A San Francisco Quest: Can Inner Cities Produce U.S. Stars?

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."

Further Reading:
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
12 comments about "A San Francisco Quest: Can Inner Cities Produce U.S. Stars? ".
  1. R2 Dad, November 23, 2013 at 12:12 a.m.

    Thanks for highlighting D1 in Cal-N. There are plenty of talented kids in the Bay Area playing at high levels, but many fall out because the coaching is poor and their teams blow up at U10 and U14. Even on "competitive" teams, basic skills are neglected. Vega is focusing on possession while many still play kick-and-run, so Vega players will have a greater chance to continue playing at the highest levels as a result. There is a heavy contingent of Hispanic coaches that only want to play directly and through the air, and their players suffer as a result. Sure, the attackers get service and score lots of goals in the beginning, but all those keeper punts to the midfield and back line boots to the attackers fail to develop players, and that's the real reason you don't see more teams playing at the highest levels in D1. Coaches won't train their kids to play the ball on the ground, though the midfield. Count the team touches, turnovers/pass completion and attempts on goal--those metrics tell the whole story. Good luck to Vega and the other possession-oriented teams out there, who are focusing on player development.

  2. Daniel Clifton, November 23, 2013 at 10:53 a.m.

    Great article. One should be written for every major city in the US. The talent is there, the economics to play competitive soccer is not. What is the answer? Pay to play doesn't get it done.

  3. cony konstin, November 23, 2013 at 11:43 a.m.

    Mike thank you for writing an article about kids who live in our inner cities and whom have limited resources. They are and been the forgotten ones for years. It is time for a REVOLUTION in the US. In the words of Father Flannigan, "We need a war for the Children". What a better battlefield to start one. The streets of San Francisco and so many other streets throughout the US. And what better weapons? A soccerball and pair of shinguards. Colin and David keep fighting the good fight. You are not helping to make better kids but you are saving lives. It is time for US SOCCER to build 30,000 Futsal courts throughout the inner cities of the US. In the words of JFK. "it's not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country". It is time for US SOCCER, Nike, Adidas, Wall Street and rest of Corporate America to step up and fight the good fight with people like David and Colin. You have the power and the resources to help start this REVOLUTION! Using soccer as vehicle to transform kids into great players but most
    importantly transform these children in becoming
    good human beings through the beautiful game. It is time for radical change. It is time for a US Soccer REVOLUTION!!!!! It is time for the power brokers of America to step up and do something great for the Children of the USA. A round ball and place to play can create miracles. I have seen it.

  4. beautiful game, November 23, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    IMHO, coaches at youth level need to provide the proper training concept, and when it comes to game time, they need to watch and let the kids play without the usual screaming of directions. Halftime is when they should address any problems and how to better exploit the opponent. If a team can't function in practice, don't expect miracles in game match competition when it counts. Basic philosophy is the need to 'keep it simple' and make things happen.

  5. Thomas Hosier, November 23, 2013 at 1:03 p.m.

    A great Soccer Advocacy article Mike! Thanks for sharing. There are likely a million Messi's out there that can't afford pay to play. Well probably not a million but huge numbers fall out annually due to Competitive Youth Soccer Money Pit.

    See you at the pitch!

  6. BJ Genovese, November 23, 2013 at 1:12 p.m.

    We currently drive up to 8 hours to have our Son participate in the Bay areas PDP run out of Norcal Premier Soccer. This program is responsible for identifying a rather large number of youth players that are now in our national team pool. They are top notch and the program is free. Probably one of the reasons its producing the best talent from the Bay Area and surrounding areas from Fresno to the Oregon border. The coaching is absolute top shelf. Paolo Bonomo, Ben Ziemer, and Ian Mork just to name a few. I consider myself luck to have found these people and I give them direct credit for my sons critical development.
    Their business model should be looked at by any clubs looking to set up a solid well based program. They have a flow chart on there website that starts with PDP. It can give your player several opportunities to be recognized from PDP, ID2, a trial with a professional club oversees to National team training centers. This program is doing exactly what the title of this article asks and doing it in San Francisco and its doing it right. I did notice that just recently any kids on the National team roster or with a USSDA club are no longer attending which I though was odd considering that these guys identified most of these kids. But im sure there must be a good reason. I love what Cony said with the JFK quote and it was inspiring to read his comment. He is right. I wish that would happen.

  7. beautiful game, November 23, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.

    Mr. T.H., players like CR7 and Messi et al come once in a generation. No doubt that the strategy for the development of players needs to be top shelf and that's where we usually fail because the emphasis is mostly on athleticism instead of the other attributes and nuances of the game.

  8. Kent James, November 24, 2013 at 12:28 a.m.

    As the opening shot in Cony's revolution, San Francisco would be a great place to build a number of futsal courts that could be utilized 24-7 w/no maintenance issues. They would also allow a bunch of kids to play in a small, confined space, and of course futsal would develop their ball skills. It'd be nice if the USSF provided some money to build the infrastructure to help the Wilkinson brothers reach those kids.

  9. beautiful game, November 24, 2013 at 4:27 p.m.

    Amici sportive, look at the MLS players who on the most part can't take pressure, have limited field vision, concept of presence, and quite frankly a marginal soccer aptitude to make things happen. The system in place does not work well enough to develop quality players. And let's not be delusional when mentioning Messi et al in this development analysis.

  10. R2 Dad, November 24, 2013 at 5:11 p.m.

    Great idea, Kent. Unfortunately, a 25'x100' lot in SF is about $400K-$500K. Perhaps Warren Buffet and Bill Gates want to join the revolution? In lieu of that, I'd settle for the SFUSD (school district) allowing soccer on the playground. As it is now, my kid's principal doesn't, and the aftercare program only allows it w/ 25 kids on a basketball court instead of 5v5 or some team-based play. Apparently, it's not OK to have losing teams, so they avoid teams all-together. Don't get me started....

  11. cony konstin, November 27, 2013 at 7:03 p.m.

    In 2010 both US Futsal National Coach Keith Tozer and myself witness the President of the Spanish FA telling 35 FIFA Coaching instructors that one of the main reasons that Spain won the World Cup was because he implemented Futsal in every school in the Mid 80s. There are many abandon tennis courts throughout the inner cities of America. Tennis is dying sport in the US especially in the inner cities. So convert these tennis courts to futsal courts and they will come. These would be the field of dreams for our inner city kids. Hopefully US Soccer, Corporate America, School districts, local police dept, sherrif dept, and religious institutions can come together to do something big for our inner city kids who are in need of futsal courts and role models as well. If Spain did it. So can we.

  12. peter mcginn, December 28, 2013 at 1:46 p.m.

    I have three kids playing on academy clubs and girls D1. I can't tell you the number of empty tennis courts exist in the bay area on any given sunday. The City is no exception. I have friends in Madrid, Spain and their kids never touch a grass field playing 11 v 11. Everything is small sided futsal, 8 v 8 stuff and only the rare and I suspect high level kids ever get to to a big field. It's more fun especially for the little guys and obviously much better for them to learn to be comfortable on the ball. Parking lots work too...couple of goals, cones and some asphalt and your good to go. My son's team used to play a the college parking lot in winter, the lot was lighted and let them play in winter. My son refs local rec stuff and I have seen U9-u10 rec teams playing 11v 11 on big fields with long grass and two sideline refs and a center...easiest money my kid ever made but a total disservice to the kids and the unknowing parents. All done with the best intentions but man is it misguided. We have only played two SF teams in the 6 years we have been involved...Ironically with no fancy grass fields the kids will bet better faster and then they can go out to the burbs and show em how it's done.

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