Why San Francisco?

By Lopa Rahman

San Francisco, one of the 10 host metropolitan areas for the 2016 Copa America, has a rich soccer history. Soccer made an informal entrance into the Bay Area in the 1850s following the Gold Rush and San Francisco’s subsequent expansion. Immigrants from the British Isle who brought the sport with them made soccer a central part of their outlook and the way of life in the Bay Area.[1] By 1852, over 53 percent of the males in San Francisco were of foreign origin.[2]

In 1898 two men who shared a vision for a structured soccer league in the Bay Area—Edgar Pomerey and Henry Roberts—began laying the foundation for a formal organization.[3] Soccer in San Francisco got its formal start in 1902 with the establishment of the San Francisco Soccer Football League (SFSFL), “the oldest American soccer league in continuous existence.”[4] In fact, the SFSFL even came before FIFA (Federation of International Football Association)—the international governing body of soccer—, which was founded in 1904. The SFSFL, a semi-professional league, launched with six teams: Independents, Albion Rovers, Thistle F.C., Oakland Hornets, and the American-British Rifles. Two years after the SFSFL’s inception, the league inaugurated the California State Senior Challenge Cup, which was later renamed to the State Cup.

The league was highly popular among soccer fans in the Bay Area, and the high volume of applications it received for membership is a testament to this fact. The greatest challenge the league faced was finding a home. Teams played on various fields that were made available to them until 1953, when the SFSFL found a permanent home at the brand new Balboa Stadium.

Image of Balboa Stadium from Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, professional soccer made its first appearance in San Francisco with the founding of two rival leagues: United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League. The United Soccer Association, which was composed of 12 international teams, imported the ADO Den Hague of Holland to San Francisco and renamed it the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales.[5] The National Professional Soccer League’s area team was the Oakland Clippers. The Gales and Clippers each drew approximately 5000 fans per game.[6] Just a year after their inception, the United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League merged to form the North American Soccer League. The Oakland Clippers represented the Bay Area in the North American Soccer League for a year before the league dropped them due to the low attendance.[7]  

With the absence of a Bay Area team in the North American Soccer League, college and amateur soccer were the only options for soccer enthusiasts for a few years until San Francisco attracted the attention of national teams in the 1970s. In 1972, the U.S. Olympic Team played an Olympic qualifying match against Mexico in the squad’s first visit to the city, and in 1974, the U.S. National Team played Poland. The Olympic Team returned to San Francisco in 1975, competing against Bermuda.

In the meantime, the North American Soccer League was working on a national expansion program. Professional soccer made its return to the Bay Area in 1974 with the formation of the San Jose Earthquakes. The Earthquakes enjoyed immense popularity until the league folded in 1984, attracting almost 20,000 fans per game at its peak.[8] International contests continued to take place in the Bay Area during the Earthquakes era, including an Olympic qualifier match between the U.S. Olympic Team and Costa Rica for the 1980 games.

Professional soccer was not gone from the Bay Area for long after the North American Soccer League’s demise. Just one year after the end of the North American Soccer League, the Earthquakes reemerged and created the Western Alliance Challenge Series with three other independent teams: F.C. Portland, F.C. Seattle, and Victoria Riptides.[9] The Earthquakes emerged victorious in a challenge tournament, which was upgraded to a full-fledged league called the Western Soccer Alliance in 1986. After making it to the league championship games in 1987 and 1988, the Earthquakes folded. The Bay Area continued to play host to the U.S. National Team, which came to the area for several World Cup qualifying matches.

The Earthquakes were quickly replaced in the Western Soccer Alliance. The San Francisco Bay Blackhawks emerged in 1989 and immediately proved itself as a force to be reckoned with.[10] The team moved to the United States Interregional Soccer League in 1993, changed its name to the San Jose Hawks, and went under at the conclusion of the 1993 season.

The best players on the team continued to make an impact on the soccer world, however. The roster included star players such as Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa, John Doyle, Dominic Kinnear, and Troy Dayak. Wynalda, Balboa and Doyle all played for the U.S. National Team in the 1994 World Cup, and Wynalda held the U.S. National Team’s all-time record for career goals until 2007.[11] Palo Alto, which was one of the nine host cities for the event, hosted six games in the 1994 World Cup.

