It's not often that a major American city boasts a pro soccer team within its true borders. The New York Red Bulls play in New Jersey. FC Dallas is based in Frisco, the Los Angeles Galaxy in Carson and the Chicago Fire in Bridgeview. But San Francisco now has a USL-1 team, the California Victory, which will play at the edge of Golden Gate Park in Kezar Stadium, once home to the San Francisco 49ers. The Victory, a sister club of Spain's Deportivo Alaves, is coached by Glenn Van Straatum, a two-time national champ at the University of San Francisco as a player. His assistant is former U.S. star Hugo Perez.
The man behind the Victory is Dmitry Piterman, who emigrated from Ukraine to the USA at age 15 in 1979, graduated from UC Berkeley (across the bay from San Francisco) and started accumulating a fortune in San Francisco area real estate. Three years ago, he bought Deportivo Alaves while keeping his eyes on opportunities in the USA.
"The opportunity to extend the Deportivo Alaves family to Northern California is special," says Piterman.
Conventional wisdom has it that pro soccer, especially at the second tier (USL-1), in the USA does better in smaller communities with fewer entertainment options.
"He [Piterman] was tired of explaining to people in Spain where San Jose is," says Victory general manager Terry Fisher. "Everybody would ask how close that is to San Francisco. He said, 'You know Terry, let's play in San Francisco.'"
San Jose, 50 miles south of San Francisco, was the epicenter of Bay Area pro soccer until the MLS Earthquakes left for Houston after their 2005 season.
"We did a total assessment of the market from San Jose to San Francisco to Sacramento," Fisher said. "Dmitry decided to buy the franchise for the nine Bay Area counties. The franchise market he believes is the best in America, better than New York, better Washington, better than any other market in America, is San Francisco."
The Victory's first step in capturing support is an ambitious outreach to San Francisco youth.
The Victory is offering 57,000 San Francisco school children, and their families, free tickets to any of its first three home games. The kids who show up will receive a season pass, gratis.
"The mathematics on that is, if it's extended for 57,000 kids, plus season ticket, one game with their family free, it's over $7 million that we've given to the city of San Francisco school children and their families," says Fisher.
The Victory also hopes excite San Francisco's Latino soccer fans. Its first major home appearance is a friendly on May 5 against Necaxa's Primera A squad in conjunction with a Cinco de Mayo festival at Kezar.
The Victory entered its first season with a $1.5 million budget, $300,000 of which is for player salaries.
The roster includes imports from El Salvador and Mexico, and Equatorial Guinea national team striker Juan Epitie who arrived from Alaves, but most of its players are from Bay Area colleges, such as Josh Hansen (University of San Francisco) and Mike Munoz(University of California), who provided the goals when the Victory opened its season with a 2-2 at defending USL-1 champ Vancouver.
Also in the squad are Americans returning from stints abroad.
Forward Yuri Morales, 25, is a Santa Cruz, Calif., product who played in Denmark and arrived in San Francisco via the USL-1's Portland Timbers and Puerto Rico Islanders. (Morales also works in the Victory front office as the club's account executive.)
Southern California product Raul Palomares, 24, is a veteran of the 1999 U-17 World Cup with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Co., and spent his teen years with Germany's Kaiserslautern before spending two years in the Croatian First Division.
Midfielder Chuck Kim, 23, played in Belgium and Germany after going pro at 18 with the USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
"The product that we have is a blend of players of all different backgrounds," Van Straatum says. "And that's what San Francisco's about. That's what California's about. We bring all the different talents onto the field and we play what someday maybe we'll call the California brand of soccer. It will be fun to watch."