History of Soccer in the San Francisco Bay Region

The Amateur Era, 1890-1966 | The NASL Era, 1967-1984 | The Semi-Pro Era, 1985-1995 | Return of Pro Soccer, 1996-present

The Amateur Era, 1890-1966

As in many parts of the country, soccer first made its appearance in northern California in the late 19th century. Soon the California Foot Ball league, Western League and other circuits were founded, which led to the formation of the California State Football Association in 1902. In 1904, the Association launched the California State Senior Challenge Cup (later renamed the State Cup), and the John O. Belis Perpetual Trophy which attracted the best teams from the area. Although San Francisco never achieved the level of success realized by counterparts in Los Angeles in the late 20th century, the San Francisco region dominated California soccer until the 1950s, and enjoyed a lively local soccer scene. In 1909, the Pacific Coast Championship was held, with All-California defeating Southern California 6-0 and 3-0. College soccer also made an early appearance. By 1914, the Williamson Cup had been established as a local college championship. Stanford Beat California in the 1914 edition.

Early local powerhouses included Pastimes, Thistle, Burns and Albion Rovers, and most of all, Independents, which won the Senior Challenge Cup three years in a row from 1904-1906. Other major winners were Pastime (Belis trophy, 1913, 14, 15), Barbarians (Senior Cup 1915, 1922, 1925, Belis Trophy in 1924), Union Works (four Senior Cups 1916-1919 and Belis trophy 1917,18,22), Thistle (Belis Trophy 1904, 1910, 1920, 1921), Vampires (Senior Cup 1907, 1910, 1914, Belis Trophy in 1910, 1911) and Burns (Senior Cup 1908, 1912, 1926, 1931) The most impressive dynasty was Olympics which won the Senior Cup in 1920, 21, 24, 32, 33 and 1946, and the Belis Trophy in 1916, 19, 23, 25, 26 and five consecutive victories from 1930-1934.

College soccer was established early in the 20th century, but the teams were very isolated, with travel outside the region difficult. The California Intercollegiate Soccer Conference was founded in 1926, with the first four titles won by San Mateo Junior College. After a win by Stanford in 1931, San Francisco won four straight titles, followed by three by California/Berkeley, and four by San Jose State.

By the time Olympics’ first run of titles wound down in 1931, many of the early prominent soccer clubs were gone. The California League had been superseded by the San Francisco Soccer League, which was soon joined by the Peninsula League down in San Jose. The new pre-war and wartime dynasties were the Rovers (Senior Cup in 1930, 1937, Belis Trophy four years straight 1935-1938 plus 1941) and American A. C Teutonia (Senior Cup 1947, Belis Trophy 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947 and 1949 and 1955). After the War, San Francisco A. C. and the Vikings Club were the new forces to be reckoned with; Vikings, who had won the Senior Cup in 1936, rose back to take the Belis Trophy in 1952, the State Cup in 1954 and both cups in 1953, while San Francisco Athletic Club won the Senior Cup in 1949, 1951 and 1952, and Belis in 1950 and 1951.

The College Bowl was established in 1949 as a first attempt to create a national soccer championship. San Francisco took part in the first edition, held in St. Louis, on account of their perfect 8-0 record. In a nail biter of a game, San Francisco battled Penn State to a 1-1 draw. San Francisco qualified for the 1951 edition but was unable to make it due to travel costs. So for 1952, the game was held at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco where 10,000 fans saw Temple sail to a 2-0 shutout. There was controversy over alleged favoritism and other problems, and the Bowl was discontinued after this edition.

The university of San Francisco began their great dynasty with a conference title in 1948 – their first in thirteen years. They would go on to win ten more consecutive titles through 1958. As the 1960s approached, the San Francisco Scots and San Francisco Greek-American became the new amateur powerhouses, winning the most Cups and league titles of any club. The Scots also were the first team from San Francisco to make it to the U. S. Open Cup finals where they lost to New York Hungaria in 1962. San Francisco based teams sometimes took part in the Kennedy Cup between 1961 and 1967, battling with other west coast teams from Mexico to Canada.