Wikimedia Commons Image from 1994 World Cup in Palo Alto

Soon after the World Cup games in Palo Alto, Bay Area soccer fans were treated to more professional soccer. Major League Soccer announced the formation of the San Jose Clash, one of the league’s 10 inaugural teams. The first MLS season took place in 1996, and the Clash enjoyed an immediate fan base composed of soccer enthusiasts who had supported the Earthquakes before the team’s demise. The Clash’s first game attracted 32,000 fans.[12] Wynalda led the team before being traded to the Miami Fusion in 1999. In 2000, the Clash was renamed to the Earthquakes.

The Bay Area remained a popular destination for the U.S. National Team, playing host to both World Cup qualifier and Gold Cup games in 1998. The National Team also played matches against the Clash as it began a trend of competing in domestic games against MLS teams, and the Women’s National Team played in the Bay Area for the first time in 1997. In 1999, Palo Alto was a host city for the Women’s World Cup. The U.S.-Brazil match on July 4, 1994 was the fourth most-attended event in Women’s National Team history with 73,123 fans.[13] Both National Teams continued frequent play in the Bay Area in the 2000s.

The Clash is a struggling team, having qualified for the MLS Playoffs in just two of the past eight seasons. The Bay Area will soon be home to another professional squad—the San Francisco Deltas of the North American Soccer League, which is the league below the MLS. The Deltas, the first West Coast Club in the North American Soccer League, will begin play in 2017.[14]

San Francisco’s winning bid as a host city for the Copa America does not come as a surprise given the rich history of soccer in the Bay Area. The two main reasons San Francisco was selected as a host city are the high quality of Levi’s Stadium and the Bay Area’s long history of hosting big matches in international soccer. Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, is a world-class stadium that seats 68,500. In 2015, it was recognized by the Sports Business Journal as Sports Facility of the Year and named Venue of the Year by The Stadium Business Awards in Barcelona, Spain.[15] Levi’s Stadium is regarded as the most high-tech stadium in the world.

Image of Levi’s Stadium from Wikimedia Commons

Four Copa America matches will take place at the venue. The U.S. and Columbia will face off on June 3rd in a Group A match; Argentina and Chile will compete on June 6th in a Group D match; and Uruguay and Jamaica will play on June 13th in a Group C match. Levi’s Stadium will also host a quarterfinal match on June 18th.[16]

How to cite this article: 

“Why San Francisco?”, Written by Lopa Rahman (2016). Copa America Centenario 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/tournament-guides/copa-america-centenario-2016-guide/copa-america-centenario-2016-host-cities/san-francisco/ (accessed on (date)).

Back to List of Host Cities



[1] Bandyopadhyay, Kausik. Why Minorities Play or Don’t Play Soccer: A Global

     Exploration. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

[2] 100th Anniversary: San Francisco Soccer Football League. San Francisco: San

Francisco Soccer Football League, 8 June 2002.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rheenen, Derek Van. “The Promise of Soccer in America: The Open Play of Ethnic

Subcultures.” Soccer & Society 10.6 (2009): 781-94. Web.

[5] Litterer, David. “History of Soccer in the San Francisco Bay Region.” Sover, 9 June

2010. Web.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Litterer, David. “History of Soccer in the San Francisco Bay Region.” Sover, 9 June

2010. Web.

[9] “Western Alliance Formed.” Soccer Western Alliance.



[10] San Jose Earthquakes. 40 in 40: Remembering the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks. 4

Apr. 2014. Web. <http://www.sjearthquakes.com/post/2014/04/04/40-40-


[11] “U.S. MNT All-Time Records.” U.S. Soccer, 3 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.


[12] Litterer, David. “History of Soccer in the San Francisco Bay Region.” Sover, 9 June

2010. Web.

[13] “U.S. WNT Year-By-Year Attendance.” U.S. Soccer, 11 Apr. 2016. Web.


[14] North American Soccer League. San Francisco Deltas Become NASL’s First West

     Coast Club. 31 Mar. 2016. Web. <http://www.nasl.com/news/2016/03/31/san-


[15] “About – Levi’s® Stadium.” Levi’s Stadium, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.


[16] “COPA America Centenario | USA 2016.” COPA America Centenario | USA 2016.

Web. <http://www.ca2016.com/matches>.