16 Oct ‘Bury Us With The Cup’: San Diego Loyal eye a first-ever championship in their bittersweet final days
SAN DIEGO — Shifting between pensive sadness and deep gratitude, San Diego Loyal chairman Andrew Vassiliadis is about to watch his team take part in a regular-season home game for the very last time.
“There’ll be time to mourn, but this should still be a celebration,” said an emotional Vassiliadis to ESPN on an idyllic October afternoon at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium.
“We still have something to play for.”
Three years after debuting in the USL Championship (the de facto men’s second division in a closed American professional soccer pyramid), the Loyal, co-founded by U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan, officially announced in August that this would be their final season of existence.
A message from San Diego Loyal SC Chairman, Andrew Vassiliadis. pic.twitter.com/9Xkf1mEijX
— San Diego Loyal (@SanDiegoLoyal) August 24, 2023
Due to the looming threat of a San Diego-based MLS franchise that will kick off in 2025, among a handful of other factors, the Loyal were forced to reconsider their position, eventually leading to the difficult decision to shut their doors once their 2023 run is over.
While doing so isn’t irregular in an American soccer world that has an ever-expanding number of tombstones in the lower league graveyard, San Diego’s demise is an unexpected one for an organization that is seen as one of the brightest spots in the second division.
Far from a typical soccer team, the Loyal rapidly gained national attention and praise in their 2020 debut season after standing up for their morals and forfeiting two matches in which racial and anti-gay slurs were thrown at them. Propelled by the unity that was created within the roster, as well as promising attendance numbers and investment in a larger-than-average staff, the club then bounced back with three consecutive playoff appearances after strong regular-season performances.
On paper, they are one of the most well-run and capable teams in the American lower league scene, and once the USL Championship playoffs begin this month, they’ll be among the favorites in the race towards a title.
And yet, that all has to come to an end.
Note: Some of the quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
“Football is more than the top league or national team”
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that running a lower league soccer team in the U.S. is challenging.
As opposed to the upward growth that is made available to open structures in most soccer nations that allow promotion and relegation, U.S. lower league teams are stuck in their positions and unable to enter the top flight MLS on merit. Spots in that first division table are bought, not earned, with expansion fees now ballooning well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, with San Diego paying $500 million.
While it’s easy to point to MLS and other high-profile examples (Lionel Messi in the league, the upcoming U.S.-Mexico-Canada World Cup in 2026 and the influence of the men’s and women’s national teams) as exciting boosts to the game in the country, the reality is that stability has been out of reach for those below who don’t have the same amount of attention or resources.
In the USL Championship alone in the last 10 years — and not including other professional men’s leagues like USL League One, NISA or the now defunct NASL (2011-2017) — the competition has ebbed and flowed through a wide number of participants that has left 10 of them vanishing since 2013.
Although the USL Championship should be given plenty of credit for its own advancements and eventual independence from MLS that have placed the second division on a much stronger solid ground, roadblocks still remain.
“The best football countries in the world have a whole pyramid that is robust and I think there’s a responsibility to take care of the whole pyramid,” Loyal head coach Nate Miller said.
“I think a lot of times, I think people that have the money and the power want to keep all of it … unfortunately I’m not in a position to make changes, but I think that for the health of football in our country, a lot has to happen, to change — football is more than the top league or the national team.”
Vassiliadis knew it would be a gamble to take a chance with the Loyal in the second division and has reportedly “lost north of $20 million” over the last few years according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, but took the risk with the hopes of getting a return on that investment down the line.
Later when MLS announced the expansion of a San Diego franchise in May 2023, without any partnership with the Loyal, Vassiliadis and his staff maintained confidence that the two men’s clubs could coexist in the region.
“MLS [in San Diego] is starting in 2025,” the club’s chairman said. “So there was a question of do you play in 2024? And emotionally I was answering that question early on: We’re doing it, you know, why not?”
Coupled with a need to find a more favorable lease outside of the 6,000 capacity Torero Stadium, the team then began a thorough process of finding new sites within the region that could be home to training facilities, their academy and a possible venue of their own.
“When we started doing that and got to extensive work with [former president] Ricardo [Campos] and my team, I’m trying to figure out what was right,” said Vassiliadis. “[Then] it just became very, very hard to digest.”
After taking trips across the San Diego region, the problems emerged with finding an adequate venue. Later in August when the team announced it would fold, the USL Championship stated in a press release that “a viable near-and long-term stadium solution in the market did not materialize.”
