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As NFL & NBA Prepare Their Exit, Soccer Takes Shape as Oakland's Sport of the Future

Oakland has been a sports town since 1903, when the Oakland Oaks debuted in the Pacific Coast League.  While the PCL is strictly a minor league today, in those days it was an independent league with a lot of major league quality talent that simply didn’t get noticed due to the travel and economics of the time.  This was true through the 1930s, when Joe DiMaggio starred across the Bay with the San Francisco Seals for three seasons before stepping right into the New York Yankees lineup in 1936 and hitting .324 with 29 homers.

Ultimately Oakland would get Major League Baseball, when the Athletics moved to Oakland from Kansas City in 1968.  By that time, the Oakland Raiders of the upstart American Football League were already a major league operation in town, and unlike the PCL which became a minor league, the AFL would soon force a merger with its more established rival, the National Football League. In 1971, the NBA’s Warriors would move across the Bay from San Francisco to Oakland, taking the name Golden State Warriors in hopes of appealing to all of California.

The Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982, but found that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side of California, and came home in 1995.  Now, Oakland’s NFL team is heading out of town again, this time for the desert, and the bright lights of Las Vegas.  The Warriors, in a golden age on the basketball court, have a shiny new arena under construction back across the Bay in San Francisco.  There is a hole opening up in the Oakland sports landscape, and what better way to fill it than with the beautiful game, soccer.

The first pro soccer renaissance in the United States happened in the 1920s. As with most sports, it started out on the East Coast and moved westward along with the country’s population.  Clubs closely associated with or owned by companies, such as Bethlehem Steel FC and the Fall River Marksmen, fought for the title in the American Soccer League, and battled it out for the National Challenge Cup, as the US Open Cup was known at the time.

Many of the players on these early clubs were immigrant workers at local companies, working during the day and playing on the weekends. One of the first great players in American soccer history was Archie Stark, a prolific goalscorer born in Glasgow.  Stark immigrated to the US at age 13, started play for the Scottish-Americans of the National Association Football League by age 14.  After serving in World War I, Stark returned to the pitch.  He would become best known for his time with Bethlehem Steel of the ASL, where he’s credited with a Giorgio Chinaglia-like 240 goals in 213 matches.  Stark appeared twice for the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT), scoring five goals in a pair of friendlies against Canada.

The first ASL ran from 1923-1933, the era in which the United States made it to the semi-finals of the 1930 World Cup. A second ASL was re-established later in 1933, and would run until 1983. Haitian immigrant Joe Gaetjens of the ASL’s Brookhattan was the USMNT’s goalscorer in the 1950 World Cup World Cup upset of England.  The 1950 World Cup was the last  appearance the USMNT would make in the tournament for 40 years.

Investment in pro soccer was sparked in the late 1960’s due to the success of “Goal!”, a documentary on the 1966 World Cup which earned a large TV audience.  Two rival leagues  backed by competing investors took the field in 1967, the National Professional Soccer League (not to be confused with today’s National Premier Soccer League), and the United Soccer Association.  The USA featured foreign teams playing under local US city branding.

The Oakland Clippers played in the 1967 NPSL, and won the league.  Oakland came back from a 0-1 deficit in the first leg of the final, away at the Baltimore Bays. The Clippers won the home tie 4-1 in front of 9,037 fans at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium.  The Bay Area also had a team in the USA, the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales.  The Gales were really the Dutch club ADO Den Haag in disguise.  The leagues would merge in 1968 to form the classic North American Soccer League, and of the two Bay Area clubs, the Oakland Clippers would make the jump to the NASL. 1968 would be the Clippers’ last season, though they played an exhibition schedule as the California Clippers in 1969.

NASL would return to the Bay Area in 1974, with the original iteration of the San Jose Earthquakes taking the field.  World football icon George Best lined up for the Earthquakes from 1980-81, burying 21 goals in 56 matches (as well as 33 goals in 21 games for San Jose’s indoor team).  The Earthquakes stayed in NASL until its final season in 1984.

