Landon Donovan was America’s first soccer star, as the southern California native helped usher in a new era for the sport in this country. Despite becoming an icon at the Quakes’ most hated rivals, many remember him breaking out as a star in San Jose. With the Quakes needing a new coach, maybe it’s time to take a look at the icon.

Despite starting off strong, Alex Covelo’s tenure as interim coach has soured with late game collapses in the last few weeks. It may be time for the Quakes to look at outside options for the role of head coach next season, so why not Landon Donovan?

It’s hard to put into words just how much Donovan meant to the soccer fans in America. He was the sport’s first real superstar in this country, who was able to find success both in Europe and America. Without Donovan, there likely wouldn’t be Pulisic or McKennie and his impact in the MLS helped shape the league to this day.

Since 2020, Donovan has attempted to hone his managerial skills in San Diego, where he has helped make the expansion side into one of the USL’s best. In his two seasons in the USL, Donovan has slowly become one of the most interesting coaching prospects in America. Depending on how Loyal’s season ends, he may look to make the jump to the MLS.

Photo: NBC San Diego

The Quakes clearly need a new coach and mindset to help move the team into the modern MLS. Donovan has shown that he can play attractive attacking soccer and may just be the coach the Quakes need now.

To really begin an analysis of the changes that Donovan may bring to the Quakes, a look at the formations he has used is necessary. Despite using a multitude of formations in his three seasons, he has constantly used one sort of lineup since May.

There were times in his tenure that Matías Almeyda would use three in the back, but, much like a lot of other choices by him, it failed. Simply put the team wasn’t prepared to play with three at the back, as the man marking system would pull players out of position constantly. Donovan has converted to a three at the back this season and, unlike Almeyda, has had success with it.

Donovan has used three at the back with a variety of different formations ahead of those three defenders. The most frequent ones have been: 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 3-1-4-2 or, the very unique, 3-4-1-2. 

Typically when a manager uses a three at the back formation, it’s to rest a team’s laurels on their defensive prowess, especially when the 3-5-2 is used. However, Donovan has created a potent attack when moving towards the 3-4-3. This type of formation allows the defense to remain strong and overload the wings with threats, but does take away some creativity in the midfield.

Photo: Antoine Tamagno/

It’s a clear departure from both the respective systems that both Almeyda and Covelo implemented. However, the Quakes may be prepared for this shift given the talent they have on the wings and defense.

Honestly, the team doesn’t have a proper third defender to play alongside Beason and Nathan in a  back three however, Judson or Remedi could fill in that role and help move the ball forward. While the team desperately needs a new right back, Marie’s ability to drive the ball forward could help in this system. Finally, the front three of Cowell, Ebobisse and Espinoza would benefit tremendously, as the three of them could be fully let free with constant support from the wing backs.

While it’s hard to gauge how Donovan’s formation could work in the MLS, there is enough success in the USL to at least propose this change. The Quakes do have the personnel to implement Donovan’s formation, albeit they still need some transfers. 

San Diego Loyal’s success this season in the USL can be attributed to an incredible offense with a stout defense. Donovan’s scheme has allowed for the offense to be free flowing with a defense that is tight and collapses on any threat. 

While the team doesn’t boast the league’s top scorer, those honors belong to the Oakland Roots, Loyal still has the USL’s best offense. Not only are they the league’s top scoring side, but Loyal are an efficient side with a conversion rate of 22%, second in the USL. 

One can see the way this offense works in any game that Loyal has played in the past few months. These highlights and games are, perhaps, the best way to imagine how Donovan’s tactics would work with the Quakes.

When the ball starts on the wing, be it the winger or wingback, has his striker and midfielders pack the box in anticipation of a cross or pass. This creates mismatches for the opposing defense, as the team now has to pay attention to the striker, as well as midfielders looking to clean up any shot. This sort of offense also demands that the winger on the opposite side mirror the play of the winger with the ball to clean up any missed cross or shot.

Despite the back three being the default formation for any manager who wants to have a strong defense, Donovan’s side is not amongst the truly elite defenses in the league. Loyal boast the 11th best defense, in terms of goals allowed, but are the 21st in terms of clean sheets. This could be attributed to the different keepers and partnerships Donovan has used this season, but it’s still a concern. 

Photo: San Diego Loyal

Again, when one looks at the highlights or games, Donovan has his defenders and midfield collapse into the box when the opponents threaten. However this can cause chaos, as all those players in the box cause players to lose assignments and obfuscate the keeper’s vision. 

Donovan has San Diego second in the USL with a good shot at making a run for the cup thanks to some innovative choices with his formation. This success can be seen both statistically and visually when taking a look at San Diego’s games. 

The difference between MLS and USL play is real and striking, so it really is difficult to imagine how his success in the lower league can translate to the top division. However, Donovan has his teams playing solid attacking soccer that could fit well with the Quakes’ roster. There is enough to give the icon a chance at the club and in the top division.

It’s clear that the Quakes desperately needed a change if they want to get anything from the talent they have on their roster. Perhaps the soccer icon who first made his name in San Jose can return to the club and lead them to a new era. Perhaps this is just a dream scenario reserved only for films, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.


Featured Image: NYT Magazine

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