Editor’s Note: In preparation for National Soccer Day on July 28, we’re presenting a series of stories focusing on the Beautiful Game in the United States. Today, an interview with San Diego Loyal SC chairman Andrew Vassiliadis and his efforts to grow the sport, while tomorrow we look at successful team crowdfunding efforts in Minnesota.
Soccer continues its upward trajectory within the American sporting scene, now on par with baseball for the third spot behind football and soccer, and it’s continuing to attract more fans and participants. Growing the game is something that San Diego Loyal SC chairman Andrew Vassiliadis has his eye on as the team looks to the future.
Vassiliadis grew up loving and playing soccer. His father was a professional player in Greece before the family came to the United States and starting a successful real-estate company. Vassiliadis says he knew that business wasn’t for him, and he wanted to stay involved in sports in some way after he hung up his cleats.
“I got back into coaching at my high school alma mater Francis Parker. While there, it just reengaged me with people in the soccer community. I always thought it would be incredible to bring soccer to San Diego,” Vassiliadis said. “We play it and watch it more than most any other city in the country. That was where my head was at but I needed to find the right people to work with.”
That meant investing in ownership of a USL Championship team. Initially Vassiliadis was looking at the Tampa Bay Rowdies–a USL team eventually purchased by MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays— but says he couldn’t see himself moving there or working remotely. But you could say fate had other plans.
“Every day I look at stories and articles on my phone. I saw a Sports Illustrated article about Landon Donovan and Warren Smith, who had rights to a team in San Diego. I met with them in June or July of 2019 and we had an operating agreement in place by October.”
The team kicked off their first season in 2020. The pandemic ended up hitting the team hard but tough decisions allowed San Diego to make it through.
“It doesn’t matter what the business is, you know as a start-up that you’ll lose money in the beginning. We just weren’t expecting the pandemic. We had to pivot and trim down costs where we could. It helped a little bit that we were playing at a college stadium so we didn’t have facility costs to worry about.”
Coming into 2021, the Loyal was ready to welcome fans and start growing the game. But to do that, Vassiliadis says they had to prove they had staying power–even when operating in what’s considered a hotbed of American soccer in Southern California.
“I forget the exact number but over the years there have been 15 to 20 teams that have started here that either left or folded. I remember seeing them come in for a few years and then they were gone. People were worried that we would be another flash in the pan and one of the most important pieces for us is to show the community that we’re not going anywhere.”
A key factor is making sure the team is connecting to the community through various programs. In 2021, the team was given the Community Service Award from the USL. Some of the Loyal’s programs include 18/86, which goes to city neighborhoods volunteering, highlighting small businesses, and hosting soccer practices. There’s also Mission Gratitude, which supports members of the military and their families, and Together San Diego to promote inclusivity with San Diego Pride and the YMCA. Through those initiatives, the team raised more than $65,000 for local charities.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a little star power in the form of Donovan, who also acts as the team manager and recently signed a contract extension.
“Landon is everything you’ve seen on the field when it comes to skill but he’s also an empath so he knows how to relate to people. He talks to these guys and can that he’s been in their shoes,” Vassiliadis said. “We’ve never had to worry about the culture of the locker room because he’s defined a good one. I think other teams can also see that players are coming into our system and Landon and our coaching staff are pushing them on to greater things.”
San Diego Loyal SC currently plays at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium but since launch sought to expand past the college facility. One is the quest for a new stadium, which we’ve been following on our sister site Arena Digest as part of the Midway Village Plus development. The City of San Diego has been soliciting bids to redevelop a 48-acre site currently home to the former San Diego Sports Arena. One proposal is building a new arena, 4,000 affordable housing units, a hotel and a new stadium that the team would call home.
“The concept would be that San Diego Loyal would come in and build a modular facility with about 10,000 to 15,000 seats, which is about average for USL and live there for about seven to 10 years with the idea that they develop their indoor arena and the rest of it and they would develop the last portion, including our stadium, at the very end,” Vassiliadis said. “That project keeps getting slowed down with red tape so we thought things that would only take a year are now at two years out and it’s more difficult to handle.”
The team is also looking at San Diego State University’s new Snapdragon Stadium, currently in the last stages of construction and set to open on September 3 with a game against Arizona. The stadium will have a capacity of 32,000 seats, but Vassiliadis says the Loyal would only use the lower seating bowl. The most pressing need, however, is a training facility for not only the Loyal but also their youth academy. Right now, there is only one team with players training at the academy once or twice a week. Looking down the road, Vassiliadis adds that he wants their youth players to get playing time in USL games so they can continue their development.
“Watching and developing talent is a fun process. We want to put structure around our academy so they feel like this is a great place to grow. Unfortunately, I think some coaches in this league are more concerned about keeping their jobs and winning rather than developing talent. I’ve challenged Landon to give them playing time and minute. Is it happening now? No. Is it about to happen? Absolutely.”
The USL could also soon expand. As we reported on Soccer Stadium Digest, Warren Smith, who helped bring the Loyal to San Diego and launched new-stadium efforts with Sacramento Republic, is now looking at bringing a team to New Orleans. Major League Soccer is also expanding, with Charlotte FC kicking off this season and St Louis City FCopening their doors next year. In San Diego, the city also welcomed the National Women’s Soccer League team, the Wave, led by Jill Ellis, former head coach of the U.S. Woman’s National Soccer Team. Vassiliadis says he thinks San Diego, as a city, will be a powerhouse for the sport and thinks the future is bright.
“I think San Diego should be the hotbed of soccer in North America and I know that’s a lot but there’s no reason we can’t. Landon Donovan is on the men’s side and Jill Ellis is on the women’s side. That’s a pretty good start,” Vassiliadis said. “Then I was standing with my president, Ricardo Campos, at the Louisville-Phoenix game the other night for the summer showcase. I tapped him on the shoulder at some point and I was like man, if you had told me 10 years ago, there would be this multi-million dollar facility in Louisville, Kentucky and not only that, fans showing up and cheering it on, it’s great. We’ve also got a World Cup coming up so we just expect it to explode.”
Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC.
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