Why do we care so deeply about sports? Why endure such suffering simply to test our limits? Why risk disappointment and defeat? Why do people support a club? Why follow a team, and invest so much financial and emotional capital into the exploits of others?
Is it to win? To celebrate championships and hang banners? If so, then unless you’ve attached yourself to one of a select few teams from places like Munich or Foxborough, you’re going to spend the vast majority of your life deeply disappointed. Most seasons don’t end in titles.
Or is there something more?
On Wednesday night in San Diego, a second-division soccer team and its famous first-year manager bet big that there is.
“I think people want authenticity,” Landon Donovan told Sports Illustrated. “Everybody’s trying to get their dollar and trying to sell them something, sell them a ticket and sell them a scarf. But they want something that’s real in their life and something they can believe in.”
The USL Championship expansion team named itself San Diego Loyal because, as club co-founder and president Warren Smith said, that’s what prospective fans—still stung by the Chargers’ departure—continually asked from the organization as it was being built. Just be loyal.
“It’s also a pledge,” Smith said.
The indefatigable Donovan and his colleagues followed that ethos as much as any pro sports team during a season interrupted by the pandemic, forging community ties while demonstrating a commitment to diversity by hiring Carrie Taylor, who before her departure was the only female coach at an American men’s pro club.
Then the stiffer tests of Loyal’s resolve began.
Last week, midfielder after Elijah Martin was racially abused during a game against LA Galaxy II. Donovan said that had he realized what had occurred before the match concluded, he’d have pulled his team from the field. Nevertheless, the club released a statement announcing its intention to forfeit the point earned in the 1-1 draw. Owner Andrew Vassiliadis said, “We don’t even want to recognize being a part of a match where these types of actions take place.”
It was a noteworthy gesture but lacked in significant substance—it’s not up to a given team which points they keep or concede. The tie remained on San Diego’s record heading into Wednesday’s regular season finale against Phoenix Rising, one of the USL Championship’s top teams. With a win, Loyal might remain in the hunt for a playoff berth. It was on a 3-0-1 run.
Smith had seen this sort of inaugural season surge before. One of the co-founders of Sacramento Republic, Smith saw his former team capture a city’s imagination, find its form and then win a championship in 2014, its first season on the field. He was having feelings of déjà vu, even though Loyal would need some help to reach the postseason.
“Nothing could be more valuable than keeping our integrity and doing what we say. We didn’t talk about it, but we knew the math was stacked against us, and we recognize the league hadn’t made a decision on the [first forfeiture request]. But from our standing, we walked away from [the point],” Smith told Sports Illustrated. “I wanted nothing more than to let people know how good this team is, and there are numerous times where I had the exact same feeling I had in Sacramento about the team’s development and how things were finally starting to go our way. I really believe that Landon’s culture building on the team, and then the culture of the organization, was so aligned that there were numerous times where I thought this could go all the way.”
A potential run was on their mind. But so was Martin. During the days following the game against LA, Vassiliadis, Smith, Donovan and other Loyal leadership had numerous discussions about how they handled the moment and how they’d move forward.
“We got to know each other a lot more and what we all stood for,” Smith said. “Andrew and I supported [Landon’s] position of wanting to walk off the field in the Elijah incident if he had known that. But we did have a lot of conversations. We’re always trying to do the right thing, and the right thing can be different for everybody. It was all the conversations about who we are as a club, what we stand for, what we’re ultimately trying to do here. We’re trying to build a community, bring people together and make them feel like they’re at home.”
Loyal wasn’t ready to just move on as if the Galaxy game hadn’t happened. There were signs around Torero Stadium on Wednesday reading “I will speak. I will act,” and the team approached Rising to see if they’d be willing to unfurl a banner during the 71st minute of the match—the same minute in which Martin was abused—reading, “We will speak. We will act.” Phoenix agreed.
“We went through a really hard incident last week in the LA match and we made a vow to ourselves, to our community, to our players, to the club, to USL, that we would not stand for bigotry, homophobic slurs, things that don’t belong in our game,” Donovan said on Loyal’s Twitter feed following the Phoenix match. “We don’t want to just talk about it. We actually want to do it and we wanted to send a message.”
Incredibly, they had their chance when Collin Martin, after being mistakenly red-carded by the referee, informed Donovan and the fourth official that he’d been called a homophobic slur by a Rising player toward the end of the first half. Martin, 25, is the only out male player in American pro team sports. Donovan said he was devastated, as the team was still so raw from the incident against LA. San Diego was beating Phoenix, 3-1, and at the time, Loyal was still in the playoff hunt. Donovan and his players couldn’t have known then that LA’s win over Orange County would knock them out later that night. Their season was on the line. Donovan would tell you that their values were as well.
It’s fascinating to watch how people behave under duress. Forcing events to taper to a manageable speed is often a hallmark of the very best athletes. They can process the frantic action around them in slow motion. In life, when the stakes and pulse rates rise, we don’t always say the right thing or make the best decision. In a way, we’re not the same people on those occasions. Think of all the times you conjured the ideal response, retort or strategy long after the decisive moment had passed. It’s hard to be at your best precisely when you need to be, and to see the big picture when the pressure’s on.
