Title contenders? Digging into Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal

Quick Hits
  • They’re the highest-scoring squad in the USL Championship, but are the San Diego Loyal title contenders in the USL this season?
  • We’re diving into San Diego’s roster, tactics, and form ahead of the final stretch of the USL Championship campaign
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This is an excerpt from Monday’s Weekend Recap. Subscribe to our free newsletter to get future editions of the Weekend Recap delivered right to your inbox.

They’re the highest-scoring squad in the USL Championship, but are the San Diego Loyal title contenders this season? Landon Donovan’s team has a strong roster and features a unique tactical style. This weekend’s matchup with the Birmingham Legion said a lot about the state of the Loyal as they approach the playoff stretch. 

Before we get to their game against Birmingham, though, let’s rewind to last season.

Offseason moves

By most standards, San Diego was resoundingly average in 2021. They finished third in their divisional pod to make the playoffs, but they were the second-lowest-scoring team in the Western Conference playoff field and allowed more goals than any other playoff team.

Recognizing the need for improvement, the Loyal added aggressively in the offseason. Up top, Kyle Vassell came in from Cheltenham for a record USL fee, according to sources.

He’s San Diego’s No. 9, anchoring the forward line to the tune of double-digit goals so far this year. Alongside Vassell, Evan Conway and Nick Moon entered as proven wing threats with experience across the USL landscape. Star defender Joshua Yaro left, but he was replaced by Nikko Boxall, a New Zealand international, and Kyle Adams, a longtime stalwart for Real Monarchs.         

In 2021, the Loyal were focused on possession, but didn’t have a backup plan against compact defenses. San Diego’s signings added an offensive dimension with Vassell as a hold-up target for long balls, breaking up that short-pass monotony. Alejandro Guido still provides MVP-level No. 10 play in the midfield and Elijah Martin remains one of the best left-sided defenders in the USL. 

The side’s fight and adaptability, however, were tested this weekend as second-place San Diego took a five-match winning streak into Alabama.

Cracks in the foundation?

The Birmingham Legion approached the match thoughtfully, pressing in a 4-1-3-2 system where the aggressive front five matched San Diego to a man. Donovan’s team attacked out of a true 3-5-2 shape based around progression through their three central midfielders. Enzo Martinez, the second striker for Birmingham, could press up against the centerbacks, but he was even more effective playing lower and denying passes into that trio. When San Diego played over Martinez, the Legion center backs won the physical battle against Vassell. 

In pretty much every aspect, the Loyal struggled in attack.

At the same time, San Diego allowed just a single goal on the road in a 1-0 loss. In fact, the club has allowed just four goals in their last six games. Koke Vegas, an offseason addition in net from La Liga’s Mallorca, had five saves after stealing a game against Monterey in the middle of the week. There’s a baseline solidity for the Loyal that simply didn’t exist in the past.

Still, for all the brilliance of his baseline system, Landon Donovan rarely makes in-game adjustments to help his team win matches. His club’s attack is superb, but a well-drilled press can shut them down by choking out service into Vassell and tightly marking Guido. 

If last weekend’s win against first-place San Antonio FC was an argument for the Loyal as a bonafide title contender, the Legion loss was a dose of reality.