The NASL Era, 1967-1984

Professional soccer arrived in San Francisco in 1967 with the founding of the rival United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League. The U.S.A. consisted of major international teams from around the world who played in the circuit during their off-season, to keep in shape. The U.S.A. placed ADO Den Hague of Holland in San Francisco and named them the San Francisco Gales. Meanwhile, the un-sanctioned National (outlaw) Professional Soccer League established the Oakland Clippers as their area franchise. The Oakland Clippers did quite well, winning the Western Division title and beating the Baltimore Bays 0-1 and 4-1 (5-2 aggregate) for the league title, and drew about 5,000 fans per game. The Gales drew about 5,300 per game and finished in second place. The league rivalry was contentious however, and an agreement was reached to merge them together as the USSF-sanctioned North American Soccer League. The Gales did not survive the transition, but the Clippers in 1968 went 18-6, tying for the Pacific Division title. Attendance was down however, as it was across the league and floods of red ink caused the league to shed most of its teams, including the Clippers. The first professional era was over almost before it began.

For a few years, the colleges and amateur scene were all that was left. Fortunately, the University of San Francisco squad was continuing its dominance, winning conference titles in 1965, 66, 71, 73 and 1978, and gained national prominence with NCAA titles in 1966, 1975, 1976 and 1978 (and a finals appearance in 1969). San Jose State got into the action, winning Pacific Conference titles four straight years from 1967-1970. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Scots continued winning San Francisco League and State Cup titles, and the San Jose Grenadiers became the first area team to appear in the finals of the National Amateur Cup, losing to Philadelphia Inter in 1972. Furthering the area’s national prominence, San Francisco A. C. won the region’s first U. S. Open Cup title in 1976, beating New York Inter-Giuliana 1-0, and the San Francisco Glens made the National Amateur Cup finals in 1979.

San Francisco caught the eye of the National teams during the 1970’s. The U. S. Olympic team made its first visit to the city on May 10, 1972 for an Olympic qualifying match against Mexico, and earned a 2-2 draw. The following year, the US National Team made its area debut in a match against Poland at Kezar Stadium, but suffered a humiliating 4-0 shutout. The Olympic squad returned in 1975, this time winning 2-0 against Bermuda; alas it was not enough to earn them qualification.

In 1974, The NASL endeavored embarked on a national expansion program, and soon got firm commitments for franchises in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Seattle. However, to make it work financially and cut down costs, they needed a 4th west coast team. League officials approached Lica Corp.’s founder Milan Mandaric about setting up a team in San Francisco, and he agreed to join the league on the condition that the team be based in San Jose. The NASL, needing that 4th franchise, agreed and the San Jose Earthquakes were born, bringing professional soccer back to the Bay Area.

With international stars such as Yugoslavia’s Boris Bandov, and England’s Paul Child and Laurie Calloway, the Earthquakes won the hearts of local fans, who turned out an amazing rate of 16,000+ per game. They finished just above .500 that first season, but Paul Child won honors as the league’s top scorer. The first season was a major success, finally establishing a beachhead for pro soccer to the region Even a last place finish in 1975 couldn’t dampen the spirits, as attendance climbed over 17,000, and nearly hit 20,000 per game in 1976, when they won the Southern Division title and reached the conference semifinals.

The Earthquakes success was not lost on other soccer administrators, and when the Division 2 American Soccer League expanded to the west coast in 1976 they launched Oakland Buccaneers; however this team did not fare so well, the Buccaneers only lasted one season, and a later attempt, the Golden Gate Gales of 1983 fared no better. Meanwhile in the last major NASL expansion, the Oakland Stompers took to the field to provide some local competition. The Stompers did major community outreach efforts, working with youth soccer programs and advertised extensively. The Stompers drew well at the gate, but struggled on the field and suffered from ownership problems, team moved to Edmonton for 1979.

The National Teams continued to visit San Francisco during the Earthquakes era; over 17,000 saw the US beat China in October 1977 and two years later, the Soviet Union beat the Nats at Kezar stadium. The US Olympic team returned to defeat Costa Rica during qualification for the 1980 Games, but that victory lost all relevance when the US boycotted the games

The Earthquakes never got into the international player market to the extent that the Cosmos, Rowdies and Sounders did, but the team always drew well at the gate, even in their less successful later years. The Earthquakes dabbled in indoor soccer for a time, playing two seasons in the NASL Indoor League and (by then known as the Golden bay Earthquakes) one season in the major indoor Soccer League. San Jose resided in the cellar of their division during their last few years, but always remained a hit with the fans and drew good crowds right up until they folded along with the league in 1984.

