United States and MLS legends Eric Wynalda and Landon Donovan have played big parts in the story of soccer in the United States. They were both star strikers in their day: Wynalda scored the winning goal in the first MLS match 25 seasons ago, while Donovan has been on six league championship-winning teams and even had the league MVP trophy named after him. Wynalda and Donovan both featured on three World Cup squads for the U.S. but never played together though they've already met in their post-playing days as coaches, managing the Las Vegas Lights and the San Diego Loyal, respectively, of the United Soccer League (USL). .
SAN DIEGO -- At full-time, Landon Donovan walked the ramp toward his team's locker room at Torero Stadium and as much as he tried to look at the positive, he wasn't happy.
The side he manages, the San Diego Loyal, had just tied its inaugural game in the USL Championship, 1-1, with the Las Vegas Lights on March 7. But one could almost see the coaching calluses beginning to form. While there were some bright moments for his team, the game soon turned into a chippy affair that favored the Lights. Donovan's side was fortunate to walk away with a point, and he knew it.
"Las Vegas played the game exactly the way they should have," he says. "They were very direct. When we did get around the ball, we didn't win tackles. We weren't efficient with our passing. It was a bad game for us."
His managerial counterpart, Eric Wynalda, now in his second season with Las Vegas, struck a different tone as he stood outside his team's locker room.
"We played them off the park. They had one shot on goal," he says. He also can't help but let his thoughts drift to Donovan and how he felt about the result.
"I've always had this curiosity about him," Wynalda says of Donovan. "I'll be curious to see how he reacts to this. A little humble pie never hurts."
No relationship but plenty of opinions
They are soccer half-brothers, Wynalda and Donovan -- born from the same system, yet raised in different generations. This makes for an awkward, and sometimes testy, relationship. Wynalda was arguably the dominant U.S. men's national team player of the 1990s. Donovan's time came in the 2000s and a few years beyond. It was Donovan who, in 2008, supplanted Wynalda as the U.S men's national team's all-time leading scorer. Now that Donovan has joined Wynalda as a USL manager, their journeys have become connected again.
The night before their meeting, Wynalda sits in the deserted hotel bar with assistant coach Rudy Ybarra and sips a tequila. "It'll help me sleep," he says. The match against San Diego -- really, against Donovan -- has been played up all week. Wynalda has mostly held back and initially, he sticks to that script.
"To be honest, it's nonexistent," he says of his relationship with Donovan. "We've never been friends. We've never even been acquaintances."
But for a man he says he barely knows, Wynalda has no shortage of opinions about Donovan. With little prodding, he calls the USMNT's leading all-time scorer (tied with Clint Dempsey) and all-time assists holder "entitled." Wynalda also speaks of trying to provide some guidance to Donovan at times, advice that he says was rebuffed, bringing into focus the generational divide.
"It sucks when you really think you can genuinely help someone and they say, 'Sorry, no thanks. I don't need you,'" he says. "That stiff arm is still there."
It would be easy to pass off Wynalda's critiques as simple jealousy, but to hear Wynalda tell it, he's not bothered by Donovan passing him. Rather, he's irritated by him not doing it faster, and not doing more with the obvious talent he possessed. Wynalda speaks of how his generation gave up a lot to return to the U.S. when MLS started. Creating a league for players like Donovan was part of the reason why they did. It's why Wynalda also saves his love for Clint Dempsey, the ultimate competitor whose personality is more in line with Wynalda's combative nature.
"I'd rather go fishing with Clint Dempsey than have dinner with Landon Donovan," Wynalda says. "I'll get more out of that boat than I would at that dinner table, that's for sure."
That doesn't mean there is a complete absence of respect for Donovan. Wynalda acknowledges that it was Donovan who did plenty to carry MLS in the early 2000s before the days of Designated Players, rampant expansion and eight-figure transfer fees. "Whether we feel that there was more to Donovan than he showed us or not, at the end of the day, he is very much an architect of the sport in this country," he says.
Twenty hours later, Donovan is seated in San Diego's training room. Some of the team's medical staff are busy with their prematch routine. Donovan insists he isn't nervous, although he acknowledges the main difference between playing and coaching, namely that as a player on game day, he had some control over what was ahead. As a manager, that's much more limited. The sensation will take some getting used to.
When the topic of his relationship with Wynalda comes up, a bemused smile is accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. Donovan admits to being "a punk" early in his career but says he has no memory of any snub he delivered. He's rather unbothered by Wynalda's opinions.
