By Mike Woitalla
San Francisco is known for many things: The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz; sourdough bread and Dungeness crab; cable cars and Victorian houses; the Giants and 49ers.
Soccer? Not so much.
The City by the Bay does have a soccer tradition. The SFSFL, founded in 1902, is one of the oldest amateur men’s leagues in the nation. USF won five NCAA titles, the first in 1966 and the last in 1980. And soccer is probably the No. 1 participation sport among San Francisco adults.
What you don’t hear about is San Francisco youth products reaching the higher levels.
“It is a soccer-crazy town,” says David Wilkinson, the director of Vega FC, a fledgling youth club based in the heavily Latino Mission District. “The adult soccer scene in San Francisco is incredibly evolved. It is a very advanced culture, but the youth soccer scene …”
Wilkinson grew up across the bay in Piedmont, a wealthy residential town of 10,000 surrounded by Oakland. He moved to San Francisco in his late 20s and worked in financial services. Walking around the Mission, he was constantly impressed by the talented children playing soccer in parks and on blacktops.
“I’d see these kids and had a very hard time believing they weren’t good enough to play competitive soccer,” said Wilkinson, who coached youth ball for his childhood club, Bay Oaks/East Bay United.
Wilkinson coached a Bay Oaks team from U-15 to U-18 at the elite level, competing at major tournaments, and Wilkinson wondered why they so rarely encountered San Francisco teams.
He did some investigating and met Miguel Ayala, a Salvadoran civil war refugee who started a soccer program at the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center. Ayala told Wilkinson about his U-13 team that won State Cup but couldn’t afford to go to regionals.
“I was well aware of the barriers that existed in our youth soccer system,” Wilkinson said. “I knew it could cost a family $2,000, even $10,000 a year. The team I coached, we’d raise thousands of dollars to travel to tournaments. … These kids in the Mission, their families couldn’t afford $200, let alone $2,000. … There’s great talent, but the teams fall apart at U-13, U-14, because of the costs and the other inner-city challenges.”
So David Wilkinson and his brother, John, founded Vega FC, which currently fields a U-10 and U-11 team, completely cost-free. They named the club after a Bay Oaks player David coached -- Raul Vega, who became the first member of his family to graduate from high school and attend college after being inspired when college scouts expressed an interest and Wilkinson arranged for tutoring.
“In 10 years from now, I see us as a fully grown club, from U-10 to U-18,” said David Wilkinson, who aims to field only one team per age group rather than depend on registration fees from secondary teams to subsidize the first-team players. “I really believe our camp business in addition to charitable streams and sponsorships can make this work.”
The challenges facing those wanting to tap inner-city talent are formidable, but there are hopeful signs in San Francisco. Vega SC is practicing at Garfield Square Soccer Field, a product of City Fields Foundation created by the Fisher Family (The Gap) that has since 2006 significantly been increasing San Francisco playing-field acreage.
“These are the good old days for soccer in San Francisco,” says Toby Rappolt, a longtime SF soccer activist, the owner of Sunset Soccer Supply since 1981, and coach at Vikings FC, which launched the city’s first youth soccer program, in 1952.
Rappolt cites the field-space progress and continued growth of the youth game. But he’s hard-pressed to name San Francisco products who moved on to the higher levels.
Eric Visser has spent more than three decades at the University of San Francisco, as a player, assistant coach and as head coach since 2000. His current roster is 25 percent Hispanic, but they hail from the suburbs, not San Francisco. Visser says that inner-city kids struggle to meet USF’s academic requirements.
To that end, Vega FC provides an academic support program that includes grade monitoring and tutor referral.
Also working hard on the helping San Francisco inner-city children with soccer ambitions is America Scores Bay Area, which has for a decade provided after-school programs that combine soccer and poetry. The organization recently launched a campaign to build micro-soccer artificial turf fields at 18 San Francisco schools, one of which has already been completed.
Colin Schmidt, the Executive Director of America Scores Bay Area, believes his program, while recreational and academic in nature, includes players with great potential. But Schmidt and Visser say that elite players from San Francisco often commute north to Marin County or south to peninsula clubs for elite youth soccer. That’s not much of an option for lower-income players.
Wilkinson is convinced that soccer-passionate players from America’s inner cities, if given the means to navigate their way through the system, will raise the level of U.S. soccer.
“I like when the national team does well,” he said. “Being competitive, I want the level to be better. I want the talent that deserves to advance to have opportunities, not just the talent that can afford it."
About Project Vega
America Scores Bay Area: Turning asphalt to turf in San Francisco
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)