Oct 20, 2023 - Sports

San Diego Loyal chases USL championship in its final season

A soccer player out of focus stands on the field facing a crowd of fans in a stadium.

San Diego Loyal player faces the crowd at the team's last regular season home game. Photo: San Diego Loyal SC

The San Diego Loyal SC will host a sold-out playoff match Sunday at Torero Stadium for what could be the team's last game as it will fold after this season.

Why it matters: Soccer has been part of the fabric of San Diego for decades. The San Diego Loyal has helped build momentum over the last four years and provided a blueprint for how to grow a successful soccer club with a loyal fan base.

Catch up quick: The Loyal joined the USL Championship (the U.S. men's second division professional soccer league) in 2019 with former U.S. national team star Landon Donovan and Warren Smith as co-founders and Andrew Vassiliadis as the club's primary owner.

  • It wasn't planned, but the team debuted at a time when the community was looking for something that could bring them together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What they're saying: When executives from other USL clubs have asked Vassiliadis how The Loyal grew its fanbase, his reply is simple.

  • "I didn't do anything except open the door," he said.
  • "San Diego understands the sport, we're a border town, we have a community that plays soccer and so a lot of that stuff organically came to fruition once we allowed them to play."

State of play: The city's growing soccer scene drew the attention of the MLS, which in May announced an expansion club in San Diego.

Between the lines: Despite the finality of this season, Vassiliadis is "cautiously optimistic" about the team's chance to go out on top.

  • "There's something to play for," he said.

What's happening: The Loyal's second home playoff match in club history kicks off at 7pm Sunday against Phoenix Rising FC.

  • It will broadcast locally in English on The CW San Diego, stream nationally on ESPN+ and air on Sirius XM FC (Channel 157).

Context: The team is ranked 3rd in the Western Conference with a real shot at winning the title.

  • This would be The Loyal's first and final USL Championship, but the team has reached the playoffs three of the last four years in the league. It's an impressive milestone for the club, as even some of the best, most experienced teams don't consecutively make the playoffs, Vassiliadis said.

Flashback: The Loyal made national news in 2020 while vying for a spot in postseason play when it walked off the field and forfeited two games after a racist and homophobic slurs were thrown at players.

  • "That's a watershed moment for the club in defining who we were," Vassiliadis said.

Another point of pride is the coaching staff's commitment to an aggressive, attacking style of play, Vassiliadis said.

The intrigue: Fans are embracing the death of the club without shedding the pride and competitive spirit of chasing the championship.

  • The always-rowdy supporter group The Locals raised a tifo (or banner) that read "Bury us with the cup" at the final regular season home game last weekend.

The bottom line: When it comes to legacy, Vassiliadis shared a fan's perspective who said something like: "I don't know if what's next is better or worse, but it'll never be this."

  • And "this," Vassiliadis told Axios, is unforgettable family memories, a team that proved it respects its players and a "proper f--king soccer club."
Fans in a soccer stadium hold up a giant banner that reads "Bury us with the cup" with a skeleton.
San Diego Loyal fans raise a tifo as the team chases a championship in its final season. Photo: San Diego Loyal FC

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect the club's name is San Diego Loyal SC, not FC.

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