"Probably [I feel] the way most people would with Eric, it's a little confusing," he says. "There's times where when you interact with him personally, he's engaging, he's nice, he's fun to be around. And then sometimes he'll just do something through a tweet or he'll say something or do an article and you just kind of scratch your head and say, 'Is that the same guy?' So that's kind of the way it is. I mean, I have no problem. I like Eric. I think he's a kind person."
As for the fact that Wynalda thinks Donovan could have done more with his career?
"Take a number," Donovan says. "A lot of people think I should've [done more]. There are things that I can control and things I can't. I can't control what comes out of people's mouths."
Their respective journeys into coaching add to the sense of friction. As one of the Loyal's owners, Donovan in effect hired himself although his fellow owners, Andrew Vassiliadis and Warren Smith, had something to say on that.
The idea of coaching was one that came slowly to Donovan. As his playing days drew to a close, he admits he was fed up with the egos and just wanted to get away from the game's grind. Once the idea of coaching took root last year, it was one that sparked a renewed fire for the sport, but his appointment speaks to the relative ease in which doors have tended to open for Donovan. He was involved in the ultimately failed attempt to bring an MLS team to San Diego. Last year, he enjoyed a stint indoors with Major Arena Soccer League side the San Diego Sockers. In the midst of that, the USL opportunity revealed itself.
"I think if you are passionate and treat people well, you try to do things the right way, you're going to get opportunities," he says. "But this is the way the world works, right? I mean, some people get opportunities that others don't for a variety of different reasons. I'm not naive to that. But I want to make the most of it."
And if he fails? Could he fire himself?
"I can be honest with myself," he says. "If I don't like it, or I'm terrible at it, I just won't do it. But if I love it, and I'm great at it, maybe I'll keep going. We'll see where it leads."
Wynalda's journey has had far more detours. His outspoken nature is partly to blame for that, although there were other factors. Financial difficulties brought on by a divorce pushed Wynalda toward well-paying broadcasting gigs even as he knew his passion was in coaching. He nearly became the head coach of the Chicago Fire in 2010, a job that ultimately went to Carlos de los Cobos. He engineered a U.S. Open Cup upset when his amateur side Cal FC ousted the Portland Timbers in 2012, and finally got his first professional chance in the NASL with the Atlanta Silverbacks, first as their technical director and later as the team's coach. Yet he didn't seem all-in, retaining his job at Fox Sports.
"I took the easy way out," he says. "That's my own recognition and reflection of how I wish I would have paid my dues earlier, but I wanted my cake and eat it too. So I can't be uber-critical of other people when I made some poor judgment decisions as far as life choices."
Following his failed run for U.S. Soccer president in 2018, he finally got back on the sidelines in Las Vegas before the 2019 USL season even though he wasn't the first choice of Lights owner Brett Lashbrook, who counted Donovan among his preferred candidates.
"I think Brett Lashbrook wanted to hire a lot of people before he got to me," Wynalda says. "But at the end of the day, I said yes.
"It's a little discouraging sometimes when somebody gets the golden paved road to the job you would have wanted. You can complain about it, or you can get on with it. I'm 50. I'm actually at a stage now where I feel I know what I care about, and it's very clean, and it's very straightforward. And I'm not trying to prove anything outside of do what I love to do."
'As lenient a coach as there is'
So far, Donovan hasn't been afraid to buck convention as a coach. He hired two women -- Carrie Taylor and Shannon MacMillan -- to his technical staff, and he insists it was done not because he wanted to be a trailblazer, but because he knew and had confidence in both people to do the job. He's not a hands-on coach either, preferring to delegate the planning of training sessions to Taylor and Nate Miller, opting to step in occasionally to offer bits of advice.
Yet there are some instances where the juxtaposition of Donovan as a player and his message as a coach are jarring. A video put out by the Loyal shows Donovan addressing the team in its first meeting. He's imploring his side to compete and show respect for one another. A message on the whiteboard reads, "Everything we do matters." It's what you would expect from every coach on the planet, but in this case, it's coming from someone whose love for the game was far from constant over the course of his playing career, one who didn't hesitate to walk out of practice if he wasn't feeling right that day.
So how does Donovan reconcile the message he's sending to his own approach as a player?
"I am probably as lenient a coach as there is when it comes to training, injuries, how they're feeling," he says. "We had a bad training session the other day. And I said to them, 'Guys, I would rather you come to me and say we're tired or this or that, let's just go home and not train, then you do that s---. Because if you're gonna do it, do it.' And when I showed up [as a player], I did. But there were times where I realized I need a break; I need to get away. And I wish I had had a coach that was more lenient."
