San Francisco City FC forward Taylor Amman in action (formerly at Stanford) - Building the Pyramid
Victor Wang / San Francisco City FC

US Open Cup: San Francisco City FC bring supporter-owned soccer to the City by the Bay

SAN FRANCISCO – Every startup strives to differentiate itself from the competition, and here in the city that is almost synonymous with the word, one up-and-coming soccer club is looking to set itself apart by putting the power in the hands of the fans.

Taking inspiration from other recently formed, supporter-owned and -created clubs — namely, Nashville FC and Detroit City FC — San Francisco City FC have combined the startup mentality of modern-day San Francisco and the long tradition of soccer in the city to create something new and exciting.

And on Saturday, this little amateur club will bring all that they represent to the big stage for the first time when they play in a US Open Cup preliminary-round match. They will be the sole representatives of US Club Soccer, take on Cal FC, a fellow amateur club based in Southern California, at historic Kezar Stadium. The winner will earn a first-round date against PDL powerhouse Ventura County Fusion.

The SF City roster (pictured right, courtesy Lyndsey Radnedge), much like the Cal FC roster, is made up largely of former players from NCAA Division I college programs, including Stanford, UCLA, and Virginia. Many also have experience playing at the PDL level, some with the U-23 affiliates of MLS clubs.

“On the pitch, I am really confident in where we are at as a club and our ability to compete with anyone,” head coach Andrew Gardner recently told US Club Soccer’s official site. “With the combination of high-level former college players and recent professionals, I think our soccer can match up with the best of the best."

“I have my sights set on getting to Round 2 of the Cup," he continues. "If we are able to go out and establish our ‘city football’ style of play and knock off a couple teams in the play-in and first rounds, I would consider this first trip to the US Open Cup a success.”

But in many ways, regardless of outcome on Saturday, just getting this club to this point is a success for SF City.

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SF City was originally founded in 2001 and competed for more than a decade in the San Francisco Football Soccer League (SFSFL), an historic men’s league that has been in existence since 1902 and produced four US Open Cup champions.

By 2011, SF City was playing in the third division of the SFSFL. Over the next two years, they earned back-to-back promotions to the league’s Premier Division, prompting those involved to start thinking a little bigger.

“That was kind of the time when myself and a couple of the other guys were thinking about, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something else we could do with this,’” says current club President Jacques Pelham, who was a player at the time. “We looked at [Detroit and Nashville] and said, 'This is the startup capital of the US, if not the world; let’s approach this like a startup and look at those teams for inspiration, as a model, and go from there.'”

Pelham and his colleagues initially targeted membership in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), the fourth division of the US soccer pyramid. They they submitted an application to join the league but were blocked by local NPSL club San Francisco Stompers on territorial-rights grounds.

SF City filed a grievance with US Soccer. An independent arbitrator eventually found in SF City’s favor, but by that time, the team had decided to join the NorCal Adult Premier League, an amateur league with teams around the Bay Area.

One of those teams, San Francisco-based Ticket Arsenal FC, appeared to be kindred spirits with SF City, and Pelham reached out to them with a proposal: SF City would bring their name, supporters and the administrative know-how, and Ticket Arsenal would bring the muscle on the competitive side.

“We looked at it, and we said, ‘Hey, these guys look like they might be on the same trip we are and we have some similar interests, let’s reach out to them and see if they might want to work together,’” Pelham recalls.

The clubs announced they were joining forces on January 12, 2015, just in time for the semifinals of the region’s US Open Cup qualifying tournament, which they won 7-1 on aggregate against Redwood City-based Juventus Soccer Academy. Then they beat Modesto-based Stanislaus Academica, 3-0, in the final, held at San Francisco State’s Cox Stadium.

“It’s sort of serendipitous, but it’s just worked out great for everyone in terms of what we’ve been able to add in the supporter and administrative side to the group they had put together on the competition side,” Pelham says. “It clicked really nicely.”

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Putting a team on the field is all well and good, but for San Francisco City FC, cultivating a vibrant and inclusive supporters’ culture is equally important.

The SFSFL, according to vice president Jeff Staben, offers “a rich cultural experience that probably can’t be surpassed in any known adult league. It's as if we are playing our very own World Cup every Sunday.”

That diversity and passion are key to the eventual success of SF City on the field and to their ambitions to perhaps move up the national soccer pyramid some day, says Pelham.

“From a supporters standpoint, people want to see it happen,” he says. “I think they want to see it happen in a way that’s organic, with how we’re going about things.”

SF City opened membership to the public in August 2014. Today, they claim almost 300 members, all of whom get to vote on major club matters, including board elections. Collectively, they own 51-percent of the club. A small group comprising Pelham, Jonathan Wright, the club’s original founder, Director of Media & Broadcasting Charles Wollin, Vice President of Community Development Steven Kenyon, head coach Andrew Gardner; and his brother, Jordan, who originally founded Ticket Arsenal, controls the other 49 percent and manages the day-to-day operations.

This being the startup capital of the world, the managing quartet has, of course, brought in a few external investors to help accelerate the club’s growth and overcome some of the potential pitfalls of being a purely supporter-owned.

