San Diego Loyal SC – All You Need To Know About Our New Sister Club

Credit @SanDiegoLoyal

As we recorded the podcast yesterday, news broke of our link up with the American side San Diego Loyal SC.

They’re a team I’ve followed on Twitter for a while, courtesy of Landon Donovan and his involvement with the Jabara family and their investment in our club. However, I’m aware that some of you may be new to Loyal, so I wanted to put a little something together to give you a flavour of the club.

What’s The News?

First up, what is the big news around our link-up? I’ve used sister club in the title, which might conjure images of players going in either direction, but it’s not that at all. It feels a bit to me like when cities used to be twinned with others in Europe – we’re joining in an alliance with the team (I’m not sure if the Loyal is correct or not, so I’ll refrain from using it for now) which will “will see the two clubs collaborate on community initiatives, merchandise and content”. It’s an interesting idea; perhaps shirts will be sold on either side of the Atlantic, something like that?

“We are really excited to team up with San Diego Loyal SC and look forward to working closely with them as part of this new partnership,” Clive Nates said. “We have a great relationship with San Diego Loyal and San Diego Padres through Landon Donovan and Harvey Jabara, who are both well-respected members of the Lincoln City family. We would love to grow our international fanbase over in the USA and believe that working with San Diego Loyal will help us achieve this.”

That adds a little flavour to the news – this is a chance to grow our fanbase in North America. We know there are already followers over there – valued SW Patreon David Johnson is one US supporter who you might be aware of, whilst Yael, the Mexican Imp, is also perhaps the type of fan who forms the target demographic, as San Diego is on the US / Mexico border.

The big name attached to Loyal is Landon Donovan. Of course, supporters of a certain age will know him to be one of the most revered US football (soccer) players of all time, enjoying spells at Bayern Munich and Everton, as well as scoring for them in the World Cup. He’s been a strategic advisor since the Jabara family invested in the club, and he’s huge news across the Atlantic. I’m told he’s also a very reserved man, not one for hyperbole or ever seeking personal exposure, but instead a thinker who understands the game at a commercial level, as well as on the field.

“Lincoln City is a historic club deeply rooted in English football,” he said of the link-up. “This collaboration will serve as a launching pad for the clubs to work together in meaningful ways, on and off the field.” Very recently, Landon has stepped aside from his coaching role with the team and is now focusing on “all facets of SD Loyal soccer operations including Loyal Select, scouting, player development, building the first team roster, community involvement and business operations”.

The USL Championship

Before we answer who San Diego Loyal are, it’s important to fully understand the US soccer landscape (for purists, I’ll refer to it as football when talking about England, but it feels more natural to use soccer when discussing the US). The league you might have heard of is Major League Soccer, the big headline-grabbing competition where David Beckham and Wayne Rooney now earn a living. MLS is very much like NFL, NHL and the like – there’s no promotion or relegation, the same teams play each other every season, and the franchises are spread across the US and Canada. San Diego Loyal are not in this division.

The next division (bearing in mind there’s no promotion or relegation) is the USL Championship, which has been played since 2011 (so only as long as we’ve been out of the Football League and back in again). It is split into two conferences, Eastern and Western, and there are Imps’ links over there already – former City midfielder Anthony Pulis is the Head Coach of Miami FC. San Diego Loyal play in the Western Conference alongside teams such as Monterey Bay FC (with former Ipswich man Frank Yallop as Head Coach) and rivals Phoenix Rising FC.

In the USL Championship teams qualify for playoffs, but not in the way we do. They play 34 matches, and the league winner qualifies for the Conference semi-finals. The next six teams qualify for the playoffs, which is effectively a quarter-final. Three teams get to the semifinals and are joined by the league winner, and then it acts like a cup competition. A team must win their conference final, and they then face the other conference winner to determine the overall winner. Yep, that’s right; you can finish 31 points clear of a team and still have to beat them in a semifinal, which is exactly what happened to San Antonio FC this season. 

Pre-season begins in February, and league matches run from early march until October, with the playoffs taking place up to mid-November.

2022 USL Championship Map
Credit – https://sportleaguemaps.com/soccer/north-america/usl/

Who Are San Diego Loyal SC?

San Diego Loyal SC were awarded an expansion team in 2019, and they played their first game in March 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic. They have played three seasons and in the last two years, have qualified for the playoffs. This season, they finished second in the table, 14 points clear of Oakland Roots, but were defeated 3-0 in the Western Conference quarter-finals but the same opponent. The only team above them after 34 matches, San Antonio FC, won the league, the Western Conference final and the USL Championship final. So, whilst Loyal didn’t win anything, they were only bettered over 34 games by the winner of everything. That’s a decent achievement for a team who are just three years old. Bear that in mind – when Michael Appleton first took over at City, their club didn’t exist.

The team play in green, with a white and orange away kit, and Rocket League, a popular video game, sponsors them. Their home ground holds 6,000 supporters, and they averaged 3,919 – a good solid number for such a young club. For balance, that’s a better average than ten other USL clubs, a fine achievement. There is potential for them to move to San Diego State University Snapdragon Stadium, with a 35,000 capacity, should they continue to grow.

Standing Against Racism & Homophobia

They’ve got a reputation for taking a stand against racism and homophobia as well, and not by kneeling or wearing armbands. In 2020, they forfeited a match against LA Galaxy II by leaving the field after an alleged racial slur aimed at one of their players. “We don’t even want to recognize being a part of a match where these types of actions take place,” said SD Loyal’s Chairman Andrew Vassiliadis in a statement afterwards. “The Loyal in our name is symbolic of the diversity in our community and as a club we will not stand for this.”

A week later, they forfeited another match against Phoenix Rising by walking out at halftime after an openly gay player was subjected to a homophobic slur. Those two forfeits cost them a playoff place in their first season, but they took a stand for what they believed was right. “Our guys, to their immense credit, just said, ‘We’re not going to stand for this,'” Donovan said after the game. “They were very clear in that moment that they were giving up all hopes of making the playoffs, even though they were beating one of the best teams in the league handedly. But they said that doesn’t matter, there’s things more important in life and we have to stick up for what we believe in. And so they made the decision to walk off.”

Players & Staff

Finally, we know about Landon Donovan, but who else is there? Well, last season’s leading scorer was Kyle Vassell, who played against the Imps for Cheltenham in our 2-2 draw last season, and appeared regularly for Rotherham in both against City and in the Championship. Vassell recently turned down a new deal with them and won’t be on the roster for the new season.

Their captain is another British player, Charlie Adams, but not either of the ones you know. This one was at Brentford as a youth and played for Barnet briefly in the 2013/14 season before heading out to the US. Another player, Jack Blake, will know Lincoln relatively well – he was a Nottingham Forest youngster who spent time on loan at Mansfield in 2013

Other notable names at the club include former Espanyol youth keeper Koke Vegas, Cameroonian Thomas Amang, who played for Molde under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Collin Martin, a one-time USMNT U20 international.

More Kudos for Loyal Manager Landon Donovan – Elected to U.S. Soccer Hall  of Fame - Times of San Diego

The Future

San Diego Loyal is clearly a club on the up, having achieved good things in their three years in the USL Championship. There’s been plenty of talk about what the future might look like for our partnership, and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself over the coming weeks and months.