In June of 2019 San Diego was awarded a USL Championship expansion team. The 15 months that followed were arguably the most tumultuous beginning of a franchise in professional sports history.
“This team dealt with more in one season than most teams will deal with in 10 years,” says Loyal chairman Andrew Vassiliadis.
First, they had to create an entire organization, from the players to the coaches to the name to the crest to the venue to the fan engagement and do it in just about six months. As it turns out that was the easy part.
“None of my coaching courses, nothing that anybody talked to me about before becoming a coach had anything to do with a pandemic, with having players racially abused, having homophobic slurs thrown at them, traveling to Las Vegas on a bus, getting off the bus and being told they had a positive (COVID-19) test and we had to get back on the bus and travel home,” says Loyal head coach Landon Donovan.
The Loyal would have made the playoffs had they not decided to sacrifice four standings points by forfeiting a pair of matches when opposing players used racial and homophobic slurs against members of their team without repercussions. Watching the two teams whose players initiated those verbal attacks playing in the post-season instead of the Loyal is tough.
But doing what’s right usually is.
“I’m extremely fortunate and our team is extremely fortunate to have this leadership. I think we absolutely did the right thing and we would do it 100 times more if that kept happening,” says Loyal captain Sal Zizzo.
“The results are great. How we played is great. Winning is great,” says Donovan. “But living to our values every day is what means most to me so I’m really proud to be a part of this. I cannot wait for next year. This will be the longest, most difficult off-season I’ve ever dealt with because I’m so excited for what’s next.”
And what, exactly, is next for the Loyal? According to Loyal president Warren Smith, that’s simple.
“We’re gonna be the best damn USL club in the league.”
At the end of the season the Loyal were one of the hottest teams in soccer, and everyone around the USL Championship knew this club was the one you wanted to avoid as long as possible.
“I don’t think you’ll find a USL team that wanted to face us if we had gotten into the playoffs,” says Zizzo, a Patrick Henry High School alum. “I think you guys have all seen examples of teams that get hot right before the playoffs, barely get in then run the table. We brought together some of the best talent in the league and I’m confident next season’s going to be our year.”
The question there is, can they keep that talent around?
Loyal SC was having serious trouble scoring goals before they landed former USD Torero All-American Miguel Berry on a loan from Columbus of Major League Soccer. Berry scored two goals and assisted on two others to ignite a dangerous attack.
In seven matches without Berry the Loyal scored four goals. In six and a half matches with him they scored 13 goals.
Keeping the loan portal open, especially with the contacts Donovan has in the sport, will make Loyal SC one of the most talented sides in soccer.
“The best way for that to continue happening is to do what happened this year,” says Donovan. “We brought Miguel Berry here on loan and he did well. Now he goes back to Columbus, they just had an injury to one of their strikers, and maybe he has a chance to play now. (Mater Dei Catholic High School alum) Alejandro Guido came here from LAFC and it was a great experience. So, as long as we keep making that a great experience teams are willing to look and say, Wow, our player got better because we sent him to San Diego. And that’s crucial.”
Of course, the down side of that is losing a talented player who’s helping you win, but that’s a trade the Loyal are more than happy to make.
“As much as I want us to succeed and I love this club I also want what’s best for the players so if Miguel Berry now gets to go have an MLS career, obviously I’d love him here, but I’m happy for him to do that and I want him to do that,” says Donovan.
Even the Loyal ownership is willing to give up a few points here and there if it helps a young player live his pro soccer dreams.
“I want them back but if they’re not back that means they did something right and they’re successful,” says Vassiliadis. “And we’re also more likely to get more loanees because we’re proving we’re preparing them for the next level.”
Plus, giving players the chance to play at their highest level is the right thing to do … and that is Loyal SC’s specialty.