Donovan ready to help bring the Sockers their first MASL championship

by Michael Lewis

During an unparalleled career in Major League Soccer, Landon Donovan did it all and then some.

He won a record six MLS Cups, two Supporters Shields and a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. And we're not going to talk about all of the individual accolades and his outstanding international career.

Now, the 37-year-old midfielder has an opportunity to add yet another championship to his title collection: the Ron Newman Cup as the Major Arena Soccer League's best team.

The best MASL regular-season team was the Sockers, whom Donovan joined in January. He liked the Sockers’ chances of wearing the crown. The Sockers secured four consecutive PASL championships before joining the MASL for the 2014-15 season.

The Sockers embark on what they hope will be a successful journey to the top of the MASL mountain in the Pacific Division finals against the Tacoma Stars this weekend. They visit Tacoma for the first game on Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET and host the side on Saturday at 10:05 p.m. ET. If a third game is needed to decide the series, it will be played as a mini-game immediately after Saturday's encounter.

Donovan hasn't just trained and played the game; he has studied other teams in the league.

"Having watched quite a few games now, I think are a probably a couple of teams with players as talented as Kraig Chiles, or as talented as Brandon Escoto or as talented as Leonardo,” he said. “Where I think we're better is in two areas."

That would be on defense and depth.

He rattled off some key names on the San Diego backline that have helped make life difficult for opposing attackers -- Luis "Pee Wee" Ortega, Cesar Cerda, Guerrero Pino and Raymundo Contreras, plus Juan Gonzalez and Ze Roberto.

"Defensively, we're very, very good," he said, adding that Boris Pardo was "an outstanding goalkeeper."

"So, it's difficult to score against us, particularly in the run of play," Donovan added.

The other piece that sets the Sockers apart from their foes? Team depth.

"Every week that I've been there, there are three or four guys who don't travel or don't dress that could start on a lot of other teams in this league," he said. "So, when you've got that ability, particularly this coming weekend to mix and match lines based on match-ups and not worrying to having to ride your horses all the time, I think that makes a big difference.

"We've seen it in games, a lot of games, particularly in the last month. We've been down a couple of times early in games, but over the course of 60 minutes we just wear teams down because you get no rest. There's no player who comes on and where you say, 'OK, I can take a breather against that guy.' That doesn't happen when you play against the San Diego Sockers. We're relentless and line after line after line comes on. And it's hard to play against then. That, I think sets us apart from the other teams."

Given his vast playoff experience and success, Donovan has learned quite early in his career on what it takes to preserve during a postseason run. Saying that, he doesn't plan on making a speech to his teammates but will talk when it is appropriate.

"There are a lot of players here fortunately that do have playoff experience and in some cases championship experiences and who have won championships, including our coach and owner," he said. "So, there are little things that I can help with. I think our team is pretty aware that if we play as well as we can play and limit our mistakes and our errors, then we have as a good a chance of winning the thing as anybody. So, now it's about making sure we do that. And executing.

"There may be moments where guys are a little tense or maybe overplaying and, in those moments, if I see that I certainly will be able to help. The reality is that if we don't do anything different, we have a great chance of winning the championship. So, you want to be careful not to overwhelm people and in the right moments if there's something important to be said, then I certainly will be the first to say it."

You look at the Sockers' imposing 23-1 regular-season mark and you might wonder if they can continue their head-spinning surge and results over the next several weeks. For the record, their lone loss occurred on Dec. 22, when they dropped a 5-4 home decision to the Stars. That was their third game of the season.

Donovan cited several close encounters over the final weeks of the regular season that kept the players' blood flowing and in competitive mode for the postseason.

"Fortunately, we had a few close calls over the past three or four weeks," he said. "We also played two teams a few weeks who were fighting for their playoff lives in Tacoma and Ontario. So, we got a taste of what that's going to look like. I would be worried had we played our last three games against Turlock and had come in to this game not having had a taste of what's that about, what playoff soccer is about.