Donovan and his players lived that on Wednesday. They had just a few minutes to make a defining decision, to determine what their club was about, who it was for and what that name really meant. The coaches and players met in their makeshift locker room, and Martin was photographed with his head in his hands. He said later that it was the first time he’d been personally insulted over his sexual orientation during his eight-year pro career. Smith and Vassiliadis made their way down from where they had been watching.
“I’m the coach, so they’re looking for guidance and reaction in that moment,” Donovan said. “But ultimately, I wanted to make sure it was their decision whatever they decided to do. I told them I thought it would be hypocritical if we didn’t do something, or at least if the referee and the other team didn’t do something.”
Loyal asked that the player accused of abusing Martin, midfielder Junior Flemmings, be removed from the match by either the referee or Phoenix coach Rick Schantz. Both refused. So San Diego’s players took the field, took a knee, and walked off into their offseason. The two-goal lead became a forfeit.
“It was the culmination of having an owner from day one say that he supports us and he believes in values that are more than just winning soccer games,” said Donovan, who’s also a minority investor in the club. “Personally, I felt totally empowered, because I feel that I’m able to do whatever I believe is right because of past success, my financial situation, etc., I feel like I’m willing to take that risk. But our players, I think, feel that because they know they have an organization and a club and a president and an owner who will stand by them when they believe in something that’s right.”
The decision and Donovan’s sideline confrontation with Schantz, who responded to the accusation against his player with apathy, went viral. It trended and resonated. The subject of on-field abuse, whether from fans or opposing players, has been front and center for years in soccer. There’s been talk about whether a team might make the self-sacrificing call that Loyal did Wednesday night. Donovan and his players did it.
“We traded the playoffs to keep our integrity,” Smith said.
“I knew we were going to come together like we’ve come together the past couple weeks through crazy circumstances. I knew they were going to have my back and i knew this was real,” Martin said in a video statement. “I commend [Donovan’s] leadership for sticking up for me and telling the team what was right and giving them the option to do what was right, because ultimately, then the guys were able to make the decision and they stood up for me. I was really kind of the only one that wanted to go back out there, because I felt so bad about it all, and they had my back the whole time. They’re like, ‘No, we’re not going back out there. This is ridiculous. This is where we make our stand. This isn’t right.’”
Donovan wanted to use the incident and his platform to speak about the values he expects his club to embody. The story has struck a chord—Donovan and Martin were on Good Morning America on Friday—and a big part of the reason is the apparent lack of cynicism or opportunism in Loyal’s actions. They’re walking the walk, and trying to be everything we wish a sports team could be.
“It has nothing to do what we gain publicly or externally,” Donovan said of any potential silver lining to Wednesday’s forfeit. "What we gain is that we stood up for our teammate and what we believe is right in the world. Long term, when you’re building a team and club and a culture, showing that you actually care about people in a real away more than any one soccer game you’re going to win, there’s no question. I’m not even worried about anything we might lose.
“Someone said to me, 'Well now everybody knows that all you have to do is insult one of their players and they’ll walk off the field and you’ll have the points.' Is that all you care about, the points? Great, you can have the points. We don’t care about the points. It’s just a game. That’s not how we live our life. If all you care about is the result and what happens in the standings, then that’s fine. But that’s not who we are as a club.”
The standings will show that San Diego Loyal finished its inaugural season 6-5-5, three points behind LA and the second playoff spot in Group B, pending the Galaxy’s result this weekend. Donovan’s coaching resume now begins with the same record. It’s quite possible, however, that Donovan’s finest moment as a manager, and perhaps in his glittering career, came in a defeat. Wednesday will be remembered.
The USL is investigating the incident and issued a statement reaffirming that “foul and abusive language of any type has absolutely no place in our society and will not be tolerated in USL matches.” On Thursday it announced a partnership with The Institute for Sport and Social Justice that will make training and lectures available to USL players and staff. It also will work with owners and the USL Players Association to implement stricter sanctions against offenders. Late Thursday night, Phoenix Rising announced that both Schantz and Flemmings have been put on administrative leave.
“Phoenix Rising FC is actively anti-homophobia and anti-racist and has a zero-tolerance policy for actions which run contrary to these core values,” it said.
Flemmings has issued a statement denying the accusation and claiming he "stand[s] in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ movement."
Phoenix will be among the favorites in the 16-team field that will vie for the country’s second-tier title. San Diego’s season is over, leaving it as winners of something the club believes is far more valuable.
“When you’re starting a club, it’s easy to say, ‘We want to be this and that and that.’ But when the rubber hits the road is when your true colors come out, and as John Wooden always said, ‘Sports reveal character. They don’t build it,’” Donovan said. “We found out in the last week what we are about as a club, and in the hard moments, in my opinion, we came through very positively. And I’m really proud of the organization and the club and Warren and Andrew for being willing to take that stand, because let’s be honest: A lot of owners might have said, ‘No guys, go back out on the field, finish the game and we’ll talk about it after.’"
Donovan continued, “I think we’re living in a time where people want something that’s real in their life and something that’s meaningful, and I think it really resonates that a group of young athletes who have all of their competitive goals for the year at stake made a decision that transcends that. They were O.K. with forfeiting everything they’ve worked 25-30 years to achieve because they believed in something greater and wanted to stand up for their teammate.”