Landon Donovan says "it is an immense source of pride" to be able to coach Collin Martin, the victim of an alleged homophobic slur during San Diego Loyal's match against Phoenix Rising on Wednesday.
Donovan and Martin led San Diego in walking off the pitch in protest over the alleged incident just after half time, causing the team to forfeit the match and end their chances of reaching the playoffs.
The alleged abuse was directed at midfielder Martin after he was issued a red card at the end of the first half, with the Loyal leading 3-1 in the second-tier USL Championship. The red card was subsequently rescinded.
Martin came out as gay in June 2018 while with Minnesota United. Donovan, the former captain of the US Men's National Team, praised Martin and the rest of his team for choosing to walk off, something that is regularly spoken about in soccer when players are confronted with abuse, but rarely carried out.
"I'm not a gay man, so I can't understand what he has been through in his life and it's really easy for people like me, who are privileged, straight, White males to have an opinion on any of this, but none of us will ever know what it's like for him and I just give him so much credit," Donovan told CNN's Patrick Snell.
"I am so impressed by him as a human being, first to have the courage to come out in a very macho sport, second of all to have the level of security he has as a human being and an individual and then just the way he handles himself on a day-to-day basis.
"It is an immense source of pride for me to be able to lead a young man like that."
'Really tough for our team'
Phoenix midfielder Junior Flemmings later wrote on Twitter that he had been the player accused of using the slur but called the allegations "false."
Wednesday's incident comes after Loyal forfeited a match against LA Galaxy II last week after an alleged racial slur was aimed at another San Diego player. The Galaxy and the player accused of making the comment "mutually agreed to part ways," according to a statement from the club.
Donovan says the days that followed last week's incident were "really tough for our team" and when another of his players was faced with alleged abuse, this time homophobic, he "couldn't take it anymore."
"I look these guys in the eye every day, spend six hours a day with them and to see the pain they go through was really, really, hurtful," he says. "So we just decided that we have to take a stand, we can't be okay with this behavior."
Donovan admitted that the adrenaline and emotions "in the heat of battle" while beating one of the best teams in the league meant his players wanted to continue playing, but realized his team's stance was bigger than sport.
"I reminded them after the match last week, our biggest regret was that in the moment that one of our players was racially abused, we didn't say anything until after the match, we didn't stop the match," Donovan explains.
"So I said: 'Guys, it's your decision. You can play, but I just want to remind you we're being pretty hypocritical if we're saying that we will speak and we will act and then all of a sudden it happens again and we don't do anything, we're being pretty hypocritical.
"'Even though we're winning the game, even though our chance at making the playoffs is on the line, we are being hypocritical.' To their immense credit, they said: 'The player who said it needs to be off the field, either through a red card or through a substitution.'"
Donovan says he asked the referee and opposition head coach if they were going to remove Flemmings from the pitch. Both of them refused.
"To our guys' credit, they said: 'Fine, then we're not going to play.'"
'A fantastic young man'
Footage emerged after the match of a conversation between Donovan, the officials and Phoenix Rising head coach Rick Schantz having a discussion about the incident.
At the start of half time of the Phoenix Rising FC match with San Diego Loyal SC, I was heard on video asking San Diego's head coach Landon Donovan how long he has been part of soccer," Schantz said in a statement.
"My question was in reference to Donovan's behavior on the field with the referee, and in no way was I excusing any alleged homophobic behavior from my players."
In a statement, Phoenix said both Schantz and Flemmings are both taking "administrative leave." An investigation by Phoenix and the USL in underway. Schantz is on leave unrelated to the investigation, the statement said.
"I can understand in the heat of the battle, he [Schantz] doesn't exactly know what happened," Donovan says. "He obviously wants to protect his player and that's fair. The part that bothered me is that at one point he says: 'This is just part of the game, they're competing and these kind of words are part of the game.'
"I didn't agree with that, I don't agree with that."
Donovan also encouraged Flemmings to own up to the alleged homophobic abuse, though Phoenix said Flemmings "vehemently denied" using the slur.
Flemmings said he had been "mauled and ridiculed online with no opportunity to defend myself" and said he stood "in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ movement."
"At no point did I say a homophobic slur towards Collin Martin. I do not know Collin personally, but I respect all of my opponents equally, Collin included," he wrote on Twitter.
"We all make mistakes," Donovan said. "I've played probably close to 1,000 soccer games in my career and sometimes you say things you're not proud of or things that you regret and I can understand that in the heat of the moment, I don't condone it and I don't believe it's acceptable, but we all make mistakes," he says.
"So my strong advice would be that people will forgive you, but you've got to be honest and forthcoming."
Donovan praised Martin for how he handled the situation, but admitted the player he feels some guilt for how San Diego's season ended.
"He's a fantastic young man, he's really intelligent, he's actually quite great for our locker room because he is very open about his sexuality, he makes jokes about it sometimes," Donovan says.
"He makes it very easy on all the guys in what could be an otherwise uncomfortable situation, but he's very secure in who he is.
"It was heartbreaking for me because after the match, not only did he feel bad because of what was said to him, not only did he feel bad because their coach reacted that way, but he also felt bad that our season was over.
"That was our last game of the sesason, we needed to win to make the playoffs and by walking off the field our season was over. So there was a level of guilt also, so imagine all the emotions he went through."