“Having played in a few games like that over the past few weeks has prepared us, and we've also been down and maybe should have lost one or two of those games. It made us realize we're not invincible. So, when you go that many games in a row without losing, sometimes you get a feeling of invincibility. But we had our mortality in front of our eyes a few times in the last few weeks and we had to respond. So that were really, really good experiences for us. That leaves us to be ready starting on Friday."

Donovan made his return to pro soccer, signing with the Sockers on Jan. 23 In eight appearances -- all wins, by the way -- he has totaled five goals and 11 assists. That comes out to two points a game, which is damn good for a 37-year-old midfielder learning to play the arena game.

During his outdoor career, Donovan was the man to go to for club and country on many occasions.

With the Sockers, he has enjoyed being essentially one of the boys on the field. When you have players such as Chiles (35 goals, 14 assists), Escoto (32 goals, 23 assists) and Leonardo (15 goals, 25 assists), San Diego can share the wealth and the heroics.

"Candidly, it's one of the most enjoyable parts because I've been there and done that," Donovan said. "I've sort of been that player at different times in my career. And it's really fun to really play without that pressure and just try to augment what already was the best team in the league. So, that's been really enjoyable to me to not feel obligated to always been the one to making the play or always having to be the sole leader on the team. or having to pull off an extraordinary play. I can just support and augment and use my experiences when talking to the guys playing to try to help. I wanted to make sure I contributed on the field, of course. And I want to make sure I'm contributing off the field. I think I have achieved both of those until now. But the reason for bringing me here was to help winning a championship. I want to deliver on that, too."

In the early going, Donovan admitted his learning curve was great. After all, while he played some indoor soccer when he was younger, his entire pro career until he retired after performing for Leon in Mexico in 2018, was spent in the great outdoors.

"The learning has accelerated over the last few weeks," he said. "The first few weeks was really difficult because there's a different way to defend, there's a different way to attack. There are significant rule differences. There are all sorts of nuances when it comes to going in and out of the ... onto and off the field. So, all of that took me a few weeks to begin to understand it but over the last two, three weeks, I feel I am really understanding how to be an indoor player and how to be effective. That's been really enjoyable because now I can appreciate and enjoy the games even more without worrying about where this bounce is going to go and what if I don't get off the field at the right time. All those things are becoming second nature. I can enjoy the actual soccer part."

Now that's some scary stuff from such a talented player as Donovan.

While it outdoor and arena use the word soccer and a soccer ball, they are two entirely different sports. Outdoor soccer is a marathon, where you have to keep something in your tank for the latter stages of a game. In the indoor game, a player can empty his tank because he knows that he will get some rest.

"That's exactly right," Donovan said. "In my outdoor career, there's certainly an idea knowing how to pace yourself to make sure that you still have energy in the 90th minute. You still might play at 85 or 90 percent of your energy the entire game to make sure you get through 90 minutes. In the indoor game, you can go 100 percent on every shift knowing that you're going to recover in the next minute and get back out and be able to do again."

His arena experience has been only eight games to date, but so far so very, very good for Donovan.

"I came in with no expectation and so by every measure and every way it has exceeded my expectations," he said of his experience. "The enjoyment, the fans, the level of play, the competitiveness and the competition, all of that has thoroughly exceeded any expectation that I might have had. I just think everything about it has been fantastic."

As for returning for the 2019-20 season, Donovan hasn't made a decision just yet. The Sockers' success would be a lure. But remember, this is Landon Donovan, who has a few off-the-field projects in the works.

"Certainly, I am open to it," he said. "The experience this year has made me want to do it again. I've got a couple of other things that may be happening which would force me to make a decision one way or another on that. If I didn't have anything else going on, I would say yes, absolutely. So, we'll see what happens with those. And if neither comes to fruition, then I think it’s a definite yes. As it stands now, I will have to make a decision at some point, assuming the Sockers want me back. But I have certainly enjoyed every minute and if I have the opportunity to do it again and it makes sense for everyone. I would love to do it again."

But first things first. Donovan wants to bring an MASL championship to San Diego.