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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal soccer club was born on March 7, 2020, playing its first match a few days before the pandemic shut down the world.
It died late on a misty Sunday night on an absolute gut punch of a goal in the 119th minute of a playoff opener. Exhausted, heartbroken players sprawled on the pitch after the final whistle. Their passionate fans, many of whom had been chanting, singing, banging drums, waving flags and setting off green and orange smoke bombs for more than two hours at cozy 6,000-seat Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego, fell silent.
Players and fans knew since late August that the second-tier team was going to fold at season's end, in large part because of the impending arrival of the expansion MLS team San Diego FC in 2025 that will play at 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium. Everyone tried to make the best of it, and the independent supporter group The Locals, whose members packed section 109 behind the east goal every match, came up with the slogan, “Bury us with the cup.”
The end came with a jolt, not a cup.
Donovan, one of the greatest American soccer players of all time, co-founded the Loyal and was their coach the first three seasons before being elevated to executive vice president of soccer operations for this season.
“It's a shame that this has to go away,” a subdued Donovan said after the Loyal lost 4-3 in overtime to Phoenix in the USL Championship conference quarterfinals after tying it on a penalty kick in stoppage time. “I don't remember any of the results right now. I just remember the people involved and what we all put together was really unique. I've never seen anything like it in my life in this game and I'm not sure if it will ever exist again like this.
“We had a real identity that I think people connected with and were drawn to. I think that's what set us apart.”
The Loyal became known around the soccer world for taking powerful stances on social justice issues. Their inaugural season ended abruptly when they walked off the field — essentially costing them a playoff spot — after openly gay midfielder Collin Martin allegedly was called a homophobic slur by a Phoenix player. A week earlier, the Loyal asked to forfeit their 1-1 tie at the Los Angeles Galaxy II to protest San Diego’s Elijah Martin allegedly being called a racial slur.
Englishman Charlie Adams, who scored the first goal in Loyal history, said it was a bittersweet ending, particularly knowing he was seeing some of the fans for the last time.
“I'm absolutely devastated that the club won't be going forward but again, so happy I got to experience this and live this,” Adams said. He said he was so focused on finishing the Loyal's run that he hasn't thought yet about securing his next contract.
A few days before the end, Adams said trying to comprehend the death of a soccer club “is so strange. I think over here it happens way too often than it should. Obviously it's terribly sad. It happens in England, but only for severe, severe financial reasons, which you rarely see. Usually someone comes in and helps out. But for us it was a short and sweet time and I think we made a really, really great impact on our community, on soccer in general. I'm sure a lot of people fell in love with this club and football because of us.”
Two weeks earlier, after the last home match of the regular season, Adams dropped by a pub favored by The Locals. “They bought me a half pint, because I was driving, you see. They've been fabulous with us.”
Owner Andrew Vassiliadis announced in late August that the club was folding, citing the inability to find locations for a stadium, training facility and academy. Financial losses in the face of MLS's arrival were also a factor.
Vassiliadis was among the last to leave the stadium Sunday night.
“This hurts. I think this team was good enough to go further than we did, but I'm happy with who we are and what we accomplished,” Vassiliadis said.
Saying he wants to support soccer in his native San Diego, even it can't be with his Loyal anymore, Vassiliadis attended San Diego FC's name and crest reveal party Friday night. San Diego FC had already hired some employees away from the Loyal.
“Unfortunately, I think we're still a little too early in our soccer history in our country for both MLS and USL to thrive in one city, but I think it does come at some point. Unfortunately, it's just not right now,” he said.
He urged Loyal fans to give the MLS a chance.
“It's complicated,” said Steve Brockhoff, president of the Locals who knows his young children will want to continue to go to soccer matches. He'll miss the intimate atmosphere of Loyal matches.
“The players, you build a connection with because they don't feel too big for us as friends. They walk down these stairs and they say hi to us," Brockhoff said at a pre-match tailgate before the Locals marched into the stadium for the last time.
The Locals figuratively buried the Loyal late Sunday night on social media, posting a drawing of a tombstone flanked by their forlorn mascot, Bum the dog, and a soccer ball, with a brilliant sunset in the background.
Donovan, 41, isn't sure what he'll do now.
“I'm at peace right now with not knowing and we'll see what comes next," he said.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer