing career, to make all sorts of unexpected and consequential decisions on the fly.
Does he test his players for the respiratory illness? Does he allow them to return to their hometowns while the USL is on hiatus or keep them in-market, as MLS teams have done? Can he and majority owner Andrew Vassiliadis afford to keep playing their salaries? The answers are no, yes and yes.
On the testing: “Why would we be wasting time, energy and resources on us when there's 60-year-olds who have symptoms who can't get tested?” Donovan said.
On the travel: “Before all this stay-in-place stuff, I told guys if you want to leave and go home, you're welcome to,” he said. “It’s a weird time. You have to think of everybody as people first.”
On paying his players: “It’d be much easier for Andrew to say we're just not paying anyone, but he's a good human being and he wants to take care of people,” Donovan said. ““Of course there are short-term financial hits that every team in USL, MLS, every league around the world is taking. The financial impact hurts for everybody, but we're more worried about human lives right now.”
With no training sessions scheduled, no video to pore over, no new players to sign or opposing teams to scout, there’s not much else to do. Donovan makes calls during his occasional trips to the grocery store. The rest of the time he’s holed up at home with his wife and three young children, just like millions of other people across the globe, wondering when life might return to normal.
“The biggest problem is the unknown,” he said. “If you knew it was going to be three weeks until your next game, you could plan accordingly. At this point we just have no idea. So the message to the players has been, do whatever you need to do as an individual to make sure that you're ready to start training again at probably 80 to 85 percent of your fitness, so that we can catch back up quickly.”
Thanks to Vassiliadis’ deep pockets, Donovan isn’t worried about the long-term financial future of the club, even with no way to know when — or if — the rest of the season can be played. He hopes some of it is salvageable.
“I think there's tremendous value for our world to have sporting events to watch and follow just to help distract people, because that's what sports usually do,” Donovan said. “Even if they're not allowing people in groups of more than 50 for the rest of the year, or for the next two years, I would love to see that happen as long as it can be done in a safe way,” he said. “We all want to see life back to normal, but that would be maybe a compromise that would help bring some happiness back into peoples’ lives.”
Until then, he’s got a message to share.
“Let's all just shut up and listen to the experts and let them tell us how to get through this,” he said, mentioning Dr. Anthony Fauci, the unassuming director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has become a household name. “I wouldn't expect Dr. Fauci to tell me how to put together a lineup, so let's all just do what the experts say so that we can get out of this as healthy as possible on the other side.”
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