Fans, coach Landon Donovan return to pitch for USL relaunch

Sports

Fans get to watch U.S. pro team sports in person for the first time in four months when Landon Donovan resumes his fledgling coaching career in a United Soccer League match.

Due to social distancing rules, only about a quarter of the 20,000 seats at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, will be available Saturday for the game between Donovan’s expansion San Diego Loyal and the defending USL champion Real Monarchs SLC.

While it’s a step toward normalcy, Donovan is OK that ticket sales will be capped at about 5,300.

“I don’t think it’ll change anything from our standpoint,” said the former U.S. national team and MLS star, who is two games into his coaching career. “ If you think about stadiums, the noise and home-field advantage comes from people sitting next to each other making noise. If they’re spread out in a 20,000-seat stadium, it’s not that daunting.”

Donovan’s first coaching win came in an empty stadium when the Loyal won 2-1 at Tacoma on March 11, right before the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports around the world.

“It was strange. Very strange,” Donovan said. “It was an interesting experience. It was weird because usually when you play without fans, it’s a preseason game or one that has no meaning. You walk out of the tunnel and it was bizarre. You just have to adapt.”

Donovan is eager to find out what his team will look like on the pitch after the long layoff followed by a gradual resumption in training. The Loyal will wear alternate kit with “Black Lives Matter” on the back of the jerseys.

“I think eager is a massive understatement,” Donovan said. “This has been a long haul for everyone. We do keep it in perspective, because it could be a lot worse. But this is what we do for a living and it makes us happy and subsequently it makes other people happy. We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time and our guys are really excited.”

San Diego is 1-1-0.

“That’s great, but my focus is more on the process,” Donovan said. This is a long-term project for me and the club. I don’t want to get too caught up in early results. We’re trying to go on a journey where we get someplace meaningful. The results help, don’t get me wrong, and we want to win. I’m more focused on performance and the process.”

The Loyal tied Las Vegas 1-1 before a sold-out crowd of 6,100 at the University of San Diego in Donovan’s coaching debut on March 7.

“Our first match was not good. We did not play well. It was not what I wanted the team to look like. The second match, we showed glimpses and we were better. That was the frustrating part at that point. We wanted to keep progressing, and now in essence we have to start over. I feel we’ve made progress but I don’t know.”

After it became clear that the shutdown was going to drag on, Donovan said he told his players to treat it like the offseason. “If you run two to three times a week, do that. If you do nothing and let your body rest, do that.”

In mid-May, the team was able to start doing twice-a-week Zoom workouts, and then it was able to do some training with small groups and no contact.

The team resumed full-contact training last month. Donovan said teams normally need five weeks to get up to speed. “Only 3½ weeks is a big challenge. It’s also a bit of an injury risk. We’re trying to prepare the guys so they’re ready to go. We’ll know more this weekend.”

The team has been following protocols such as wearing masks when not on the field and social distancing.

“We’re being smart about what we’re doing. The reality is, at some point in our league or somewhere, someone is going to get coronavirus. The goal is to make sure one person gets it, not 12. You have to make sure you’re giving yourself every possible opportunity to prevent spread. I guess we’ve done well. We’ve tested twice and everyone has been negative. The guys understand they can’t mitigate all the risks but you do the best you can.”

Nashville SC and FC Dallas have withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament due to a number of positive coronavirus tests.

“In some ways, that’s all you need to say: ‘Listen, if a few guys get it, that’s one thing, but if 10 to 12 guys get it, we probably don’t get to play this year and that’s on you,’ “ Donovan said.

On Friday, the Loyal announced it has partnered with the Midway Sports and Entertainment District, one of four developers submitting proposals for the San Diego sports arena site. The plan includes a modular stadium that would seat 12,000 to 15,000 and cost about $15 million to $20 million. It would be used for seven to 10 years while the Loyal planned a permanent stadium.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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