By Gabe Zitrin
A year removed from an exciting, exhausting, and frustrating, and electrifying debut in 2016, San Francisco City FC are just days away from their second Premier Development League season, and the anticipation has built to a fever pitch. Almost 70 percent of Major League Soccer draft picks since 2010 played in the PDL first, and SF City’s players know their opponents will harbor that dream every bit as much as they do. But the Iron and Gold are firing on all cylinders as they prepare to take on the hyper-competitive Southwest Division.
SF City were just three points short of a playoff spot in their first PDL season, but with a number of strong new opponents in the division this year, they’ll have to find consistent quality play to reach the postseason in 2017. “This should absolutely be a playoff team, and we’re not looking at anything less,” said head coach Paddy Coyne. “I’m not just saying that looking at the team sheet, I’m saying that looking at how we’re playing out there on the pitch, how we’re coming together and playing as a unit. This is a talented bunch of guys, guys with great attitudes, and they keep each other in the right mindset to win games.”
The PDL regular season is 14 games long, seven on the road and seven at home. As the northernmost team in the Southwest Division, most of SF City’s road trips take them to the greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas, but of course a derby visit to peninsula archrival Burlingame Dragons is circled on the schedule, too.
The roster boasts a healthy mix of veteran holdovers and energetic newcomers as Coyne and his staff seek the right chemistry and depth for the grueling schedule. Captain Danny Kirkland, a former University of San Francisco Don, returns to center midfield, vice captain Ben Brewster and USF stalwart Christian De Luna will once again anchor the back line, former Stanford Cardinal Bobby Edwards returns to the wing, and San Francisco State alum Ashley Watson is another face familiar to the fans.
Elsewhere around the pitch, the competition for regular season minutes has been fierce between a host of new faces that have taken the chance to impress during a successful preseason campaign. “There’s very few places where we don’t have a bunch of guys making a good case,” said Coyne. “I have a lot of the kind of problems right now that most managers want.”
The 72-team, 10-division PDL has a new alignment for 2017, and all of SF City’s opponents now reside with them in the nine-team Southwest, including familiar opponents like Ventura County Fusion and Fresno Fuego, and a host of brand new ones like Southern California Seahorses and FC Golden State Force. But it’s the Dragons, an affiliate of Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes, who figure most prominently in SF City’s season as three-time opponents, including for SF City’s home opener and their regular season finale.
But before they can play for their home fans, SF City face the season’s opening weekend, which may be among the year’s most challenging. FC Golden State Force will face SF City for the first time on May 5, coming off a playoff year in 2016. The Glendora club tied for the Southwest Division lead in goals last year with 38 in just 14 games, and will be a strong season-opening test for SF City FC’s re-tooled back line. Just a day later, SF City travel up the road to Ventura for a clash with Ventura County Fusion, who narrowly missed out on a playoff spot last year themselves. SF City will look for a repeat performance from a year ago, when they won similar early-season road match against the Fusion 3-1.
The faithful home fans finally end their wait on May 13, as SF City host Burlingame Dragons at Negoesco Stadium. The rivalry games were knock-down, drag-out affairs last year, with the Dragons dominating SF City on the peninsula before SF City’s season-ending 4-0 revenge in front of the home crowd. Picking up where the rivalry left off will be the first order of business for players and fans on both sides. “The road games are critical, and we all know they count just as much in the standings,” said club President Jacques Pelham, “but the Dragons are what I’m looking forward to the most. It’s a statement game, it’s a rivalry game, it’s the only two Bay Area teams in the league, it’s the home opener. It’s everything, it’s crunch time.”
And then eight days later, the two teams do it all over again, this time with the Dragons at home at Burlingame High School. No word on whether Pelham is capable of staying that revved up the whole week off, but SF City players and fans will surely relish any opportunity for another derby, whether it’s to exact revenge or to inflict more punishment.
Between that remarkable quartet of opening games and the regular season finale against the Dragons at Negoesco on July 15, SF City’s schedule takes them around the Southwest Division at home and on the road, from Fresno to San Diego to Los Angeles, with every match liable to make the difference in the final standings between playoff soccer and an early exit. Given the thin line between the two that formed last year, the intensity of play is unlikely to let up at any point during the season, but Pelham seems to think that is just what the doctor ordered.
“This is our league now,” he says, “and it’s a league where you fight for your life week in and week out. That’s perfect. That’s what soccer should always be.”