The irony of the NASL’s demise is it came right after the Olympic Games had provided record breaking soccer crowds to Palo Alto during the pool play and the knockout tournament, showing that US fans would support soccer if the product was right. The USA played twice at Stanford Stadium, drawing 1-1 with Egypt and shutting out Costa Rica before an unprecedented 78,265 fans – a match which broke the previous attendance record set by the Cosmos in 1977. This record would be broken just days later at the gold medal match in Pasadena.

The Semi-Pro Era, 1985-1995

There was not much going on in the local soccer scene after the Earthquakes’ departure save at the college level. San Francisco continued to enjoy consistent success, following their 1978 and 1980 NCAA titles with West coast Conference titles in 1981, 82, 83, 85, 86, and 1987. Santa Clara won their first conference title in 1984.

Professional soccer did not take long to return. In fact, a year after the NASL folded, a new team sprang up, named itself the Earthquakes and joined with three other west coast teams to play a challenge tournament, which was won by the San Jose. The success of the event led the teams to upgrade the tournament to a full-fledged league, called the Western Soccer Alliance. The Earthquakes played well if not dominatingly, and made it to the finals in 1987 and 1988 before folding. During this time, the National team started to make the bay region a regular destination, defeating Costa Rica in a 1989 World Cup qualifying match in San Jose, and took on the Soviet Union before 61,000 at Palo Alto’s Stanford Stadium in 1990, losing 1-0. Argentina and China followed in the next couple years, with the US victorious in the latter game.

A year after the Earthquakes folded, the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks were founded and immediately made an impact in the Western Soccer League (formerly the WSA). Drawing from the strong support of the community, the team featured several stars who would rise to prominence with the U. S. National team, including Eric Wynalda, who would set a national team career record for goals scored, Marcelo Balboa, John Doyle, Dominic Kinnear, and Troy Dayak. Wynalda, Balboa and Doyle would go on to represent the United states in the 1994 World Cup, for which Palo Alto was a host city. The Blackhawks were an immediate success, winning the North Division title in 1989.

The WSA (Now the Western Soccer League) merged with the third American Soccer League in 1990 to form an unwieldy 20-team league for 1990, the American Professional Soccer League, which received USSF sanctioning as the USA’s 2nd division league, making them the top league in the nation, one with (ultimately unsuccessful) aspirations of growing to Division 1 status. The Blackhawks continued in fine form, winning the WSL conference title, before falling to Maryland Bays in the APSL title match. The APSL contracted greatly for 1991, but the Blackhawks were just reaching their prime, winning the league championship, and were arguably the most powerful soccer team in the country. Their tenure was however as short as it was brilliant. After a third place finish in 1992, the team withdrew from the APSL to pursue a spot in the Mexican league. After being rebuffed, they landed entered the 3rd division United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL) as the San Jose Hawks, along with the California Jaguars, an expansion franchise. The magic was gone by now, and the hawks folded after a season, but the jaguars played on with varying degrees of success until 1999.

The Blackhawks had not been the only exciting team during the pre-MLS era. The University of San Francisco continued to win conference titles, snagging top spot in 1991, 1993 and 1994, and the Santa Clara women’s team won the West Coast title in 1993, and the Stanford women took the Pac-10 championships in 1993, 1995 and 1996. The Santa Clara men’s team won NCAA titles in 1989 and 1991.

On the amateur front, the San Francisco Glens returned to the National Amateur Cup finals in 1990, and were followed by San Francisco El Farolito in 1991. Since then however, no Bay area team has made the finals, and no area team has ever won this competition. At the U. S. Open Cup however, area teams found increasing success, winning three consecutive U. S. Open Cups – the San Jose Oaks in 1992, San Francisco CD Mexico in 1993 and San Francisco Greek-American in 1994. Unfortunately, the Open Cup was reorganized in 1995 with professional leagues again taking part, putting the amateur clubs at a severe disadvantage, and the mini-dynasty came to an abrupt end.

Fans were braced for the excitement of the World Cup in 1994, with six matches scheduled for the massive Stanford Stadium at Palo Alto. As a warm-up the Nats played two friendlies in 1993, drawing with Russia in February and losing 3-0 to Germany before 52,000 fans in December. Seven months later, big-time soccer returned to the region, with six World Cup games on the schedule.

