By Evan Chu
Can the NASL succeed in San Francisco? On March 17th, the San Francisco Business Times reported about two potential ownership groups interested in bringing second division soccer to the Bay Area. A day later, San Francisco City FC confirmed they have in fact made initial contact with the NASL regarding a potential expansion franchise. SFCFC started their US Club Soccer season on March 13th with a 5-0 win on the road against Redwood City Juventus. City then went on to defeat Stanislaus Academica 5-2 in their home opener at Kezar Stadium on March 21st. They will take on East Bay United next at home on April 11th. In the past, professional soccer in San Francisco had minimal success. Will soccer finally succeed in San Francisco after almost 50 years of failure or will history repeat itself? Here’s a rundown of San Francisco’s pro soccer teams of the past.
The first pro soccer team and only first division team to call the great city of San Francisco home was the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales. The Golden Gate Gales were founded by George C. Felharty who also owned the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League and the Ice Follies. The Gales were coached by Ernst Happel their first season and called Kezar Stadium home. San Francisco imported their team from Dutch side ADO Den Häag for the 1967 season and featured the likes of Harry Heijnen, Henk Houwaart, Aad Mansveld, Lex Schoenmaker, and current Sunderland AFC manager Dick Advocaat. The Gales started the season with a 61 win against the Vancouver Royals at home and ended the season second in the western conference with 5 wins, 4 losses, and 3 ties. The Gales drew an average of 5,422 people a game that season. After the season, the Gales hired Ferenc Puskas to coach the Gales full time. However, the United Soccer Association merged with the National Professional Soccer League to form the North American Soccer League before the 1968 season and the Gales folded to make way for the NPSL champions Oakland Clippers. After the Gales folded, Felharty bought the Vancouver Royals and brought Puskas along with him. After Oakland withdrew from the NASL before the 1969 season, the Clippers played friendlies in San Francisco under the California Clippers moniker including a 40 win over the United States national team on April 13th, 1969 at what is then known as Balboa Park Stadium.
On May 10th, 1972; the United States national team returned to San Francisco to tie Mexico 2-2 in an Olympic qualifier. A year later; on August 10th, 1973; the United States bowed out 4-0 to Poland in front of 6,000 at Candlestick Park. Four years later, the United States defeated China 2-1 on October 16, 1977 in front of 17,500 people at the Stick. After two years, the United States return to San Francisco, losing 4-1 to the Soviet Union on February 11th, 1979 in front of 7,213 people at Candlestick Park. After the Soviet game, the US would not play in San Francisco for 27 years until they defeated Japan 3-2 in front of 37,365 people on February 10th, 2006 at AT&T Park. The US beat Azerbaijan 2-0 the last time they played in San Francisco on May 27th, 2014 in front of 24,688 at Candlestick Park.
In 1974, the NASL awarded franchises to Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Needing a fourth team in the west coast, the league approached Milan Mandaric regarding an expansion team in San Francisco. Mandaric requested his team be located in San Jose. The NASL agreed to his request and thus the San Jose Earthquakes were born. The Quakes would play 2 indoor seasons at the Cow Palace in 1975 and 1976.
On May 28, 1980; David Schoenstadt bought the Detroit Lightning of the Major Indoor Soccer League from former chairman/CEO of Univision Jerry Perenchio and television producer Norman Lear and relocated the team to San Francisco. The San Francisco Fog started the season losing 82 on the road against Philadelphia and ended the season last in the western conference with 11 wins and 29 losses. The Fog drew an average of 4,588 people a game during the 1980-81 season. Notable players include Quakes legend Johnny Moore; Brian Joy, father of current BeIn Sports color commentator Ian Joy; and Roy Messing, brother of Shep Messing. On May 5th, 1981; the Fog relocated again; this time to Kansas City.
In 1992, the San Francisco United AllBlacks and the San Francisco Bay Diablos joined the third division United States Interregional Soccer League. The Diablos would fold after the 1995 season. In 1996, San Francisco United changed their name to the San Francisco Bay Seals. In 1997, the Seals reached the semifinal of the US Open Cup beating the Seattle Sounders, Kansas City Wiz, and the San Jose Earthquakes along the way. Ultimately, the Seals lost 21 to DC United who would go on to lose to the Dallas Burn in the final. After their magical cup run, the Seals moved up to the second division ALeague for the 1998 season. However, the Seals folded before the start of the 2000 season.
In September 1996, Mayor Willie Brown began courting the San Jose Clash into relocating to San Francisco to provide more revenue and ease the financial costs for a new San Francisco 49ers stadium. Ultimately his plans fell through and the Clash stayed in San Jose. On October 27th, 1999; the San Jose Clash rebranded themselves the San Jose Earthquakes. The Quakes would play 9 home games in San Francisco including 3 US Open Cup games, 2 regular season games, and 4 friendlies.
On October 12, 2006; the United Soccer Leagues announced then chairman of Deportivo Alaves; Dmitry Piterman had acquired a franchise in San Francisco to begin play in 2007. The California Victory started the season on the road with a 2-2 tie against the Vancouver Whitecaps and ended the season dead last in the entire league with 4 wins, 17 losses, and 7 ties for a total of 19 points. Notable players include current Sacramento Republic goalkeeper Dominik Jakubek, former Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire defender Patrick Ianni, and former Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes reserves forward Yuri Morales.
So why did soccer fail in San Francisco? Will it fail again in San Francisco? Probably. First off, as I explained in my other blog post, soccer doesn’t receive much media attention in the bay area. And simply saying “They lost” during a report about rain droplets outside the stadium doesn’t count. I’m talking about you, NBC Bay Area. There are minor league teams around the country with better local media coverage than the Earthquakes. If the local media won’t support a big league team, how can a minor league team coexist with the big league team in such an antisoccer market? Secondly, there’s no viable NASL stadium. Even though 1,000 Candlestick seats were added into Kezar as part of a $3.2 million renovation, the only other part of the stadium that was renovated was the track. The stands are still covered with that unsanitary black stuff and I wouldn’t be surprised if the restrooms still contain the most pungent stench I’ve ever sniffed. Kezar is not a professional venue in the slightest. With these issues coupled up with the past failures of soccer in this city, will professional soccer ever succeed in San Francisco? I hope it does but the future doesn’t look too bright.