SAN DIEGO (AP) — Landon Donovan knew what had to be done even if it meant bringing a startling end to his first season as coach of the expansion San Diego Loyal soccer team.
The Loyal walked off the pitch in the middle of a match on Sept. 30 after openly gay midfielder Collin Martin allegedly was called a homophobic slur by Junior Flemmings of Phoenix Rising FC.
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 in the 71st minute by defender Omar Ontiveros.
Donovan and the Loyal felt enough was enough. Donovan knew wearing rainbow-colored armbands in honor of what would have been San Diego Pride weekend and wearing alternate kit with “Black Lives Matter” across the back in their return from a four-month COVID-19 shutdown would be empty gestures unless there was real action.
The Loyal’s season ended short of the playoffs, yet their actions led to positive developments by the second-division United Soccer League.
“The league, to its credit, has done a great job of putting together a social impact committee that is discussing these types of things on a regular basis. The league will soon be implementing a discipline policy league-wide that hopefully will have a real impact,” said Donovan, who begins his second season as coach when San Diego visits Phoenix Rising on Friday night.
“The intention was never to ruin a player’s life or a coach’s life or a referee’s life,” the former U.S. national team and MLS star said. “We want to be clear on that but we do want people to learn and grow from this, including ourselves. There’s been a lot of growth and I think you’ll see more formal steps being taken in the near future.
“We’ve worked throughout the offseason with both players and our team as a whole about how we deal with that and how we try to grow from it and also help people learn why that was unacceptable, so it’s an ongoing process.”
Ontiveros was suspended six games for the use of foul and abusive language. The following morning, Galaxy II announced that they had mutually agreed to part ways. If Ontiveros is signed by a USL team in the Championship or League One, his suspension will carry over.
Flemmings was suspended for six games for the use of foul and abusive language in the form of a homophobic slur. His suspension covered the playoffs. He was not brought back by Phoenix Rising.
With the support of the USL Players’ Association and USL Black Players Alliance, the USL had The Institute for Sport and Social Justice conduct two league-wide mandatory sensitivity training and education seminars in the offseason for all players, league and club staff.
The league also launched The Forever Proud Project to increase inclusivity, education and awareness for the LGBTQ+ community, and the United Against Racism campaign to drive social and community impact and increase representation of diverse populations throughout the USL.
The Loyal were leading 3-1 when they walked off the field against Phoenix Rising. Had they continued on and won, there was a good chance they would have made the playoffs.
Loyal president and CEO Warren Smith was impressed with what he saw of Donovan last season.
“From the overall perspective, I think he did an outstanding job, especially in light of the fact of the values he lives by and the values we live as a club by, and then making sure that we stick to those,” Smith said.
“I think that culture he created on that field, frankly, is kind of the unsung story, if you will. He’s really, really, really driven by bringing the boys together and helping each and every one of them be better men and then good players. But he’s also very interested in their lives and trying to find a way to enhance them. It’s a servant leadership in a way and that was a surprise and frankly, I think his best attribute.”
Donovan, one of the greatest U.S. soccer players of all time, hopes for less drama and more stability this season. The Loyal return several players and he believes they can contend for the championship.
The Loyal debuted in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 6,100 on March 7, 2020, playing to a 1-1 draw with Las Vegas Lights FC. They got their first win four nights later, 2-1 at Tacoma, in an empty stadium, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the league for four months.
They will play their first two home games at 33% capacity and hope to play their third, on June 19 against Phoenix Rising, in front of a full house.
“For the most part it’s been very enjoyable and there are a lot of challenges,” Donovan said. “But I really do like it. I’m learning a lot, I’m growing a lot and I feel like I’m having a positive impact on a lot of lives. It’s been rewarding for me.”
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