San Diego Loyal SC's Xavi Gnaulati (center) celebrates with his teammates after scoring his first two professional goals, which rallied the side to victory at Monterey Bay F.C. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about San Diego Loyal SC, it’s to never count them out.
Over the past two seasons, players like Evan Conway and Elliot Collier have been the heroes providing game-winners in comeback victories on the road that turned potential defeat into thrilling victory.
Now you can add 18-year-old Loyal Select product Xavi Gnaulati to that list in what might have been the most dramatic ending of them all.
Gnaulati’s first two professional goals – first the equalizer in the 90th minute, and then the winner in the third minute of second-half stoppage time – earned his side a 3-2 victory against Monterey Bay F.C. at Cardinale Stadium that could prove another turning point this season, but certainly will go down as one of the most memorable in the club’s history.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a great feeling,” said Gnaulati. “All the guys in the locker room, they’re super happy for me. They’re celebrating. We’re all going to be celebrating, and they just all had great words for me. I love them and they love me.”
Gnaulati’s path to this moment has been building over the past three years. One of the first Loyal Select players signed to a USL Academy contract by the club in the 2021 season, the San Diego native didn’t make his league debut until this season, but in just his fourth appearance he showed why the club signed him to a professional deal earlier this year.
“It’s hard to describe how happy and proud we all are of Xavi, our club and city,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Nate Miller. “This is a kid that has been with us for three years and watching him grow up and how he trains, he’s got so much quality. Everyone needs their big break in life and that moment where everything changes, and maybe that's tonight for him.”
Brought on with 10 minutes to go and SD Loyal facing the prospect of a third consecutive defeat, Gnaulati knocked down the door his teammates had been hammering on for much of the contest. SD Loyal had produced the better chances overall, but allowed a pair of big opportunities to Monterey Bay in the first half that Sam Gleadle and Alex Lara took clinically.
Adrien Perez’s goal late in the first half provided a lifeline, but it wasn’t until the final minute that the equalizer arrived. With Conway pulling defenders to the top of the six-yard area, Gnaulati swept in behind him and finished off a precise cross from Blake Bodily on the left from close to the penalty spot.
That sense of being in the right place was evident again during stoppage time. Morgan Hackworth’s angled cross from the right channel found Conway for a flicked header that was parried by Monterey Bay goalkeeper Carlos Herrera, but Gnaulati was there to volley home the rebound and send his teammates and the traveling support into wild celebrations.
“The ‘keeper parried it, and I was there,” said Gnaulati. “I just made the continuing run and was able to get that winning goal and it was just a great feeling. I was happy to celebrate it with my team.”
“We've had a lot of famous 3-2 away victories [coming] from behind,” added Miller. “It’s crazy how many of those [we’ve had], and this is up there with them. It was a really important win, and the players deserve it.”
Combine San Diego’s late heroics with another piece of late drama on Wednesday night that saw Indy Eleven peg back Phoenix Rising FC deep in stoppage time to earn a 1-1 draw, and SD Loyal is now back in fourth place in the Western Conference with a game in hand on its rival for a top-four finish.
After the celebrations of Wednesday night subside – and celebrate they certainly did, with Miller’s encouragement – the focus will quickly shift to Sunday and SD Loyal’s return home to face Las Vegas Lights FC in another crucial contest.
In a postseason race where every point matters, however, Wednesday’s victory seemed to mean just a little bit more.
“I’m just happy for the three points,” said Gnaulati. “Now we’re on to the next one.”