Column: SD Loyal soccer boss stays loyal amid shutdown


Landon Donovan understands that relative to many other people challenged by the coronavirus pandemic, he and colleagues with the San Diego Loyal soccer team are fortunate.

“We’re all alive and healthy, and so on the scale of relativity we’re fine,” Donovan said.

Disclaimer noted, the COVID-19 shutdowns have hit SD Loyal the hardest of the local pro sports clubs.

“It wasn’t the greatest timing,” Donovan, the team’s coach and executive vice president of soccer operations, said Tuesday.

Launched last June, SD Loyal joined the top tier of United Soccer League, a second-division circuit with 35 teams. Shut down in March because of the health crisis, SD Loyal was able to play only one home game.

Typically, soccer teams have three ways to generate revenues: TV rights fees, transfer fees for players from bigger clubs and gate receipts including venue sponsorships. USL teams don’t get the first two.

Donovan said if health trends allow it, the USL will try to relaunch its season in June or July. However, the games likely would be played behind closed doors, preventing SD Loyal and other teams from recouping more of the projected revenues nixed by the shutdowns.

SD Loyal remains upbeat, said Donovan, who this week is overseeing the team’s first workouts since the shutdown. “We have not had a sense of, ‘Woe is us; I can’t believe this happened.’ ”

Donovan, 38, is long on resilience if you go for his soccer career. He was perhaps the best American soccer player in the world when he was in peak form.

However, SD Loyal’s chin-up countenance begins with its chairman, Andrew Vassiliadis.

Regard him as frontrunner for San Diego Sports Enthusiast of the Year.

Oh decade.

Vassiliadis bankrolled SD Loyal’s entry into the USL, pledging at least $10 million.

The daring investment created about 25 jobs for soccer players, 23 other full-time jobs for front-office staff and coaches and 54 part-time jobs, largely in game-day operations. Vassiliadis played soccer in San Diego youth leagues and attended Francis Parker School. His late father, Laki, founded a real-estate business in San Diego that owns and manages properties, many of them apartments. When Andrew sank millions of dollars into soccer, COVID-19 wasn’t in the headlines.

“He put in all this money, and now we don’t get to play,” Donovan said.

Where “SD Loyal” may have seemed a corny name for a sports team, it doesn’t now.

Vassiliadis, 37, has funded the full-time jobs through the dormant two months, although SD Loyal’s labor costs far exceed those of several other local pro-sports teams. In contrast to the Padres and Gulls operators, who draw heavy financial support from Major League Baseball and an NHL parent club, respectively, Vassiliadis is on his own with SD Loyal, financially speaking.

“To his immense, immense credit, we have not fired people because of this,” Donovan said. “We have not furloughed anyone because of this. Our players are still being paid their full salary even though they haven’t been ‘working’ for the last two months.”

Donovan added: “He could have easily, at any point, done any of those things, and it would have been justified in every way. He has not. He is showing his commitment to this team, to the players, to the staff and to this community. We all feel really fortunate that we have him here. Because it’s not the case in all cities, and not all teams are treating their people that way.”

Will SD Loyal return to the University of San Diego this summer, where a capacity crowd of 6,100 turned out for the March 7 opener and saw a 1-1 tie? Can it build upon its second match, a victory at Tacoma in which Donovan introduced nine new players into the starting lineup?

After USL investors survey the economic wreckage — and the day comes for fans to return — will the league go forward?

Those are questions for later. Donovan and his players from him — six groups of four, cleared after temperature checks and other screening — were on the team’s soccer field Monday and Tuesday in Chula Vista, knocking the ball back and forth, running, working up a sweat.

“Fortunately, our guys have been healthy up to now,” Donovan said. “And we intend to keep it that way.”