The American Soccer League, at this point overshadowed by the NASL, featured the Berkeley-based Oakland Buccaneers for a one-off season in 1976.  Not long after, the Oakland Stompers joined NASL for a single season in 1978.  The Stompers were owned by Milan Mandaric, who at one time or another has owned a number of clubs across the world, including Portsmouth, Leicester City and Sheffield Wednesday in England.  The Stompers featured well-known goalkeeper Shep Messing, and finished in third place in the American Conference’s Western Division.  Like the Clippers before them, the Stompers played out of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  They drew an average of 11,929 fans per match. The Stompers, which had been moved to Oakland from Hartford, were a one-and-done team, relocating to Edmonton for the 1979 season.

Outdoor US pro soccer went through lower profile period from the end of the original NASL in 1984 until the start of MLS in 1996, however the Bay Area still had a run of glory. The region boasted three straight years of US Open Cup wins by its clubs.  The US Open Cup is one of the world’s longest continuously running soccer competitions, and is our answer to England’s renowned FA Cup. The San Jose Oaks lifted the trophy in 1992, followed by San Francisco’s El Farolito in 1993.  Greek American A.C. of San Francisco won the cup in 1994, for the second time in their history.  Greek American A.C. had also won the US Open Cup in 1985, when they became the only the second Bay Area club to do so after San Francisco Italian Athletic Club in 1976.  The 1976 SFIAC cup winners were coached by Bay Area soccer legend Stephen Negoesco, for whom USF’s stadium is named.

The 1994 World Cup came to the Bay Area, with five matches at Stanford Stadium, including  Brazil’s 1-0 victory over the United States in the Round of 16.  The World Cup set the stage for the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996.  The very first MLS match was played in the Bay Area, with the San Jose Clash beating eventual champions D.C. United 1-0 on a goal from California native Eric Wynalda, at Spartan Stadium in front of 31,683 fans.  The Clash would rebrand to the classic NASL moniker San Jose Earthquakes for the 2000 season.  The franchise departed for Houston to become the Dynamo after the 2005 campaign, but returned in the form of an expansion franchise called San Jose Earthquakes in 2008.  By this time, the arrival of David Beckham and the box-office success of the new club Toronto ushered in an era of greater success for the previously struggling MLS.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the Bay Area saw a number of lower league clubs come and go.  The San Francisco Bay Blackhawks, San Francisco Seals (sharing the name of Joe DiMaggio’s old PCL club), the San Francisco Bay Diablos, San Jose Hawks, Santa Cruz Surf, Silicon Valley Firebirds and the California Victory were among the region’s teams in the various iterations of leagues that would evolve into today’s United Soccer League.

This year, the San Francisco Deltas debuted in the modern North American Soccer League, playing out of historic Kezar Stadium.  The Deltas got off to a fast start on the pitch, finishing in second place in the NASL Spring Season.

The foundation of Bay Area soccer, and specifically the East Bay, are the local amateur clubs. The East Bay Stompers play out of Pioneer Stadium in Hayward, once used by FC Gold Pride of Women’s Professional Soccer.  The Stompers’ fellow modern NPSL club CD Aguiluchos USA plays at Burrell Field in San Leandro.  The Oakland Pamperos represent the city in the United Premier Soccer League.  Over 40 local soccer clubs play in the NorCal Premier League’s East Bay Region.

The support for the beautiful game in the East Bay is incredible. 62,583 fans packed Memorial Stadium in Berkeley to watch Real Madrid and Inter Milan square off in 2014. Fans flocked to see Mexican teams Club America and Morellia square off in Oakland in 2011, and nearly 40,000 people came out to witness David Beckham’s first game vs the Earthquakes, which was played in the Coliseum in Oakland.  The American Outlaws Oakland chapter, over 100 members strong, gather at Overland Bar & Grill in Jack London Square to watch every USMNT match.

Soccer may have grown in fits and starts in the United States, but there are many reasons to believe it is the sport of the future here.  Like basketball, soccer is a game that requires little equipment, making accessible to anyone with a ball-like object and some friends.  Internationally it thrives in urban areas, as basketball has here.  Long term population and cultural trends are shifting in the favor of the beautiful game.  Soccer reflects the United States’ tradition as a melting pot of cultures, providing a common thread that unites people of different backgrounds.  Diversity comes naturally to the sport.

