By Chris Stone
When two USL players were punished for using racist or homophobic language in the last two games with the San Diego Loyal, their teams didn’t suffer in the standings.
Loyal co-founder and president Warren Smith wants club consequences for similar transgressions.
“Teams should participate in any penalties, so the teams take it seriously,” Warren said Friday. “It seemed there should have been a penalty higher than their maximum penalty.”
Smith joined club chairman Andrew Vassiliadis, manager and executive VP Landon Donovan and team captain Sal Zizzo at a press conference at Liberty Station’s Stone Brewery (the team sponsor) to talk about their inaugural USL Championship season in San Diego.In the second to last match against LA Galaxy II, a Los Angeles player was suspended and then released from the team after using the N-word against Loyal player Elijah Martin. In the following match at home — USD’s Torero Stadium — a Phoenix Rising player was accused of using a homophobic slur against Loyal Player Collin Martin.
The Loyal forfeited the game with LA Galaxy II, saying they didn’t want to be associated with that match. In the following match, the local club walked off the field at halftime. The forfeits ended the Loyal’s chance of playoff competition.
Donovan spoke about what team consequences might look like.
“How do you incentivize through consequences?” the coach asked, then answered: “If I knew that we were going to get 10 points reduced from the standings if one of our players did something like that.”
On the season’s first day, he said, players would be told why it’s not acceptable from a competitive standpoint “but more so why as human beings we don’t do this. I promise you that would change the behavior.”
Players would be removed from training after the first incident, and “that would send a very clear message to our group,” said the 38-year-old soccer legend.
Warren said the club would present proposals at the USL’s December Board of Governors meeting and discuss league protocols and improvements.
Before the start of next season, coaches and players league-wide will undergo sensitivity training.
In addition, the local club has reached out to both Phoenix Rising and LA Galaxy II to initiate programs that educate members about the consequence of words.
As for his team, Warren said: “They had some adversity that they had to work through, and I couldn’t be more proud of what this team ultimately did as a group of men to figure out what they wanted to be or who they wanted to be and then execute upon that.
“It’s our mission to make San Diego an even better place to live, work and play,” the club president concluded.
In that vein, Vassiliadis said: “There were opportunities for adults to do something and they didn’t, so hopefully some adults learned lessons from that. More importantly, I hope that some children learned lessons from that.”
He said he hoped children would see what Loyal players did and in turn stand up for themselves and know that it’s the right thing to do if someone says something inappropriate in their own games.
About his own team, Vassiliadis said: “This team dealt with more in one season than most teams will deal with in 10 years.”
He said he has asked the league to change policies on how they handle these types of incidents.“I will push them to make sure they do so before we kick off in 2021,” he said at an event live streamed on Facebook.
The club’s decisions to forfeit the games and stand against racism and homophobia brought headlines throughout the world.
Donovan said support locally and globally has been “overwhelming.”
“Winning is great, but living to our values every day is what means the most to me,” he said.
Donovan said he is hopeful that other teams will follow suit, but that is out of his hands.
“We live in a society where things are forgotten quickly,” he said. “We are committed to making sure that that doesn’t happen.”
Donovan decried the notion that the racist or homophobic language was “just words … just competition. ‘Get on with it.’”
“The problem is that words can also lead to worse, can lead to violence, but more so than that, your words shape your behavior and your behavior shapes your beliefs,” he said.
He said the bigger message is: Rather than focus on the number of games a player should be punished for, how can behavior be changed.
Team captain Zizzo said his attitude changed when he joined the club. Rather than solely concentrate on continuing his soccer success, as captain he wanted to see the club flourish and make a difference in the community.
Club officials also talked about the achievements in their inaugural season.
Vassiliadis said: “We were put in a group with very talented teams. We know very loud and clear that we can only play in this league, but beat it. We beat all of them.”
“This is a playoff team.” the chairman said. “This year it didn’t happen, but we are gunning for it next year.”
The Loyal finished 6-5-5 (but led 3-1 in the last game after being tied in the Galaxy II game).
What will next season look like?
Warren said the start of the season most likely will be pushed back from springs 2021, and that while he hoped to have fans in the stadium next year, there will be no full house initially.
The Loyal leaders will be scouting local soccer clubs for additions to next year’s team. Donovan said it is of “tremendous value” to have San Diegans on his team.Regarding how he is becoming a part of the local community, Donovan, a longtime Dodgers fan, said he rooted for the Padres in recent playoffs.
At the same time, Loyal gained significantly from player transfers and loaned players from MLS teams, who scored key goals in the last part of the season.
Donovan said he would love to see MLS or national-team players Miguel Berry, Jon Kempin, Alejandro Guido and Rubio Rubin return to the team, but he understands that their talent may launch them to a higher division. He said he wants what is best for the players.
Vassiliadis said the players brought in later in the season integrated well and worked toward the team’s success.
Vassiliadis said, “I want them back but if they are not back, that means we did something right and they are successful. We are more likely then to get more loans, means we are preparing them for the next level.”
He added that Donovan’s reputation and connections lead to acquiring players that are a good match for the team.
Donovan called the last games that led to a win streak were a “fast moving train that was really fun and exciting to watch.”“We are still quite a bit a ways away from where we can be and will be, so we are on the right path and I didn’t anticipate it happened this quickly, to be honest.”
Asked the most important lesson he learned as a first-year coach, Donovan said faced the fact that he had more influence than he realized — which meant more responsibilities.
“The most important lesson that I have consciously known but now felt it this year was being authentic,” he said. “Everything I do, I try to be an authentic as possible.”
In that vein, he called his coaching season “exhausting.”
What will the offseason bring? Six months of lobbying for changes, recruiting – and a little rest.
Donovan said: “This will be the longest, most difficult offseason I’ve ever dealt with because I am so excited for what is next.”
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