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Start-Up Soccer: SF City Football Club Aims to Be Your Local Team 

Wednesday, May 20 2015
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On a windy evening in late April, fewer than a dozen players from the semi-pro San Francisco City Football Club assemble for practice at Franklin Square Park in the Mission. The team's mood parallels the weather — bleak.

Four days earlier, SF City had suffered a gut punch of a defeat in front of a record crowd of about 1,500 people gathered at Kezar Stadium for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The nationwide tournament featured teams from all tiers of professional U.S. Club Soccer, the American version of England's Football Association Cup. The frustration and dismay resulting from SF City's 2-1 loss to Simi Valley's Cal Football Club was exacerbated by the two goals the local team conceded from dubious penalties, one of which was awarded when SF City's goalkeeper punched the ball at an opposing player.

"There's nothing really more to say about it," the team's co-captain and general manager, Jordan Gardner, 31, mutters dejectedly while taking a breather from the drill.

Gardner's 28-year-old brother, Andrew, SF City's coach, says the defeat squandered the herculean effort the club had put into securing qualification. The team was San Francisco's first to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup since the now-defunct California Victory eight years ago. One of three Bay Area teams competing in the tournament, SF City was hoping to replicate the success of earlier San Francisco clubs, such as the Greek-American Athletic Club (which won the tournament in both 1985 and 1994), Deportivo Mexico (1993 champions), and 1976 champs the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, none of which are currently active.

SF City team members were so depressed by the loss that a number of players took time off to mentally recover. Amid the subdued atmosphere on this April night, the training focuses on short passing drills, with most of the noise coming from Australian trainer Patrick Coyne, who barks orders at the players with the intensity of a ship captain weathering a storm.

San Francisco City Football Club's ambitions go way beyond merely making a run in the Open Cup. This club wants to bring professional soccer to San Francisco in a big way. But the nascent team is still in the phase of a startup company working out of a makeshift garage office, according to Steve Kenyon, the club's vice president of community development. "We have startup aspirations, but we have to balance reality with financial resources," Kenyon says. "We're right in that stage where we're looking at those next-level costs and need-based expenditures."

The club reinvests all of its revenue back into the team, making each player, coach, and organizational member an unpaid volunteer. Its current annual budget of $100,000 may be minuscule by Major League Soccer standards, but SF City's dreams are big: The club hopes to steadily climb the ladder and eventually compete in the MLS — or at least reach third or second tier.

Currently part of the fourth-tier NorCal Premier League, SF City adheres to a supporter-owned model, which means 51 percent of the club's stakeholders are dues-paying members who vote on club issues. Anyone can become a member by paying the $50 yearly or $350 lifetime fees. City's main game plan for growth is to ignite waves of support from San Franciscans and channel it into memberships.

"So much in American soccer has always been one rich guy coming into a city and saying, 'I want to start a soccer team, here's $10 million, let's do it,'" Coach Gardner says. "That's not how we wanted to do it."

To reach the next level, Kenyon and the Gardners plan to fuse the sport's inherent ability to attract thriving energetic communities (that is, crazy soccer fans) with San Francisco's undying love of all things local. The massive soccer clubs of Europe are often regarded as "more than a club" (FC Barcelona's official motto translated into English) because they embody something more significant than the sport itself. "Soccer has a history throughout the world of building community, more than any other sport," says Mark Barbeau, the founder of local soccer blog and newsletter FootySF. That passion is being emulated and refashioned in a specifically San Francisco way over at SF City's startup garage — Kezar Stadium.

When Peter Bogdis first heard about SF City, he didn't know whether the club was serious or just "some beer league," he says. The 44-year-old plumber then went to see the team in action. "I saw the actual skill of the players; these guys can really play ball," Bogdis says. "Right at that moment I said, 'I'm all in. I love this.'"

Bogdis is a member of the Northsiders, a group of supporters that assembles in the north section of Kezar for every SF City game. Like other supporter groups, the Northsiders have the Tifos (giant banners) and chants that suggest nobody rides harder for SF City. Their most popular chant is, "Oh, when the fog goes rolling in," set to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In." The group employs a more sardonic chant when the club faces teams in yellow (which happens more often than you'd expect): "We all laugh at the yellow soccer team," set to the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine."

You don't want to get on the Northsiders' bad side. At one game, the group booed an opposing player every time he touched the ball, supposedly because he made a cheeky gesture before the match. The Northsiders are the new McCovey Cove kayakers, the new Raiders fans who dress like scary pirates. Their team may not be major league yet, but their support is already in a league of its own.

"They are the lifeblood of the organization," Charles Wollin, SF City's director of media and the commentator for the club's games, says of fan groups like the Northsiders. "This is about elevating San Francisco to become a soccer city. We cannot do that without the unique mosaic that is the energy and heart of the people of San Francisco."

