San Diego Loyal SC was probably going to make the playoffs. The expansion USL Championship team was leading first-place Phoenix Rising FC, 3-1, in the 2nd half when they heard a member of the opposing team, Junior Flemmings, use a homophobic slur against midfielder Collin Martin.
Just one week prior, former LA Galaxy II player Omar Ontiveros used a racial slur against Loyal defenseman Elijah Martin, a Black man. The officials and opposing coach did nothing about it. The Loyal forfeited the match and sacrificed a standings point but they said they wished they would have left the pitch instead of continuing the match.
On Wednesday night the officials and opposing team also did nothing about it. In fact, Flemmings denies he used the slur but Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz can be heard on the TV broadcast justifying the action by saying "They're competing," to Loyal head coach Landon Donovan and the officiating crew.
Donovan spoke to his team see how they wanted to proceed and delivered the message to Loyal SC chairman Andrew Vassilaidis.
"Landon comes out and he's visibly upset, obviously, but the first thing he says to me is Andrew, they want to play. They're competitors, they want to go out there. Then he stops and he says ... but we were going to do something in the 71st minute."
The 71st minute was the time of the game when Ontiveros used the racial slur against Martin. The plan was to stop the match (Phoenix had already been made aware of this) and hold a banner that says "We Will Speak, We Will Act."
"Landon looked at me and said, How can I stand with that sign?" says Vassilaidis. "It's complete hypocrisy if we're not going to act when we hear something in this moment."
So Donovan, with his chairman's blessing, went back to the team.
"He said what he said about the sign and how he couldn't stand with it. It was Collin who first said, Then let's go," says Vassilaidis. "He was followed by another teammate, Tarek Morad, and then the rest of the group said we embrace you. We do the same."
At the time a win would have likely put the Loyal into the post-season and they knew it. They took a knee, turned, and walked off the pitch.
They chose to support their teammate and stand up to bigotry instead, just like they did a week ago. They stood up to racism. They stood up to homophobia.
And they are not going to stop.
"I don't think we're trying to create an atmosphere that's soft or about cancel culture," says Vassalaidis. "I don't want to see that player at the LA Galaxy II never play soccer again. How do we correct these issues? How do we get them involved so they can change the conversation so the next team that they're on, they can educate some kids about what's happening and what they should and shouldn't be doing."
The Loyal are going to continue their work to help rid their game of discrimination. They've already spoken to USL Championship President Jake Edwards about a new level of discipline for these kinds of incidents, something that will be pursued in the off-season.
The last two weeks have been impossibly difficult for this club. But, their actions have become larger than winning any game. What they did has made international headlines, generating an overwhelming amount of support.
"I'm not going to lie, I've cried a couple of times last night and a couple of times today just reading people's comments of solidarity," says Vassilaidis. "People who have nothing to do with soccer, nothing to do with San Diego just reaching out. That's incredible. The other thing that rubs me a little the wrong way is I keep getting the comments of, You're doing such an incredible thing. We're doing what's right. We're doing what you should be doing. And don't get me wrong, I don't want that to come out the wrong way, but all we're doing is what we should do. And I hope people understand that."
If more people understood that it would not be such an inspiring act. Hopefully in the near future refusing to play a game, even with the playoffs on the line, to show love for a fellow human is commonplace.
Or, better yet, let's get to the point that there's no reason to have to do it.