“We talked to the league, we spent time here in the city talking to different places,” said Vassiliadis. “We are not the first franchise of any sport in San Diego that has had issues trying to find facilities. It’s been a problem for everyone.”
According to an ESPN source close to the situation, the club held talks with San Diego State University to play at Snapdragon Stadium — home of the university’s football program and the NWSL’s San Diego Wave — but the situation remained a complex one with financial forecasting/decision-making at play, not to mention the additional complication of MLS’ San Diego franchise moving into the SDSU venue in 2025.
Even if an ideal solution was found somewhere else within the region, the club chairman was well aware of the obstacles that MLS’ newcomers would bring with their own plans for an academy and training facility in the region.
“I was willing to continue to make that commitment if we were the only [professional men’s] team in town because I could see over time where those returns would come back,” said Vassiliadis.
“[But] when there’s another venture coming in town that is going to do all the things that you had planned on doing and has shown success doing them, they’re not starting from scratch. Right To Dream [a stakeholder in MLS’ San Diego franchise] is a real organization. So we would’ve had to start an academy and all those kinds of things that they’re going to be coming and bringing and doing.”
Despite ambitions of spearheading a potential $200 million project for the Loyal that would have been a public and private space for the team and community, Vassiliadis couldn’t ignore the hurdles ahead, as well as worries about possibly burdening his family with future investments.
All leading to the decision to make this the final season for the club.
“That was the gamble,” stated the chairman about helping start the team. “Am I upset that we didn’t finish it, of course, but the work that we did to build what we’ve done has been phenomenal.”
Losing a member of the soccer community
When Vassiliadis and his staff first began to lay foundations in 2019 for what they wanted to build, they were doing so when San Diegans still had a Chargers-sized hole in their hearts after the NFL team packed its bags and left for Los Angeles a few years earlier.
There was an earnestness from what the front office was attempting to do with branding and outreach to the soccer community, and before the team had even taken part in a single game, they had already won over a fan who quickly tattooed the crest on his arm.
“I think loyalty is one of the biggest things embraced in San Diego,” said Afmir Lopez, a supporter of San Diego Loyal. “You know, being kind of a military town, being kind of a punk rock town, kind of a hybrid blend.
“Having Loyal tattooed on me is something that I was proud to do then, and I’m proud to have now. I’m actually very happy to have that tattoo. I have no regrets and it’s a value that I will always continue to embrace.”
Those values and morals were then rapidly put into the national spotlight in their debut season when Donovan was still serving as manager (now only serving as executive vice president of soccer operations) and when Miller was his assistant.
Late into their first year and while aiming for a postseason invitation, the Loyal forfeited a 1-1 draw with LA Galaxy II in September 2020 after defender Elijah Martin dealt with a racist slur. In a statement released from the club that confirmed their forfeit, Vassiliadis said: “The Loyal in our name is symbolic of the diversity in our community and as a club we will not stand for this.”
Days later during a game in which they were up 3-1, the team then walked off the pitch and forfeited a match against Phoenix Rising, protesting an anti-gay slur that was used towards gay midfielder Collin Martin (no relation to Elijah).
“Our guys to their immense credit said, ‘We’re not going to stand for this,'” said Donovan in a social media post after the game. “They were very clear in that moment they were giving up all hopes of making the playoffs even though they were beating one of the best teams in the league handily.”
No matter the fact that forfeitures would lead to them not gaining enough points to qualify for the playoffs, the team still followed through with the decision and held true to their newly adopted “I will act, I will speak” motto.
“You just don’t see that happen in professional sports where they say, ‘This is unacceptable, I refuse to be a part of this,'” said Steve Brockhoff, president of The Locals, a supporter’s group for the Loyal. “That’s what I want to see, that’s exactly what I want out of a pro sports team. Take action and use your voice in a positive manner.”
With those protests as their platform, Loyal continued to make inroads with the San Diego community and later partnered with local foundations like the Chicano Federation of San Diego County and San Diego Pride. On the field, it also didn’t hurt to have one of the most formidable teams in the Western Conference that often played in front of a packed atmosphere.
For many soccer supporters in the region, the hope was that this could be a blueprint that could one day continue to grow through MLS.
Although MLS’ expansion team seems to have offered an olive branch through the hiring of former Loyal president Campos as the new executive vice president of club operations, the current reality is that the new MLS team doesn’t have a far-reaching association or connection to Loyal.
And with the arrival of that new team, as laid out earlier, it essentially cemented the end of their run.