“That’s how we’ve structured it all along and communicated with the members, so that we can move up relatively quickly,” he explains. “Because I think we’d probably run into some roadblocks if we said, ‘OK, we’re not going to take any private investment, it’s going to be purely a non-profit just relying on donations and sponsorships.’ It’s hard to move with that.”

In addition to the earlier inquiries into joining the NPSL, SF City have publicly confirmed that they have made initial contact with the NASL regarding potential expansion.

In the meantime, SF City’s members, particularly those on the club’s board, continue to establish the club’s culture and position in the city.

Mike Gonos, who was elected to the board in the club’s first vote in late December, has been a fan of Bay Area soccer since the San Jose Earthquakes’ NASL days in the 1970s. He is a current San Jose Earthquakes season ticket holder, and one of the key movers behind the San Francisco Soccer Supporters’ Association (SFSSA), a local fan interest group.

The SFSSA — which aims “to get all of us together and get the word out and bring attention to the game,” Gonos says — coordinates events to support soccer in San Francisco. They have been heavily involved in Street Soccer USA, a charitable organization that seeks to use soccer to help serve the needs of disadvantaged people in urban areas, and have shown up to support the University of San Francisco team, tifo and all.

The SFSSA and SF City quickly discovered they shared common interests – not just in starting a soccer team, but also in an attempt to use the game to make a difference in the diverse San Francisco community as a whole.

“Having that team, it serves as a lightning rod: It can bring these groups together to do stuff,” Gonos tells MLSsoccer.com. “The way I look at a team in many ways — and this is an exaggeration to make a point — but the reason why you have a team is to bring people together so that then they can be exposed to information about social causes or interests in the game or both, when they dovetail, and things that are needed."

Gonos and SFFSA have worked with the Rafael House, a local shelter that cares for homeless families and have in the works canned food drives at SF City games. That might be difficult, though, Gonos jokes, “because we’re all San Franciscans and don’t have cars.”

For SF City’s part, the club’s recently announced jersey sponsor is the company Classy, an online platform to fundraise for non-profits. The team has also fostered a relationship with the SF Spikes, an SFSFL club founded in 1982 that, according to their mission statement, “provides gay men and their allies with opportunities to compete in local leagues, represent San Francisco in tournaments worldwide and play recreational soccer.”

“San Francisco is almost like a wildfire ready to go for soccer,” says Wollin, who is also a vice president for SF Spikes. “We believe there is a place for that here, and that’s why we want to elevate it above all else, and we’re trying to engage in the community. Community is what we are. We want to do it in a genuine way where people feel like they have a spot with us and we’re transparent with them about what we’re doing, and at the same time, they have a place and we’re inclusive.”

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Though San Francisco City FC is a young outfit, they draw from a rich tradition of soccer in San Francisco that dates back more than a century.

As part of the team’s halftime ceremonies at the Open Cup game against Cal FC, all four of SFSFL’s previous US Open Cup champions will be honored.

The first, won by Italian Athletic in 1976, was managed by legendary University of San Francisco coach Steve Negoesco. It was another feather in the cap for Negoesco, who also claimed five national championships (one was later vacated) and 544 wins with USF.

Nine years later, Lothar Osiander, who later managed the US national team from 1986-88, coached the SFSFL’s Greek-American Athletic Club to the Open Cup title in 1985. In 1993, the SFSFL club CD Mexico (now known as Farolito) lifted the Cup before Osiander returned to Greek-American A.C. and won another Open Cup in 1994 (pictured right, courtesy of SFSFL). Though they featured some past and future pros, Greek-American A.C. are the last amateur team to win the Open Cup title.

In addition to providing inspiration, says SFSFL vice president Jeff Staben these teams’ the Open Cup victories can offer lessons for success for SF City.

“There is something called team dynamics and team chemistry which cannot be built overnight,” he tells MLSsoccer.com. “You see in all these cases, these great teams first built a dynasty. While playing in the SFSFL, they won many battles on the field for many years, if not decades, winning championship after championship.”

Among the notable players on SF City’s roster are two former University of San Francisco captains— midfielder Mauricio Diaz de Leon, who played his final collegiate season in 2013 and also spent time with the Seattle Sounders U-23s, and fellow midfielder Danny Kirkland, an English product of the Sheffield Wednesday academy, who earned first team all-West Coast Conference honors in 2014.

For players like this, an Open Cup is not just a game, but also maybe that big break.

“It gives them an opportunity to continue playing and dive into the goals that they want,” says University of San Francisco head coach Eddie Soto. “The fact that they’re playing in the US Open Cup gives some opportunities for the guys to showcase themselves at the a little higher stage.”

The players need look no farther than their opponents on Saturday, Cal FC, for inspiration of what that showcase can be. Cal FC will be making their first appearance in the Open Cup since their inspiring 2012 Cinderella run, when they toppled the Portland Timbers and reached the 4th round.

Now, perhaps it is SF City’s time. They are not realistically looking at the prospect of winning it all this year like their local SFSFL precursors did. But they do know that within their reach is a chance to make their supporter-owners proud and capture the diverse hearts of the city they love and represent.

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