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San Francisco Seals director of coaching Shani Simpson has a clear goal in mind: bring back the Californian city as a developer of high-end talent in soccer.

While the Bay Area has produced its share of talent over the years, the city of San Francisco isn’t where it has been in the past.

The Seals, a youth club of 70-plus teams and more than 1,100 players, joined MLS NEXT at the Under-13 and Under-14 age groups with a twist in 2022-23: offering a free-to-play platform for the two squads. It was an idea that came to Simpson late one night when the application process was opened.

“I called the guys on the [club’s] board and I said ‘listen, I just applied for MLS NEXT. And my plan is to do a play-for-free program,” explained Simpson. “You know, the club's been growing and we're generating enough revenue that we could afford to do two to four teams play-for-free.’”

The origins

The club originally began as the San Francisco United Soccer Club in the early 80s. His father Tom started it for Shani and his older brother Kimtai during their formative years. A former baseball player at UC Santa Barbara that was in medical school at the time, the elder Simpson laid the foundation and set the template for an incredibly successful team over the next decade.

His father’s basic philosophies and approach to life remain a core part of how the team operates to this day.

“It's rooted in the idea of it's about the journey,” the younger Simpson said. “My mom and dad, it's about the journey. It takes a village to raise a kid, right? It's more than just the coach. It's more than just the player. It's about the community. And we got to put in the hard work, but we got to do it together, we got to learn the fundamentals.

“I think a lot of that stemmed from his experience as the American athlete where one thing that Americans I think do well is, in baseball, basketball, football at the young ages, they're focused on the fundamentals: the right fundamental development for footwork, fundamental development for how to shoot a basketball, how to throw a football, how to throw a baseball, how to catch a baseball, right? And so he incorporated that concept into the way that he trained us. And we would do even to this day, we do a lot of technical work.”

Along with sending several players to Division 1 soccer at the time – both Simpson brothers included – the club would spin off into a semi-pro team that competed in the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL). Their high-water mark competitively came in 1997, when the team, led by current Chicago Fire assistant coach CJ Brown, reached the semifinals of the US Open Cup. Two players from the Seals team that year, Brown and Marquis White, were selected in the 1998 edition of the MLS Supplemental Draft. The various forms of the team – which included stints in the USL A-League and PDL – have seen players progress to the national team and higher professional levels.

During the period of the team’s Open Cup run, the youth side had taken a back seat. But the renaissance came just as organically as the start. When Simpson was in law school back in the early 2000s, he started coaching on the side in order to make a bit of extra money. Two teams became four. Kids on the team asked to revive the Seals’ name. Things began to multiply, and eventually, Simpson withdrew from law school and realized this is what he wanted to do.

“I had an epiphany,” Simpson said. “I was like, I would actually much rather be doing this, organizing the club and working with kids and parents than being a lawyer.”

Growth mindset

From there, the club continued to grow. Much of what Simpson implements at the club today is based on what he learned as a kid growing up playing for his father. The importance of hard work. The emphasis on fundamentals. Ensuring players learn how to compartmentalize the game: be competitive on the field and kind to each other off it. As a multi-racial kid growing up in San Francisco (having Irish, Italian and Kenyan heritage), the importance of emphasizing diversity rings true. 

“If somebody is interested in your club, they're gonna look on your Facebook and your Instagram,” Simpson said. “And so, I want anybody who looks on Instagram [to] be able to look on Instagram and say, ‘Oh, well, that's somebody like me.’ See themselves to a degree there because that's what we want. That's really who we want to be.”

As part of that push for inclusion, the Seals offer playing opportunities at a number of levels, spanning kindergarten through high school, both competitive and recreational, for boys and girls.

The stability carved out eventually allowed Simpson to apply for MLS NEXT for the current club season, and implement his free-to-play plan – looking to again replicate the experience he had growing up.

“I just realized this is an idea that I wanted to do,” he said. “And, to a degree, it brings us back to our roots where part of the reason why the kids had the success that my dad [had] coaching was because he wasn't charging them. It was a good, healthy environment that kids wanted to be in.”

Simpson sees this as part of the process. He hopes to bring the free-to-play platform to more age groups within MLS NEXT, starting with the Under-16s and Under-19s. After that, potentially grow into U-17 and U-15 teams, and perhaps after that, an MLS NEXT Pro side to continue and build out the player pathway.

Placing talent at major programs has already started to bear fruit. Wisdom Onuoma, a Seals player from his U-9 days, is part of the Cal-Berkeley men’s soccer signing class for 2023. Simpson hopes this is only the beginning.

“I think people do appreciate the message that I try to have the coaches communicate and the personalities that I try to pick as coaches and the culture of the club,” he said.

“If we can do the same thing with a play-for-free program, it'd be nice and I think we will develop some pros but probably 80%, 90% of the players that go through the program will end up being D1 soccer players. Get back to that point where very good San Francisco kids are going to play D1 soccer.”