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Reflections as San Diego Loyal ends at the hands of Phoenix Rising

Owain Evans Avatar
October 23, 2023
Goals from Panos Armenakas, Danny Trejo and a Dariusz Formella brace lifted Phoenix Rising to a playoff victory over San Diego Loyal.

SAN DIEGO — After 120 minutes of play, Dariusz Formella stood at the side of the pitch with a smile on his face.

“What a night,” the Polish forward said. “What a night. What a day to be alive.”

There was, of course, a hint of irony to those words. Just minutes prior, his strike put an end not just to San Diego Loyal’s title hopes, but in effect to their entire club. With an unsustainable stadium situation, and competition from a new MLS expansion franchise on the horizon, Loyal announced its intention to fold at the end of the season.

It may not have been Dariusz Formella that sentenced Loyal as a club to their death, but on an October night at Torero Stadium, he served as their executioner.

“I’m very, very happy,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said of his team’s result, before adding qualification. “At the same time, I’m a bit sad that this club is disappearing, because this was a very good place to come.”

Behind Guerra on the field, Loyal’s players gathered. Many had slumped to the ground as referee Elvis Osmanovic blew the final whistle to draw extra time to a close, but soon enough were stood up on their feet again.

It was an opportunity to connect with their fans one last time, from those Locals and Chavos behind the goal to those still along the touchlines.

It was a chance for a final glimpse at their San Diego Loyal team, and a final, communal sing-along.

From the beginning, this match had an atmosphere that was simply different.

On the surface, yes, all was normal. There was the gathering of food trucks around the entrance plaza, with a violinist pumping out his takes on pop songs. There were fans streaming into the stadium wearing the customary Torrey green and orange. A desk next to the media check-in rather optimistically advertised group bookings for a future San Diego Loyal game that would ultimately never materialize.

But the context was still there, if you looked for it. Before the game, a Loyal fan came over to the Rising away section, offering stickers from the Locals supporters group. After being initially met with a lukewarm response, he reminded them: soon, San Diego Loyal would be no more, and the stickers would be a simple momento.

And while the “bury us with the cup” tifo might have been raised weeks prior, its presence could still be felt in the atmosphere and picked out online with ease.

This wasn’t just a club playing for the hopes of lifting a trophy. This was a club, with its back to the wall, hoping just to exist for one more week at a time.

Perhaps it was fitting that it was Rising who would have the first opportunity to extinguish that hope.

“I wanted this,” Rising midfielder Panos Armenakas said. “I wanted the pressure. I wanted to be away from home. I wanted to be away to San Diego. This is the game I wanted, to get a win and send them off in the right way from Phoenix.”

From the off, San Diego’s fans were loud, with the noise reverberating around Torero Stadium. They were soon rewarded, too, as Ronaldo Damus scored the first of three goals on the night within five minutes.

Rising might have gone down, but they never looked out. Panos Armenakas drew the side level from the penalty spot, before gesturing to the crowd, hand cupped over one ear.

“If I was going to be the villain today, then that was fine,” he said after the game. “Personally, I know I play better under pressure, so when everyone’s against me, that’s what I prefer.”

Another Damus strike would be cancelled out by Danny Trejo, before Formella would put the visitors on top in the second half.

It wouldn’t last. Deep into stoppage time, it was Damus, again, from the penalty spot. The San Diego atmosphere was rejuvenated.

Thirty more minutes would ensue, and while the wave of elation from a late equalizer would help, the atmosphere petered out slowly as the clock ticked by. With the second half of extra time coming to a close, there was a palpable feeling of unease in the air.

Many in the crowd could already see their club’s fate being decided by a glorified coin toss, 12 yards from the goal. It didn’t seem to sit well.

In the end, it wouldn’t be decided from the penalty spot. Formella’s 119th minute strike saw to that, a dagger to the collective heart that came simply too late to expect a response.

As the final whistle blew, the contrast was stark. Rising’s players ran onto the pitch. Two Rising fans jumped down from their section, above a wall and grassy berm, to field level, and were promptly escorted out.

“We can win [the league],” Armenakas said. “We showed that coming into a hostile environment, in their last home game and we made it their last USL game.”

“If we are focused, if we are disciplined, if we train well, nobody in this league can catch us,” Formella said. “We are our biggest opponent.”

For San Diego Loyal players and fans, it was despair. After four years and three postseason appearances, the club had failed to record a single playoff win. There won’t be another chance.

So, after dusting themselves off, the Loyal players did a lap of the stadium. They joined the supporters section in one of their signature chants. They spoke to fans. Joined on the field by co-founder and former manager Landon Donovan, they said their goodbyes.

In the stands, fans stayed. Not all, of course, but enough. Some joined in the singing. Others sat there, well after the conclusion of the match. There wasn’t much for them to say, nor do. They just sat there, taking in their last opportunity to see a group of players representing this team.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” Rising midfielder Jose Andres Hernandez said earlier in the week. “But if it has to be us who has to take them out, then so be it.”

That’s exactly what Rising did do, in a serious contender for the most exciting match of the USL season.

An hour after the whistle, the last of the fans had trickled out of the stadium. A small handful remained close to the gates, hoping for one last glimpse of a Loyal player.

With that, the chapter ended. Torrey green and orange will be replaced by chrome and azul, as MLS comes to town in 2025.

“This is not the way you want the whole journey, the whole story to end,” Loyal coach Nate Miller said after the game.

But football doesn’t follow a script. It doesn’t answer to an editor.

Sunday was a night that San Diego Loyal could have cemented a historic club first and a win over a bitter rival. Instead, they fade into the sunset, not to be seen again.

Follow Owain Evans on Twitter

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