After nearly a decade of absences, San Francisco will provide a team in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup for the second consecutive year with supporter-owned San Francisco City Football Club.
The city, which has provided three different champions to the tournament, had seen a dearth of squads qualify for the Open Cup since the demise of the California Victory in 2007.
Last year’s qualification for SF City brought the tournament back to the bay, where it lost 2-1 in controversial fashion at Kezar Stadium in the preliminary round in front of a record 1,419 fans.
This year, City are back, but amid much different circumstances.
After qualifying in 2015 as the lone representative of US Club Soccer by winning the NorCal Adult Premier League, SF City moved to the Premier Development League, considered as the strongest of the unsanctioned fourth divisions in the US.
“It’s definitely gonna be a step up in quality and we’ll be traveling a lot,” said president and CEO Jacques Pelham. “It’s gonna be a whole different experience than what we had this year for sure.”
Part of that extra travel— the club’s longest trip in the NorCal APL was roughly 70 miles northeast to Davis – included a weekend trip to Las Vegas where City was expected to open its season before bad weather resulted in a postponement.
Wednesday’s Open Cup game against CD Aguiluchos USA at the Beach Chalet Soccer Complex will mark the first time San Francisco fans will see their squad in action.
Previously, the club featured mostly former college players working full time in the city.
Now City will have the fitness of current college players, mostly drawn from around the area.
“There’s a core group of guys that are staying on from last year’s team, 10-to-12 of them, and then the remainder will be guys that we’ve recruited, a lot of guys from local colleges: University of San Francisco, San Francisco State, Stanford, Cal,” Pelham said. “We’ll be taking, basically the core group that played last year, and then complimenting them with some top level college guys from around the Bay Area, but also around the whole nation.”
In addition to the college players and club favorites like Johannes Dimarzi, whose winning goal against Davis punched City’s ticket to the Open Cup in a 4-3 thriller, the City roster was fortified this offseason by the signing of a player familiar to Northern California and Open Cup fans in Adnan Gabeljic.
The former Sacramento Republic FC striker, who scored a hat trick in a 7-3 Third Round Republic win in 2015, elected to not return to professional soccer after a trial with Atlas of Mexico early this year.
Though the Republic wanted him to return, the towering Bosnian elected to pursue a career in engineering in San Francisco.
Ironically, the winner of the City-Aguiluchos game will advance to take on the Republic at Bonney Field in Sacramento, giving Gabeljic a possible chance to knock out his former employer.
Also gone from the club are the Gardner brothers, Andrew and Jordan, who previously served as the head coach and general manager, respectively, of San Fran City.
While Andrew left soccer, Jordan took the reigns as the president of PDL rival Burlingame Dragons, who play just 15 miles south.
Replacing Andrew is USSF B License holder Paddy Coyne, a native of Ireland.
The club lists no official general manager on its website.
Off the field though, City are in somewhat of a transitional phase as the NASL recently announced the addition of a San Francisco-based club, the Deltas, which signed an agreement to play at the same home venue as SF City in Kezar Stadium.
Instead of looking at the NASL club as competition, Pelham sees the Deltas as a good thing for Bay Area soccer, aspiring to turn his club professional as well.
“From our perspective, first, we are playing to be at the professional level in one to two years time,” Pelham said. “We think that’s still on track. In terms of the Deltas, when they start in 2017, it will be good for soccer in general across San Francisco and the Bay Area. If all things go to plan, we’ll be playing professionally in 2017, 2018 as well. It will be exciting for everybody.”
Though he was mum on what league that would be, MLS seems out of reach and the NASL is already occupied, leaving the USL as the most likely candidate.
For now though, the club which is owned 51 percent by fans who buy memberships instead of tickets, Pelham and City are happy to ride the wave that is the Open Cup.
“I think our story is pretty cool,” he said. “Even where we were at last year and now PDL and potentially being professional within a year or two after making the jump to PDL, it will be an exciting time for us this year, it will be an exciting time for soccer in general in the Bay Area with everything going on with the Copa America and everything.”