The result of the USL Championship Western Conference playoff match on Oct. 22 — Phoenix Rising FC 4, San Diego Loyal 3 — marked the end of one club’s season and the continuation of the other’s.
To some, the scoreline was agate type on a sports page. For fans of the Loyal, it was the last match ever for the franchise.
With no options for a new place to play, and a Major League Soccer expansion team coming to the city in 2025, the owners had announced in August that the Loyal would fold.
For veteran Collin Martin, signed as the team was born 4 seasons ago, both losses cut deep. “I’ve seen it grow and been a part of it since day one,” he says. “Knowing that I can’t come back to this city and be a part of this club hurts.”
The USL awarded the expansion franchise to San Diego in 2019. The Loyal were following a path 11 prior teams attempted to cross since the 1960s.
The first competitive match on March 7, 2020 — a 1-1 tie against the Las Vegas Lights — was a sellout at home.
Martin came to the Loyal after 6 years in MLS with D.C. United FC and Minnesota United FC. During the 2018 season, Martin became the second MLS player to come out publicly as gay. Later that year, he was named Outsports Male Hero of the Year.
His 2019 season was spent largely in frustration, on the Minnesota bench or out on loan. He saw 2020 as a year to regroup and recharge his game.
“I was super motivated and my headspace was that it didn’t matter what club I was going to in the USL, I was going to make an impact,” Martin recalls. “I didn’t realize that I would be in such good hands at this club and the stories we were going to live together.”
That first story would be 30 minutes into his first game with the Loyal. Martin sent in a gently arching free-kick to Francis Atuahene who poked in the opening goal in a 2-1 win against Tacoma Defiance. It was the Loyal’s first win as a franchise and Landon Donovan’s first win as head coach.
But a larger story loomed. The stands in Tacoma that night were empty because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. That match would be the last until league play restarted in July, still with empty stands.
In a September meeting against Las Vegas, Martin bagged his first goal to salvage a tie and help pace a frantic drive to earn a playoff spot. In the next four matches, the Loyal won three and drew once. They went into their regular-season finale at home to Phoenix Rising FC knowing that a win would put them into the playoffs.
However, that game ended up making a far greater impact.
Sept. 30, 2020. Torero Stadium.
The playoffs were in sight as the first half moved into stoppage time. Rubio Rubin’s second goal put the Loyal up 3-1.
One minute later, chaos ensued when Martin and Rising midfielder Junior Flemmings got tangled up. Flemmings wanted a foul, but it wasn’t called. Words were reportedly exchanged, including Flemmings referring to Martin as a “batty boy”.
The term is slang in the Rising player’s native country, Jamaica. It is an anti-gay slur.
Martin’s teammates were livid. Officials were trying to figure out what had happened. Cameras caught Donovan in a heated exchange with then-Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz.
The San Diego Loyal walked off the field in protest Wednesday night, saying a Phoenix Rising player used an anti-gay slur directed at openly-gay midfielder Collin Martin.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 1, 2020
Manager Landon Donovan discussed the incident with the referee and Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz. pic.twitter.com/WlOYauQhgV
Schantz downplayed the matter saying “they were just playing soccer”, but none of the Loyal were buying it. Teammate Tarek Morad had a terse rebuttal directly to Schantz saying, “Coach, your player called my gay teammate a batty boy. You’re not dumb. You know what that means.”
For Martin, it was the first time any slur was directed towards him on the pitch in his professional career. The team was talking about walking off in protest.
“Landon was adamant that he didn’t want to play the game anymore. My teammates all agreed in the locker room that they were going to walk off the field,” Martin continues.
“I said I wanted to play and they said they would respect that if something was done with the player who did the slur. He had to be subbed out or the referee gives him the red card. If he continues to play, we are not going to continue.”
The Loyal gave their demands to the officials and to Phoenix Rising. Both refused. The Loyal stayed true to their word and walked off the pitch. The game went down as a forfeit that ended the season with a 3-0 loss.
“I didn’t want it at all,” Martin recalls. “It was my worst nightmare to have a game being decided on my sexuality. I couldn’t believe that they were willing to walk off the field for me, especially considering how big a game it was for us.”
In that instant, the Loyal lived up to their name and to what had become a mantra for them: We will speak. We will act.
The Epilogue: Then And Now
In the hours and days that followed, a soccer world that in some ways still looks down on the American game was honoring a USL team as champions for the greater good.
The chair of the influential UK sports antiracism lobby Kick It Out called what the Loyal did “amazingly powerful”. The social media traffic was overwhelmingly supportive worldwide. One tweet called out one of soccer’s frontline professional leagues saying, “Oh hey Premier League teams and players, take a note.”
For Martin, the whole situation was difficult. “It was personally very hard for me.
“It took me weeks and weeks to understand the magnitude of that decision and how special it was.
“But ultimately, I can look back and be proud of it,” he continues. “The overall actions of the team, my coach, my owner, all spoke way beyond what I could have personally.”
What was built on that night in 2020 was a team identity that was greater than the Loyal’s 44 wins as a franchise, three straight playoff appearances, or Martin’s 4 goals and 10 assists as a member of the team.
An example was set that hopefully others in sports would follow. The moment came to mind again recently, as players and fans in hockey were speaking out against the NHL’s prohibition on Pride Tape.
Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Travis Dermott openly defied the ban in competition with Pride Tape on his stick during a game. The pressure helped force the NHL to give in.
Dermott’s action drew parallels to what Martin’s teammates did three years ago. “Each example and each person standing up just points to the impact they can make,” he says.
“They understand the importance of allyship. Even if a certain thing doesn’t affect oneself, you can make another person feel comfortable because of your actions.”
Noting Dermott’s direct intervention, Martin continues: “Imagine if there was a gay player in his locker room. You never know who’s watching and who needs that message. I applaud that and it was great of that player to do that.”
At age 29, Martin is now set to be a part of a new team for 2024. Yet he says these last four years will stay with him because of the bonds forged in San Diego, and a night where solidarity made them unbreakable.
“We did build something special as a group, in terms of welcoming players and creating a culture in training,” he says.
“Then in terms of how we pushed the game forward in the city and made a lot of people proud and happy, I think it was always beyond the result. The way we impacted the community is what I will be most proud of.”