It was his 38th birthday, just barely, and Landon Donovan was awake at 4 a.m. His eagerness to attack the day had nothing to do with the anniversary, however. Birthdays aren’t a big deal to him. Rather, it was because his team had a lunch-time scrimmage, and he was too revved up to sleep.
Keep in mind this is a man who’s played in three World Cups, six Gold Cups, the Olympics, seven MLS Cup finals and the Premier League. At this point, game-day repose shouldn’t be an issue. But this scrimmage was different, and this team—his team—is different. Donovan isn’t just the head coach of San Diego Loyal, the USL Championship expansion squad preparing for its competitive debut this Saturday. And he’s not just the executive VP of soccer operations, with full control over the technical side of the club. He’s a part owner. It literally is his team.
“This is my all day, every day. I was up at 4 in the morning because I was excited about the scrimmage we were having,” the retired U.S. legend told SI.com this week. “This is the sport I love in my new home town, so it just made a lot of sense to actually be invested. One thing that’s different about soccer is that soccer fans genuinely feel that they own the club. And they do. You want to have skin in the game, and when you do you treat it differently. If I owned Starbucks stock, I’m going to the Starbucks every day—not Coffee Bean.
“That level of commitment makes me really invested,” he continued. “I always want to be successful in everything I do, but it’s also my responsibility to not let the city down, not let these players down, not let my family down.”
Tim Howard understands. And he now fully appreciates the sensation of those rushing thoughts and the pounding heart inside a body at rest.
“Anyone who’s seen me play knows I’m passionate,” Howard said. “But when I sit and watch Memphis 901 FC games, I have to keep my emotions in check because I’m so over-the-top invested. I want to win every game and kick every ball, and I’ve never had anything like that. In terms of being all-in, I’ve never been all-in like this.”
Howard and Donovan are from opposite coasts but are forever linked—by their years with the national team, their months at Everton and that perfect throw and run in Pretoria almost a decade ago. They’re now also USL competitors and colleagues. Like Donovan, Howard is in charge of his club’s soccer operations, and like Donovan, he can’t stay way from the field. Although Howard, who turned 41 Friday, will be working up a bit more of a sweat as an active goalkeeper.
The most significant connection, however, is financial. Like Donovan, Howard is a co-owner of his team. His began playing in 2019. Both hold at least 5% of their clubs, although it’s almost surely more (neither would divulge details), and both have significant pull in the boardroom. It’s common for accomplished athletes to find jobs in their sport when they’re high-level playing days are done. It’s uncommon for them to also put their own dollars at risk.
“Investing in American soccer is amazing. It’s beautiful. The USL is on the up and up,” Howard said. “I want to own. I want to play. I want to run the team. This is the place I want to be.”
Donovan said of Howard, “We did used to talk about what we were going to do next. A GM role was always in Timmy’s sights. Mine was probably geared toward being an owner. What I liked about being an owner was the ability to impact the club on a day-to-day basis in a real way. I think we were both intrigued by that side of the game now we find ourselves here.”
They’re in non-native cities they call home because of family. Donovan moved south to San Diego so he and his wife, Hannah, could raise their children closer to her parents. Howard began making his offseason home in Memphis more than a decade ago so he could raise his children. They each have come to love their new cities, and part of that devotion is making sure the soccer is done right.
Donovan and his partner, Sacramento Republic co-founder Warren Smith, enlisted San Diegan real estate executive Andrew Vassiliadis as the Loyal’s primary investor. Howard is working with Memphis Redbirds owner Peter Freund, whose group also controls several other minor league baseball teams as well as English National League club Dagenham & Redbridge. Mirroring Howard's piece of Dag & Red, Donovan acquired a very small stake in Swansea City in 2017.
Vassiliadis and Freund obviously don’t have similar soccer backgrounds to their more famous partners, but both became convinced the USL Championship can be good business. The barrier to entry is low (there’s a $10 million expansion fee, compared to the $325 million just paid by Charlotte to join MLS), and the second-tier league is growing. There will be 35 teams this season, and 20 of those will play their 2020 campaign in a soccer-specific stadium. An expansion team in Queens, New York (partially owned by retired Spanish forward David Villa) is among several new clubs on the way. Last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup featured 26 USL players. And a three-year broadcast deal with ESPN will include 20 2020 games on its TV channels (starting with Saturday's San Diego-Las Vegas Lights match on ESPNews).
Minor league sports can be a tough business, but the USL Championship and its third-tier counterpart, League One, aren’t like most minor leagues. A significant majority of USL pro clubs are independent rather than developmental. Their motivation isn’t to groom young talent for a benefactor parent team from another city, but to represent their own and win. There are genuine competitive and financial stakes—the sort that might attract those who once competed at high levels. That, in turn, attracts attention. It’s rare for a lower-tier team in any sport to generate buzz beyond the borders of its own market. Usually there’s a gimmick involved, like a dog bat boy or dropping dollars from a helicopter. In Howard and Donovan, USL has enlisted a pair of icons whose real success or failure, on and off the field, will be fascinating to follow.
“It’s not dissimilar to what David [Beckham] did when he came to the Galaxy. He brought a lot of excitement, professionalism, fame and eyeballs that we couldn’t have done as a league without him,” Donovan said. “Tim and I aren’t in the same mold, but more people are paying attention because of what we were able to accomplish. You’re writing this story. And there are many similarities to the two leagues at different points in their evolution, and hopefully we can bring some more eyeballs and make people realize that the quality in this league is so much higher than anyone, myself included, realizes.”