The Olympic matches had proven a major spectacle, but the World Cup put those memories to shame. Five of the six matches boasted of crowds greater than 80,000, highlighted by the second round match between the USA and Brazil and the quarterfinal match between Sweden and Romania. The USA-Brazil match was scintillating (albeit ultimately heartbreaking) as the US held Brazil scoreless until the 67th minute before allowing the game winning goal. It was quite an impressive match for the underdog Americans against the world’s top ranked team. This game was also the genesis for the formation of Sam’s Army, as it is where the founders met and discussed the problem of the National Team facing hostile crowds even in their own home country. The solution they devised was to have a supporters club to cheer for them at the home games and get the us fans in on the action, and a year later, Sam’s Army made its debut

Return of Pro Soccer, 1996-present

Shortly after the mesmerizing World Cup matches, long-time soccer fans rejoiced when the newly formed Major League Soccer announced that the Bay Area would be getting a charter team, the San Jose Clash. Despite the odd nickname and gaudy uniforms, the Clash were an immediate hit. Eric Wynalda was the biggest of the major stars on the team, and 32,000 fans watched the Clash in the first ever MLS match in the spring of 1996. The team had an instant fan base, as many old-timers had vivid memories of the glory years of the Earthquakes. Unfortunately, the Clash picked up right where the Earthquakes had left off, and languished near the bottom of the standings for their first five seasons. That all changed in 2001 when the team (renamed the Earthquakes in 2000) came to life with an influx of strong talent and they won their first MLS Cup defeating archrival Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1. The Earthquakes repeated this feat two years later, beating Chicago for the MLS CUP triumph in 2003.

Meanwhile, at division 3, a number of teams came and went during the early 1990s. In 1992, three area teams joined the USISL in 1992-93 – the Palo Alto Firebirds, San Francisco United All-Blacks, and San Francisco Bay Diablos. The Firebirds won the league title that first season, but folded a year later, and the Diablos lasted three mediocre years. Meanwhile the All-Blacks, after struggling their first two years would achieve some major success. Renamed San Francisco United in 1994, they two consecutive divisional titles. Renamed the San Francisco Bay Seals, the club achieved its greatest success in 1997, following another divisional title with a historic run to the U. S. Open Cup semifinals, defeating the Division 2 Seattle Sounders, and eliminating two MLS clubs, Kansas City Wiz, and their regional rivals, the San Jose Clash before falling to D. C. United in the semifinals. Buoyed by this success, the Seals moved up to the Division 2 A-League, but struggled for three seasons, and were relegated to the 3rd division in 2000, but folded before the season began.

Interestingly enough, the less successful California Jaguars accomplished the one feat that eluded the Bay Seals, winning a USISL D3Pro League Championship in 1996, although they only lasted three more seasons. Indoor soccer was given another try when the San Francisco Grizzlies joined the new Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993, but they folded after 1 season. Women’s soccer made its league debut with the founding of the California Storm who won the USWISL’s informal 1994 proto-season and were a mainstay during the league’s first three seasons before bolting (along with the other west coast teams) to the Women’s Premier Soccer League in 1998. Other USWISL teams (Vikings, Nightmares) however, were short-lived.

The Bay Area became a popular destination for the US National Team in the post-world cup years, with the US defeating Canada and Costa Rica during World Cup ’98 qualifications Oakland Coliseum was a venue for the 1998 Gold Cup, with local fans cheering for the US as they defeated Costa Rica and Cuba during pool play. In an accelerating trend, the National Team was playing more domestic games in cities with MLS teams where they would be guaranteed a built-in fan base. As a result, Clash fans were treated to matches against Macedonia and Australia in 1998, with the home team drawing 1-1 in both games. The Women’s National team made their first trip to the region in 1997 with a 5-0 thrashing of England at Spartan Stadium, and followed this with an even more lopsided 7-0 win over Argentina the following spring. To this date, the US has been undefeated in 6 games at Spartan, and only been scored against once.