“I feel like our community deserves better,” said Lopez, who needed to pause to collect himself. “Them [MLS] coming in the way they did, it was heartbreaking.”
Even for fans that are curious to see what the MLS team has to offer, there’s a realization that it might not be able to replicate what the Loyal have done in such a short amount of time.
“It’ll never be this moment in time that we have with San Diego Loyal, the relationships we built and the time we spent in Torrero [Stadium] together,” said Adriene Delgado, a member of the Chavos de Loyal supporter’s group. “Those will always be very fond memories that I hold onto and I feel like a lot of people feel the same way.”
Those memories extend to countless members of staff that’ll soon be out of a job. Regularly working diligently but quietly behind the scenes through projects and conversing with fans, front office members will also be lost in the coming months.
“Clubs are not just the brand, they’re people,” said Ivan Orozco, a media relations specialist for Loyal. “We created some great relationships within the club and the staff and the front office staff, my department, the players, the coaches, the training staff. It’s just been a great group of people who have been around and we built this culture and relationships. And for me, that’s the most difficult part, we’re not going to see these people.”
For some, that commitment to the team would be there regardless of employment or not.
“My connection to the club goes a lot deeper than just a job,” said Weston Breay, who works with fan engagement and as a liaison for supporters. “I would be a supporter of this club if I did not work here.”
“Bury Us With The Cup”
The funeral will have to wait, for now. In fact, back at the club’s final home game of the regular season in October, they looked more alive and animated than ever.
With Vassiliadis in the crowd — a week earlier he was shirtless and cheering with members of The Locals and Chavos de Loyal — San Diego played as if there was no tomorrow, thrashing the Oakland Roots 4-2 in a sold-out game.
No matter the fact that the team was about to die, the scenes appeared more jubilant than ever before. Unafraid to confront the Loyal’s demise, supporters raised a tifo before the match that read “Bury Us With The Cup,” embracing the idea of death with the hopes of winning a first-ever title once the playoffs begin this month.
“It’s been beautiful,” said midfielder Alejandro Guido about the atmosphere. “I just saw all my family, all my friends, all these people that have built the club and how much hard work they put into it. These memories will last a lifetime.”
In a move that expanded the bittersweet celebration of the soon-to-be dead, supporters were allowed to enter the area behind the opposing goal during the second half of the match. With fans slamming sponsor boards and bouncing off each other, the party was so raucous that even the net began to slightly sway during the festivities.
All in the face of the club’s death.
“There’s a lot of work in social psychology showing that we imagine things differently than they actually are … death is a great example of that because we imagine something where people are alone and they’re terrified,” said Kurt Gray, a professor in psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina. “And yet when people actually experience it, they’re not fixated on death, they’re fixated on the last moments of living and on social connections especially.
“People’s identity is bound up with the team they support. They’re appreciating the beauty in those moments they have left.”
That support could take a different shape or form in the coming years. Although the club will cease to exist, fans will still be able to root for players and staff that will move elsewhere in the soccer world. For some of those figures, such as 18-year-old local talent Xavi Gnaulati, there’s gratitude for the club that helped him kick-start his career.
“It’s been huge,” said the teenage midfielder about the impact. “Ever since Loyal started, I had my eyes on it. I wanted to be on the team and ever since I’ve been here for three years, it’s just been an incredible and amazing experience. I’m just super grateful for everything that they’ve done for me.”
Weeks earlier in late September, Gnaulati paid that love back to the team with a movie-worthy performance that helped pave the path to San Diego’s undefeated streak before the playoffs. Initially down 2-1 in the final minutes of an away game against Monterey Bay, the Loyal were then saved by a 90th minute equalizer from Gnaulati, which marked his first-ever professional goal.
Then in the 93rd minute, he scored once again, handing the Loyal a dramatic 3-2 victory that kicked off their current six-game unbeaten run before a climactic finish in the upcoming postseason.
Looking ahead to the USL Championship playoffs, San Diego now have a chance to go out swinging in what could be one of the most compelling stories in American soccer. Seeking a first-ever title in its last-ever season, it has an opportunity to decide the fate of its last season, one in which it could be buried with the Cup.
“We don’t know when we’re going to die, but if you really live your life like you’re going to die, you probably live it differently,” Miller said. “We know this club is dying, this is it, so how would you do things differently when you know this is maybe your last training session, maybe your last road trip, maybe your last time together?
“They know this is their opportunity to write this last chapter … we have the power to write the final story ourselves.”