Every year the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup includes a new batch of amateur clubs hoping to be the tournament’s latest Cinderella story. For those who don’t know, the U.S. Open Cup is a soccer tournament that started in 1914 and includes teams from the United States’ top three professional divisions, the M.L.S., N.A.S.L., and the U.S.L. Pro, along with a select handful of amateur teams.
With only 91 official spots available in this year’s tournament, San Francisco City (SF City) came in ranked as the 91st seed. “We started as the 92nd seed and we beat the 91st, [so] now we’re 91st and we just keep going on from there,” said Charles Wollin who doubles as SF City’s director of media and as the broadcaster/commentator for their games.
SF City is a nonprofit, amateur soccer team, currently competing in what would be considered the fourth-tier of soccer in the U.S. They are more than half-owned by the fans and have been around for less than a year. SF City will be the first amateur team from the Bay Area to compete in the U.S. Open Cup in over twenty years.
In their most recent match against Cal F.C., an amateur team from Southern California, SF City broke a U.S. Open Cup Play-In round record with an attendance of 1,519 at Kezar Stadium. The previous record for attendance at this stage in the tournament was around 500 people. With the constant expansion and knowledge of the team’s existence, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone if they beat their own U.S. Open Cup attendance record in the coming years.
Being based in San Francisco, a city with technology, entrepreneurs, and many of the brightest young minds in the country, SF City is shooting to become the next hit “start-up” in the Bay Area by combining the startup mentality of modern-day San Francisco and the long tradition of soccer in the city to create something new and exciting.
“Every San Francisco team in the past has been based on a sole proprietor or a couple of people that invest in the group until they decide they just don’t have the money anymore,” said Steven Kenyon, the club’s vice president of community development. In reference to seeing all the past attempts by other clubs end in failure, SF City knew that it would need to find a new business model so as to not make the same mistake. Kenyon added, “So let’s change the model. Let’s flip it on its head, you know? Let’s crowd fund it!”
SF City’s business model is that of a nonprofit with fan ownership, where each willing fan can buy into the team and have a say in the operations of the club. “There is no example; what we’re doing is we’re bridging philanthropy and professional sports to a level that no one has ever seen before in the world,” said Kenyon.
Even their jersey sponsor represents the club’s business model and beliefs. Recently, SF City announced that their first jersey sponsor is Classy, a company that provides an online platform to fundraise for nonprofits.
Coming from USF, Kenyon sought to find a way where soccer could become a larger part of the local community. “USF men’s soccer was literally the best soccer anyone could find in San Francisco, and it was really only available on six to eight dates at home the entire year. We weren’t having any growth of soccer in the city […] So the goal was to branch off of USF when I left and just kind of start off [of] a foundation where I could grow soccer,” he said.
One way of building community around this team is by bringing in players that fans are already familiar with. Mauricio Diaz de Leon, a standout player who graduated from USF last year, and who has in the past represented the Seattle Sounders’ under twenty-three team, is just one example of this. “After playing four years for the school, I fell in love with the city and I wanted to obviously work here while also keep playing the sport I love the most,” de Leon said. “I was playing for the amateur Sunday league teams here in the city, but I really wanted to play at a higher level.”
And, that’s exactly what SF City has to offer to many other former Division One athletes.
“SF City created this great environment with a lot of former Division One players, which is awesome. The level of play is definitely up there, and I feel like SF City has done a pretty good job at getting that out there to the potential players in the Bay Area community,” de Leon said.
“The talent is definitely here in the city, we’ve just let these players know that we’re just as valuable of an option as the Earthquakes reserve team,” Kenyon added.
Before SF City there was only one way to make it as a professional player in the Bay Area, which was to play for the San Jose Earthquakes. To play for a team like the Earthquakes, a prospective player would have to sign up for one of the team’s designated trials dates and hope they perform well on the day. Despite the fact that participating in these trials cost money, the Earthquakes reserve team is run primarily in Danville, California, and the distance makes makes it difficult for players who have jobs in San Francisco to commute to Danville on the side.
Because SF City is an amateur club, its players are unpaid. Many of those on the team hold a full-time job, with some holding multiple part-time jobs. Since work schedules leave players pressed for time, having a club that is based out of the same city where its players work and reside is important for cutting back a potentially long commute. “Honestly, I can only make it out to one of the practices and that’s usually Wednesday nights with SF City,” de Leon said. “I have multiple part-time jobs, [which is] unlike a lot of the full-time jobs that other players have. So, I go from job to job and practicing once a week is all I have [time for].”
Kenyon also told a story about Reed Williams, a former two-time player of the year at U.C.L.A., and who is currently a forward for SF City, having to miss a game last-minute because of work: “There was this incident with Reed, who is working full-time at some investment banking company, and he’s in the starting line-up that’s posted on a Friday. The match is that night and we’re getting texts from him at three in the afternoon saying, ‘[I] was just given a final project presentation [for work]… I can’t make the match.’” Despite missing their star forward, the team went on to win the game 5-0.
SF City isn’t just an average side, either. They’ve won twenty-one of their last twenty-three games, losing just one and the other resulting in a tie. They’ve also scored more than three goals in six of their last seven games, which proves how consistently good the team is. “Because we’re in San Francisco, we have this unbelievable baller talent,” Kenyon said in reference to the city’s large talent pool from which the team can draw.
During SF City’s match last weekend against Cal F.C., passionate fans were chanting, “Water stealers!” at Cal F.C. players creating an exciting atmosphere for those in attendance. However in the same match, Cal F.C. unfortunately knocked SF City out of the U.S. Open Cup by two very harsh penalty decisions, ending their fairytale Cup run.
Regardless, for its first-ever appearance in the tournament SF City performed well overall and its fans lent their undying support. For those who remain brokenhearted over last week’s results, SF City remains undefeated and sit atop the NorCal Premier League with a few matches left to play.
Looking into the future, SF City plans on continuing its growth. According to their Twitter account, SF City has publicly confirmed that they made initial contact with the N.A.S.L., the second division in the U.S. soccer rankings pyramid, regarding potential expansion. If the N.A.S.L. chooses SF City as an expansion team, SF City will go from an amateur team to a professional team, not only being able to pay its players, but also help the growth of the club and bring in more fans for the team.
SF City will continue to participate in the NorCal Premier League for the remainder of May. If you would like to become a player, member, or learn more information about the club check out their website at sfcityfc.com.
Photo courtesy of Blaze Caruso