When Landon Donovan set out to build a new soccer club from scratch as both a co-owner and a head coach, he didn't want to stick to old conventions.
San Diego Loyal SC, his USL expansion team that launched in June, was an opportunity to rethink what it took to make a club successful. He wanted to consider the people the game had often ignored – the players passed over because they came from places that weren't consider hotbeds of soccer talent, and coaches who didn't fit into the usual molds.
“I kept thinking to myself, I don’t want this club to be like every other club,” he tells Yahoo Sports in a sit-down interview. “I don't want our staff to be like every other staff, I don’t want our roster to look like every other roster. I want it to be different – and not just to be different but different in a way that matters and helps people.”
As the 37-year-old Donovan, arguably the greatest player to ever wear a U.S. men's national team jersey, prepared to take his first foray into coaching, he knew he needed to fill his staff with people who had more experience and more knowledge than him.
Carrie Taylor, who he first met while working on his bid for an MLS expansion team in San Diego, was an obvious fit.
How Carrie Taylor and Landon Donovan fit together
Taylor, 47, has coached both men and women at the college level, held titles ranging from head coach to technical director at the youth academy level, and spent her whole life around the sport. She also happens to be a woman, which at other clubs might've ruled her out of contention.
Taylor, who Donovan selected as his first assistant coach for San Diego Loyal, will be the first female coach in this current era of the USL, the second-division professional men's soccer league in the United States. She joins a staff that has women in other key roles, including the head athletic trainer, performance director and operations manager. Former U.S. women's national team star Shannon MacMillan serves as an advisor.
“I trust her implicitly and everything that happens right now I speak to her about,” Donovan says of Taylor. “She advises me on so many things and sees things that I wouldn’t think about. She helps in almost an assistant GM role where she's helping talk to players or agents or helping negotiate.”
While Loyal SC are blank canvas for now, Taylor and Donovan have been working together to determine how the team will play. When they can't watch games together, they've texted to discuss the tactics they like, and Taylor has taken scouting trips along the west coast to find players that will match the attacking style Donovan wants.
“We laugh because we see the game in very similar ways," she says. "It's good – I know the qualities he likes, so part of my role has been recruiting players and scouting.”
While Donovan has to hire one more assistant – likely a man with coaching experience who will run the team's training sessions – Taylor will continue to have a big role within the squad. A native of Flint, Michigan, Taylor has been doing video analysis and helping Loyal SC profile opponents. In some training sessions, each coach on staff may take a line of the field, Donovan says, and she’ll work with players directly.
Challenges Taylor has overcome as a woman coaching men
While Taylor won't be the first woman historically to be an assistant coach in the men's second division in the United States, there are no women coaching in USL and what she's embarking on is extremely rare. She knows it will turn some heads, and some people may not have given her a chance.
But she has dealt with her share of doubters and chauvinists over her career – they never stopped her before, and they won't now either.
She helped launch the men's team at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio and became the team's first head coach in 2005. If a woman coaching a men's team is uncommon these days, it was even more jarring back then, before women like Becky Hammon and Kathryn Smith were breaking barriers in the NBA and the NFL, respectively.
“I'm going to have to build trust with those players right away,” Taylor says of the San Diego Loyal locker room. “With my men's college team, as soon as I proved to them once that I knew what I was talking about, the male-female issue was done with my players.
“I remember games where I was being heckled and my guys would be like, ‘Who said that? What's going on?’ They stuck up for me.”
Sweeping generalizations about what it’s like coaching men vs. women don't apply, she adds.
“The sport is the same,” she says. “The rules are the same, the tactics are the same, the techniques are the same. Every person is different.”
Taylor has had to forge her own path throughout her soccer career because the opportunities simply weren't always there for women.
Growing up, she remembers men's soccer more than anything. She went to games at the 1994 men's World Cup. She remembers watching the first-ever MLS game, which was played in San Jose in 1996.
At the University of Michigan, she was part of a group of students pushing for women's soccer to be made a varsity sport, and she delayed her graduation so she could play on that first team once the program launched. In college, when two of her coaches were former USWNT players who played in the first Women's World Cup in 1991, that was the first time any of her coaches had been women.
To be sure, Taylor's appointment is about more than the fact that she's a woman. She's clearly qualified for the job – she holds an “A” coaching license from U.S. Soccer, which Donovan does not yet. But the fact that she is a woman does still matter, especially when a small percentage of U.S. Soccer's “A” license-holders are women.
In speaking to Yahoo Sports, Donovan gets visibly emotional when his children come up in the conversation. He has two boys and his youngest, a girl named Raven, was born earlier this year. His kids inspired him to be a coach in many ways, he says – after all, parents are coaching their kids through life every day – but Donovan also couldn't help but think about the kind of world he wants his daughter to live in.
“You want to set an example for your kids that’s real,” he says. “A lot of people talk it but when my daughter's old enough and figures this all out, she'll say ‘You hired a female assistant? That's really cool.’ That means something.”
Donovan has been seeking the advice of various coaches he's worked with over the years, including the likes of former USMNT boss and MLS champion Bruce Arena. When asked if any female coaches, like Jill Ellis or Laura Harvey, have been contacted to mentor Donovan or Taylor, he says that hasn't happened but he likes the idea and will mention it to Taylor. But after a pause, he has another thought.
“What I'm excited about for Carrie is for her to be that person that other coaches and women coaches can come to because there's so much power in that,” Donovan says. “It's so cool.”
San Diego Loyal season fast approaching
First things first, though. The debut season for Loyal SC begins March 2020 and Taylor is focused on the task at hand.
She didn't hesitate to accept the assistant coach job, despite the pressure she knew that would come with it, because like any competitive A-type, she loves a challenge. The job isn't going to be easy or comfortable, but that's exactly why it appealed to her.
It's not that she doesn't understand the larger impact her role could have, but ultimately this is a job like the ones she's had before where she had to change people's minds. It all starts with putting in the work.
“If I change someone's mind – if a male coach or athletic director or GM sees me on the sideline and says, ‘Huh, if Landon is willing to give that opportunity, maybe we should as well’ – that's great,” she says. “I hope it changes people's minds but I can't let that be my focus. I have a job to do, and my focus has to be supporting the team.”
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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