World Cup excitement returned again to the Bay Area in 1999 with Palo Alto serving as a host city. By far the highlight of the Palo Alto matches was the “rematch” with Brazil in the semifinals. This game had interesting parallels to the famous 1994 World Cup match: Both games were at Palo Alto, played on Independence Day July 4, the opponent was Brazil, and the crowd was massive. But this time, the USA won (2-0) and went on to ultimate victory at Pasadena.

The other major pro splash occurred in 2001 with the launch of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first women’s professional league. The area was represented by the San Bay Area (Later San Francisco) CyberRays, who boasted a bevy of talent on their roster, including National Team members Brandi Chastain and Tisha Venturini, and Brazilian stars Sissi and Katia. The CyberRays won the first league championship (The Founders Cup) in 2001, and played well, if not spectacularly in 202 and 2003. Unfortunately, financial woes led to the collapse of WUSA in 2003 after three expensive but exciting seasons. Area fans had little time to recover from the loss of the CyberRays when financial problems led to the sale of the Earthquakes and their departure to Houston. Suddenly, the region was again without any pro soccer!

Attempts were made to keep teams going at the lower divisions. The Skyhawks were a short-lived team in the WPSL from 1998-99, and the California Gold joined the USL’s Premier Development (Amateur) League in 2002. The Gold has survived to this day (2010) but has yet to advance far in the playoffs. United Soccer Leagues (the renamed USISL) launched the California Victory in their top league to great fanfare in 2007, but the team was a disaster, folding after 1 season. The late and lamented San Francisco Bay Seals were resurrected in 2006 in the PDL, but the magic never returned and they felt keenly the competition from the National Premier Soccer League’s Division 3 rival, the san Francisco Frogs. Not feeling up to the competition for fans, the Seals withdrew from the PDL in 2008, ironically just before the Frogs folded! Perhaps the most successful of the teams was the California Storm who won league titles in the Women’s Premier League in 2002, 2004 and 2006. Indoor soccer returned a third time when the California Cougars joined the new Major Indoor Soccer League in 2005. Never a successful franchise, the Cougars left for the PASL when the MISL folded in 2008.

The National Teams continued to make regular appearances. The Men played Wales at Spartan in San Jose in 2003, followed by the Women v. Mexico (the Women actually drew a bigger crowd, but both teams were victorious. The Men finally returned to San Francisco proper in 2006 with their debut at SBD Park in 2006 where they defeated Japan in a pre-World Cup friendly by a score of 3-2 before nearly 40,000. Both the men and women returned to Spartan in 2007, beating China and Japan respectively.

On the college front, Univ. of San Francisco continued their winning ways, picking up conference titles in 2004, 2005 and 2008, while California won the pac-10 in 2006 and 2007 (Stanford took the honors in 2001), and the Stanford Women won the Pac-10 title in 2002 and 2009. Santa Clara’s women won West Coast titles in 2001, 2003 and 2006, and to date (2010) are the only area team to win the NCAA Division 1 Championship, achieving that in 2001, and followed that triumph with a return trip to the Championship match in 2002.

Fans could be excused for feeling cynical about the constant parade of teams coming and going during the first decade of the 21st century, but they were very excited when Major League Soccer, never happy over the way the Earthquakes had left the city, awarded a new franchise to San Jose for 2008. The new team inherited the original Earthquake’s name and records, and was accepted enthusiastically by the fans. The Earthquakes finished in last place for their first two seasons, but the fans have learned how to persevere and it was expected success would be coming their way before too long. Even better, with the expansion of MLS into Seattle in 2009, and the pending expansion to Portland and Vancouver in 2011, all the major west coast NASL cities now had pro teams and large fan bases, with the promise of many exciting rivalries evoking the glorious seasons of the NASL era.

Recently, the Bay Area has seen touring foreign teams making stops in the area, evoking memories of the tours of yesteryear. In 2006, Morelia played America at Spartan Stadium, and in July 19, America and Internazionale battled to a 1-1 draw before 31,026 fans at New Stanford Stadium. This will be followed by Portsmouth vs. Club America in San Francisco in 2010.

Although the soccer scene in San Francisco Bay can’t quite match the enormous soccer world down in Los Angeles, the Bay Area is still one of the major soccer centers of the nation. With a new MLS team, the ever-successful college programs, International matches, world cup qualifiers and the possibility of a pro women’s team, there is enough going on to keep the local soccer scene a lively one.