Battle-tested San Antonio FC weathered early-season storm, ready for first round of USL playoffs

Goalkeeper Matt Cardone ruled out indefinitely

San Antonio FC celebrates during a USL Championship soccer match, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, at Toyota Field in San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio won 3-0. (Darren Abate, Darren Abate/San Antonio FC/USL Championship)

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio FC will take on San Diego Loyal SC in the United Soccer League’s Western Conference Quarterfinal on Friday at 8 p.m. at Toyota Field.

This is the second-straight season San Antonio has advanced to the playoffs, a first in franchise history, and Friday’s match will mark the club’s fourth playoff match.

SAFC finished the regular season with a total of 52 points -- 14 wins, 8 losses and 10 draws -- and enters the match as the second seed in the USL’s Mountain division. This playoff berth is particularly special for head coach Alen Marcina, who saw his team weather an early spat of injuries and tough losses, including a nearly two-month, seven-game span in which the club did not post a win.

“It took until game No. 32 for us to have a full roster available. That’s a first for me, personally,” Marcina said. “I’m just incredibly proud of the collective. We’ve preached from day one about cohesiveness, about competitiveness, about resilience, and our resilience has definitely been tested. We faced adversity head on.”

Nathan Fogaça, a Brazilian in his first season with San Antonio, led the team in goals with 11 in the regular season, followed by 7 goals each for homegrown 20-year-old Jose Gallegos and striker Justin Dhillon. Winger Marcus Epps and Nathan both lead the team with four assists on the season.

MacArthur grad, Trinity University product and veteran goalkeeper Matt Cardone led the team in minutes and starts this season but fell to a lower-body injury in the second half of the team’s final match last week. He was 30 minutes away from becoming the first goalkeeper in San Antonio FC history to play an entire season. Cardone has been ruled out indefinitely. Carlos Mercado finished the game in goal, recording his first minutes of the year. This week, SAFC added goalkeeper Jordan Farr on emergency loan from Indy Eleven. No starting goalkeeper for the playoff match has been named yet.

“I think our motto has been, ‘We’re going to play every single game like it’s the last game of our career,’ and playing with that motto has lit a fire under us,” defender Connor Maloney said. “Having the match at home is huge. Our fans are the best. They give us so much energy. We’re just excited to get out there, not have to travel and be in our home stadium with great fans.”

San Diego, the third seed in the Pacific division, finished the regular season with 48 points from 15 wins, 12 losses and 5 draws. It is their club’s first-ever playoff match after two seasons in the USL.

San Diego Loyal’s owner, co-founder and manager is Landon Donovan, the all-time assist leader for the United States Men’s National Team.

San Diego is the first stint as a manager for Donovan, who is also tied as the all-time scoring leader with native Texan Clint Dempsey and the second-most capped player in USMNT history.

“We know San Diego is a quality team,” Maloney explained. “They have quality players, a quality coaching staff. It’s not going to be easy, but I think we’re ready. I think we showed that in our last regular season game.”

San Antonio FC is still looking for their first playoff win since they reached the Western Conference Semifinals in 2017. The Alamo City club fell in the first round of last year’s playoffs to New Mexico United 1-0 at Toyota Field. Several players who experienced that loss, like Maloney, are still on this year’s roster, and they are eager to turn the page.

“Right now I’m focused on this game, and this game only,” Maloney said. “Obviously, that absolutely left a sour taste in my mouth because I can’t stand losing. This year, I’m just fully focused on the next game. Lots of sleep, locked in, doing whatever I can because I know what last year brought, and none of us liked it.”

“We have to stay true to who we are,” Marcina said. “We have to continue to compete and fight for 95 minutes. We have to be cohesive as a team irrespective of what challenges or adversity we may face, and stay true to our identity, which is being aggressors with and without the ball. If we can do that, we put ourselves in a position to hopefully win.”

The winner will advance to the Western Conference Semifinals to take on either Phoenix Rising or Rio Grande Valley Toros next week.

San Antonio FC is encouraging fans to wear black to the stadium. The match will be broadcast on ESPN+.

About the Authors:

Andrew has covered athletics of all levels for more than five years and is dedicated to shining a spotlight on local San Antonio athletes and their stories.

Kolten Parker is digital executive producer at KSAT. Previously, he worked at the San Antonio Express-News and the Texas Observer.