The request for more leniency is enough to induce a double-take. This is a player who counted Frank Yallop and Bruce Arena -- both regarded as players' coaches -- among his coaches, and they often indulged him. It could be interpreted as a not-so-thinly veiled dig at former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. When asked if he learned what not to do from Klinsmann, Donovan says, "Certainly that." But he adds, "It wasn't all bad."
Time will reveal if Donovan's approach will work and how much he'll have to tweak things, but he feels that the best way to connect with and improve players is by treating them like human beings.
Wynalda has already been down this road. He thought of himself as a specialist in rescuing lost causes when he started out with Cal FC and continued with Atlanta. His first year in Las Vegas pushed this approach past the breaking point, one in which the Lights finished 13th out of 18 teams in the Western Conference of the USL Championship.
"What I realized is that in my arrogance, I'm not that good," he says. "I look at last year as the guy that was jumping into the pool every day trying to save a drowning man. And every day, they dragged me down to the bottom of the pool with them. And I'm tired of that. So now what I do is I just throw the f---ing ring out there and say, 'Save yourself. And if you can't, guess what, it's not my problem.' I have to be more ruthless."
Yet Wynalda isn't above showing his human side. He makes breakfast for the team almost every day -- lunch as well. He senses there is a stronger bond among this year's group than in 2019. Now he also bears a few more coaching scars, a bit more experience in what works and what doesn't.
"On my whiteboard every day I write, 'Try. Care. Work.' You do those three things, you're probably going to be alright," he says.
A plan ... and then a punch in the face
Wynalda has been studying up on San Diego in the run-up to the match, and even snuck up to Reno, Nev. to watch them in a preseason game. He has a theory that forwards who become managers set their teams up defensively in a way that they would've personally loathed playing against. He senses that in Donovan's team.
"They're organized, and there's no space to run into, and Landon would have hated to play against this team that he's put together," he says. "I've been impressed with their tactical awareness."
Donovan agrees, but takes it even further. He says he plans on pressing Las Vegas from the get-go, and expects to wear their players down.
"I hated being in games where I just sat back and waited for teams to make mistakes, especially at home," he says. "People pay money to come here and watch. We're not just going to sit in and be a boring, counterattacking, defensive team. That doesn't make any sense and players don't like playing that way. So our guys are going to definitely be assertive tonight."
As the game nears kickoff, Wynalda and Donovan share a hug on the sideline. But it's clear that a plan is one thing and reality is another. Las Vegas delivers a haymaker just inside of four minutes, when Junior Burgos hits a looping drive from 40 yards out that finds the back of the net.
The teams soon take on the personalities of their respective managers.
San Diego is about possession and quick combinations, although the Loyal are guilty of over-elaborating a bit when they get close to the penalty area. Las Vegas is all feistiness, strategically hunting the ball with occasional bits of brilliance like Burgos' strike.
The Loyal's Charlie Adams equalizes in the 15th minute and it seems as if San Diego has momentum. Through all of this, Wynalda is pacing the sideline, while Donovan is sitting on the bench between Taylor and Miller, legs crossed, the epitome of calm.
As the match goes on, it's increasingly being played on Las Vegas' terms. San Diego have an edge in possession, but more of the chances fall Las Vegas' way to the tune of a 21-3 edge in shots. The game is disjointed, with a combined 42 fouls, and the Lights should have prevailed, with Junior Sandoval and Seku Conneh both squandering some clear opportunities.
After the final whistle, the two managers shake hands, Wynalda offers a pat on the back. Following a season in which his team won only twice on the road, he's thrilled both at the result and how his team played intelligently in the game's later stages.
"We call it situational recognition, which is a complicated way of saying, 'Get it the hell out of there,'" Wynalda says.
The long pause
Donovan and the team react just fine, as it turns out. Four days later, San Diego triumphs on the road against the Tacoma Defiance 2-1 to give Donovan his first win as coach, though there is a sense of foreboding at what is to come. With the coronavirus outbreak gaining steam, especially in the Seattle area, the game is played in an empty stadium. It's the last match played before a nationwide shutdown of the professional game.
"You get a little taste, and now it's put on hold," Donovan says. "But I keep saying over and over, if these are our problems, then we're pretty lucky."
Wynalda speaks of holding meetings where he and his three assistants are each sitting in their own corner of the room. His players are scattered to the four winds in an effort to maintain some sanity. Most work out in pairs in a bid to stay fit while practicing a modicum of social distancing.
"It's been a kick in the teeth," Wynalda says about the suspension of the league although like Donovan, he knows he's better off than plenty of other people.
The Loyal and the Lights are set to play on Aug. 22. Donovan and Wynalda aren't the only ones hoping they'll get the chance to square off again.