The league did its due diligence to ensure Howard and Donovan had the finances to acquire and fund their stakes (anything above 5% requires USL approval), but it's tough to imagine the main office rooting for anything other than a positive outcome. Bringing the two U.S. icons aboard as investors is good for branding and good for business, not to mention the obvious injection of soccer experience they provide.
“What I most admire about these guys is that they’ve played at the highest level, they had a fantastic playing career, but they’re not interested in just assigning their name or image to a particular project. That’s not what they’re doing this for. They fundamentally want to build the best possible USL Championship club they can,” USL president Jake Edwards said.
“The success of these clubs rests on the success of Landon or Tim, and therefore they have real skin in the game,” Edwards continued. “They have ownership equity. They’ve invested time, energy and money into this project, so it brings a whole new level of commitment beyond assigning your image or name. They are highly motivated to make this successful, and to a large degree the success of the whole project will be determined by their personal success in their new role. What I’ve seen so far has been really encouraging—the amount of work they’re putting into it, and the amount of passion and enjoyment.”
So that's where the late nights, early mornings and unchecked emotions come in. Owning a business is a 24/7 lifestyle. There’s always more to do or something to worry about, and neither Donovan nor Howard has shied away from taking on the work. It’s a big change from their days when playing was their only responsibility.
“When you’re an athlete, rest and recovery is your biggest asset. I’d tell people I’m busy, and it meant I was lying on the couch, watching TV and resting,” Howard said. “Now I’m really busy—talking at 7 or 8 at night with our football group, just grinding away. And that’s every day. I’m watching players, talking to agents and figuring out how the club can get better. It’s nonstop, every day.”
Donovan has spent the winter building his roster and coaching staff and spreading the Loyal word. No media or marketing ask has been too small—he did interviews with five radio stations on Thursday—and he’s encouraged and helped his players to get out into the community as well. Donovan conducted tryouts at local high schools so students could attend and see how the process works. He helped secure the jersey partner. Managers are judged by results and records, GMs by all that plus transfers and titles, and owners by all that plus attendance, sponsorship and profit. Donovan is keeping track of every bit.
“The beauty in it for me is I have a long-term view on what happens,” Donovan said. “So 99% of coaches in the world are solely focused on how they win on Saturday, and they don’t care about anything else. They might put players at risk and will do things I won’t do because I have a big-picture view of the club. It allows me to be patient, build things the right way and make decisions intentionally instead of reactively.”
There are limitations. In the end, both men have bosses. Neither San Diego nor Memphis will be spending like the Galaxy and Everton, and it remains to be seen how Loyal players will respond over the course of a season to Donovan’s coaching and the importance he places on community initiatives, or how Howard’s 901 teammates will handle sharing a locker room with their sporting director and co-owner. There’s a lot to learn for both. But there’s also a genuine interest in learning it, plus a desire to use their position and influence to improve the lives of their employees.
“I knew it all when I was playing,” Howard said. “Often times I’d call [Colorado Rapids GM] Pádraig Smith—he’s been a brilliant mentor of mine—and I used to bang my fist on the desk and say, ‘Why don’t we do this? And why can’t we have that?’ over and over. Now I realize there’s things called budgets, and you can’t just do everything Tim Howard wants to do. There’s a lot to be learned on the other side of it, but it’s fun learning.”
Howard spent three and a half seasons in Colorado and speaks regularly with Smith, as well as with Everton chairman Bill Kenwright, who the goalkeeper said, “Told me, if you’re an owner, just continue to love the club and base your decisions on that, and you can’t go too far wrong.”
Donovan said there are often small ways to show that love.
“We’ll find a way to reward guys or help guys with things they need help with. After a game instead of a box lunch, we’ll stop at [a restaurant] on the way home because I have the power and ability as an owner to do that. It’s being able to leverage that a little bit to make life a little better for these guys,” he said.
It wasn’t long ago that all American pro soccer players thought about the price of a meal. It was not a sport where money was made, either on the field or off it. But that’s changed, obviously. The rush to expand and welcome new investors into MLS and the USL is one sign. Howard and Donovan are another. They’re at the leading edge of the first generation of American players to earn life-changing money playing the sport. They have the resources to invest, plus the renown to attract investment.
And they’re not the only ones. Former U.S. teammates Stu Holden and Kyle Martino each own a piece of newly-promoted La Liga club RCD Mallorca. And DaMarcus Beasley is itching to get involved. According to the USL, the long-time U.S. winger and former Chicago Fire, PSV Eindhoven, Rangers, Puebla and Houston Dynamo star has started discussions about launching a League One expansion club in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“I wish all the guys I played with down the years with the national team could be part of the USL,” Howard said.
It’s natural for men like Howard and Donovan to want to stay involved in soccer. It’s what they know. It’s where they feel confident they can contribute. What they think they’ve found through ownership, however, is a way to continue to feel the passion, drive and sense of competitive community they once experienced on the biggest stages. There’s nothing like seeing your creation come to life. There’s nothing like wagering a piece of yourself on its success or failure. The rush remains very real.
“I have friends that tell me when they speak to me about this, I light up. I don’t notice it but they tell me,” Howard said.
Donovan described the joy of seeing his players implement and execute some of the concepts they’d been working on in training during a recent friendly. It was a phone conversation, but it was easy to tell he lit up.
“That feeling, there is nothing I did as a player that compares to that feeling, as someone who’s leading these young men,” he said. “I really thrive on that. There’s just this immense sense of pride, and happiness for them.”