Landon Donovan, SD Loyal, having weathered storm, gear up for second season


As the San Diego Loyal soccer club puts together a team for its second season, here’s a ray of sunshine for local soccer fans to appreciate:

The club still exists.

One of its former top rivals no longer does.

More than half of the United Soccer League Championship’s 2020 season was lost to pandemic shutdowns, which also kept fans away from all but one of SD Loyal’s home games and, according to a team official, have pushed back the 2021 season to May 1.

In-person attendance was to account for the largest chunk of SD Loyal’s revenues. Meantime, on the expense side, the second-division team paid full salary to players and coaches, said Landon Donovan, SD Loyal’s coach and executive vice president of soccer operations.

So on top of the anticipated financial losses in 2020 for the first-year franchise, unforeseen losses, caused by the pandemic, also fell on SD Loyal owner Andrew Vassiliadis.

“We are all very grateful he’s pushing forward to allow us to continue building a brand here that ignites and celebrates San Diego,” said Donovan. “It’s important to remember that it’s not a foregone conclusion that people can just keep losing money and come back.”

The Reno 1868 soccer club won’t be returning in 2021, having folded last month. While USL Championship still has plenty of teams — listing 32 for next season — Reno had posted only winning records in its four seasons and had the league’s best win-loss record this year.

“Every club took a huge hit for this year by putting on games,” Donovan said. “Andrew, to his immense credit, I have footed the bill for it.”

SD Loyal took advantage of Reno’s demise to sign one of the team’s top players in forward Corey Hertzog.

Even at age 30, the former Penn State All-America represents a potentially large upgrade as a front player in Donovan’s 3-5-2 attacking formation.

Hertzog amassed 27 goals for Reno over the past two years.

“Corey Hertzog is just a pure goal-scorer,” said Donovan, whose team went through severe scoring droughts last summer. “And he is also really difficult to play against. He presses the ball. He’s just a threat for defenses to deal with.”

The youngest of SD Loyal’s four additions is a 24-year-old defender from Ghana, Ebenezer Ackon, who played for the USL’s San Antonio team last year. Donovan described him as “uber-talented” physically.

“He allows us to play the way we want to play,” the coach said, “because he can handle players one-on-one defensively so that we can be more aggressive when we have the ball. Normally, you want some semblance of cover.”

Versatility and savvy are the lead traits of Thomas Vancaeyezeele, 26, who’ll also join the back end of a SD Loyal defense that last year operated out of a 4-3-3 formation for the most part. This past season the Frenchman earned All-USL first-team honors with Pittsburgh.

SD Loyal also signed Jack Blake, 26, a central midfielder who helped Real Monarchs SLC claim the 2019 USL trophy by recording three goals and an assist in the playoffs. “High quality-player with great leadership skills,” said Donovan.

Defender Grant Stoneman, 25, leads a seven-man group of players SD Loyal has re-signed from the 2020 team.

Along with Stoneman, who led the team in passes, clearances and blocks, the defense will regain Elijah Martin, 24; Salt Zizzo, 33; and Jack Metcalf, 28. Martin was first in both interceptions and tackles. Zizzo (Patrick Henry High) served as team captain. Metcalf led SD Loyal with four assists.

The midfield ranks regained three players: Charlie Adams, 26; Colin Martin, 26; and versatile Tumi Moshobane, 26. Adams scored SD Loyal’s goal in the season opener, a tie March 7. Four days later, Martin set up the first goal in the team’s first victory.

SD Loyal ended up 6-5-5 by going unbeaten in six straight games at the end of the season before forfeiting their finale due to an alleged homophobic slur directed at one of their players. The Loyal led that game 3-1 at the time against Phoenix, a USL finalist.

“We were very happy with how we were playing, and the goal is to keep building on that,” said Donovan, a former MSL goal-scoring star who’d never coached a soccer team at any level before taking over SD Loyal in November 2019. “We had to prove we do things the right way and that we play a good brand of soccer, and that it’s an enjoyable place to train and play.”