Leagues like the National Premier Soccer League have given a platform for people from different backgrounds in an area to unite around civic pride.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Detroit, a city that like Oakland has been counted out by many outsiders.  The semi-pro club Detroit City FC was started in 2012 by five friends who wanted to give their community something to rally around in difficult times.  DCFC averaged a very respectable 1,295 in their first season, and grew each year until in 2016, they had to move out of the high school stadium they used into a venue with a larger capacity.  In 2017, 7,533 fans from different parts of the community packed Keyworth Stadium to cheer their city’s club on in the NPSL playoffs, united in pride for Detroit.

Soccer offers fans an experience that binds itself to community more than any other sport.  In the format of the game played in most leagues around the world, players are signed from their local area and grow as stars with their hometown clubs.  The most elite players often end up transferring to a national or world power, reaping a financial windfall for the local club that can help propel it to the next level. The global game does not have amatuer drafts, and each club mines its local area for talent in order to raise its chances to rise up the league system through a process known as promotion and relegation.

In this type of model, C.C. Sabathia might have developed in a local youth academy and pitched for the Athletics until the Yankees wanted to compensate the A’s for his services.  Gary Payton and Jason Kidd would have come up with the Warriors, and might have brought about the current renaissance on a bit earlier.  Marshawn Lynch would have joined the Raiders early on instead of in the back end of his career.  Soccer binds its stars closer to their communities, and the communities to them.

As the NFL and NBA leave Oakland for what they believe to be greener pastures, it leaves a void in the community that professional soccer can fill.  The colorful sports fan community in Oakland and pro soccer are a match made in heaven.  Soccer is a sport that embraces and celebrates movements like Raider Nation.  Expressions of passion are welcome.  While the game action is on the field, community pride is on display for 90 minutes in the stands.  People from different races, religions and social classes are brought together as one behind the symbol of their community.

Soccer today stands undeniably as the most popular sports industry in the world, with unheralded growth in television and media coverage making possible the astronomical player transfer fees seen in recent years as clubs compete for the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.  In the United States, the hotbed of soccer is nearby in the Pacific Northwest.  The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers show that pro soccer can make a major league impact on a community.

In Portland, the Timber Army exemplifies what the spirit of a Raider Nation could translate to, in soccer terms.  On match days, the colorful members of the Timber Army show up in full voice to cheer on their club, and demonstrate the pride of a united Portland community.  Outside of match days, the supporters organize together to make a real impact on that community through the 107ist Trust, which provides volunteer efforts to help local food banks, public schools, improving community spaces such as playgrounds and donating to the Red Cross.  Perhaps the best example was a charity match for a local youth put on by the Timbers and Timbers Army along with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The NFL and NBA teams leaving contributes to the outdated national narrative that Oakland is a city on the downturn.  Oakland is a city on the rise, and the fastest growing sport in America is a vehicle in which to demonstrate that.  A pro soccer team can prove it by giving the community something to rally around, after the Raiders and Warriors are gone.  Something that appeals across the city’s many communities, from Latinos, to African-Americans, to immigrants of all kinds, to millennials who work in San Francisco or in the South Bay but have chosen to make their homes in Oakland.  Together, they can fill the stands as is done in Portland and Detroit and in other places across the country, wearing “Oakland” gear, signing songs to lift up their home town team and each other, forging bonds across neighborhood lines, bonds that they take with them outside the stadium.  Civic pride is the best outcome of professional sports, and no sport does it better than soccer.  Oakland will continue to be a strong and proud community after the NBA and NFL leave the city, and soccer is a way to help adapt and bring about a brighter future for Oakland.

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Chris Kivlehan enjoys writing about lower league US pro soccer because of the rapid growth of the sport at that level. He is a New York Cosmos season ticket holder and also frequents Bethlehem Steel FC matches because they are closer to his home. You can follow him on Twitter @kivlehan and read his articles on lower league soccer at http://midfieldpress.com/author/ckivlehan/.