The Northsiders are hardly the only San Francisco soccer diehards who hang around Kezar Stadium. Early in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays, dozens gather at pubs such as Kezar (the stadium's namesake), Mad Dog in the Fog, or McTeagues to watch European soccer at 4:45 and 7 a.m. During last summer's World Cup, San Francisco ranked third behind New York City and Washington, D.C., in viewership. Not bad considering one of those other cities has more 200 foreign embassies and the other is the "capital of the free world." Among the fans who gather at the pubs is Barbeau, who is adamant that San Francisco is a soccer town and that SF City could be its ambassadors.

"Fans feel like they're getting in on the ground floor of a startup," Barbeau says of the club's supporter-owned model. "Another factor working in SF City's favor is its expressed commitment towards doing some good in the community. San Francisco has always been a hotbed of great social-change organizations doing good works."

With SF City's recent launch of a new youth academy and young teams, the club gives itself a steady pipeline of prospects while also reinvesting in the community. One of the bigger criticisms of U.S. soccer is the pay-to-play system of many youth clubs, which has been singled out as a factor as to why the U.S. men's soccer team isn't on the level of a Brazil or Germany on the world stage.

"There's so many disadvantaged kids in SF," Coach Gardner says. "Why should soccer be another way for them to be excluded just because of money? So many high-quality players and kids who could use the lessons learned by playing team sports are being excluded and I think that's unfortunate."

What's fortunate is that SF City aims to change that sort of inequality by heavily promoting its inclusive brand of community-based soccer. With about 350 members, 40 of whom are lifetimers, the club's short-term goal is to increase its membership. "We need people to feel they have real legit ownership," Jacques Pelham, the club's president, says, pointing out that SF City's $100,000 annual budget is a fraction of the average North American Soccer League team. "We're looking for the real partners to move to the professional level. That's going to take a lot of money."

SF City has faced obstacles to its growth, the biggest involving a territorial dispute. The team currently competes in the Norcal Premier League, one of many tier-four soccer leagues in the country. The original plan was for SF City to compete in the Golden Gate Division of the National Premier Soccer League, also a tier-four league but slightly higher in quality and organization. But another soccer club, the San Francisco Stompers, competes in that division, and it blocked SF City's application to the NPSL, claiming exclusive rights to San Francisco. It was an odd claim given that other cities have multiple NPSL teams. A judge sided with SF City in December, but at that point the club already had signed on with Norcal.

But before SF City could compete Norcal, the club needed players. That's where the Gardner brothers came in. SF City's board chose to acquire the Gardners' local amateur club team TicketArsenal FC, named for their ticket resale company. "[SF City] had the off-field product," Jordan Gardner says. "They were far along in that sense and we were far along with the on-field product."

Since the merger, SF City has had string of impressive performances. In March, the club battered Juventus Soccer Academy and Stanislaus Academy 7-1 and 3-0, respectively, to secure Open Cup qualification. Despite SF City's recent Open Cup defeat, the club played well, dominating possession. Other victories include 1-0 over East Bay United and 6-0 over PSA Royals in April, and a 3-2 comeback thriller over Pleasanton side IFX Ballistic on May 9. During that game, midfielder George Plakorus netted two goals for SF City, including the winner off a header in the last five minutes.

"Mentally I was focused," Plakorus says. "The first 20 minutes I wasn't sharp, but I worked hard and things worked out for me."

The squad brims with skill, with a majority of players having Division I experience, and one player being poached in March by the Los Angeles Galaxy's B team. But SF City's biggest problem isn't attracting or developing talent, it's trying to get all of the players in the same place at the same time. A 2-2 draw with Cal State East Bay that should've been a win was attributed to the team being understaffed. Such is the life of the semi-pro player; when soccer is not your fulltime job, it's hard to give it priority.

In order to reach the promised land of U.S. Club Soccer, SF City will need to harvest the best San Francisco has to offer, and plug into the city's fetishization of itself and its locally made products. That's the only way the team can grow in its ownership model. "Turning the games at Kezar on Saturday afternoon into the place to be in San Francisco is pretty much what we want," Kenyon says. "Everything you were planning on bringing to Dolores Park that day, turn around and bring it right on over to Kezar."

When you think Bay Area sports, you think World Series winners the Giants or the Oakland Raiders. But there's a strong case San Francisco can sustain and propel a soccer team like SF City. It certainly would be nice for a winning club to be the city's biggest soccer claim to fame instead of last year's viral Youtube video that showed privileged, permit-wielding Dropbox employees taking a Mission soccer field from neighborhood kids.

"The saddest thing about that incident," Barbeau says, "is that playing soccer can be a beautiful, unifying event amongst strangers. All those guys had to do was say, 'Forget about our permit, let's all play together.'"


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George McIntire

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