Bonta Hill: Soccer development is alive and well in San Francisco, despite U.S. absence from World Cup

With ratings and attendance down in Major League Baseball amid a desperate attempt to speed up pace of play, and increasing numbers of parents pulling their children away from tackle football, from the outside looking in, the time would seem to be ripe for soccer to emerge in the United States, or at the very least, to gain ground.

Except, despite a boost in ratings, upsets galore and wall-to-wall coverage, this World Cup feels like a huge missed opportunity to entice more fans to play a game which still hasn’t broken through as a mainstream sport in America.

Can soccer ever breakthrough in America, and join the ranks of major sports, alongside football and baseball? Who knows, but it’s not due to effort, and that effort starts with grassroots efforts like the San Francisco Glens.

In the middle of their first year in the PDL, the Glens –  who have been around since 1961 as a Sunset-based amateur club founded by the Irish Community — have decided to go the pro route and join the Premier Development League.

Major League Soccer played its first season in 1996 with 10 teams now boasts 23, including three in Canada, and one right here in the Bay Area in San Jose with the Earthquakes, who play at beautiful Avaya Stadium.

Eighty-one percent of the MLS’ draft picks are from the PDL, a league made up of Major League Soccer’s Under-23 teams and independent franchises, which is considered as the fourth tiered league in the United States.

I’m a casual soccer fan that’s gotten swept up in World Cup hysteria, and I had no idea the Glens existed. Shame on me, for not knowing they’ve joined a league that has a combined 74 teams.

The Glens have an alumni base of over 10,000 and had Mayor-elect London Breed and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí speak during their opening pregame ceremony back on May 5 at Boxer Stadium.

According to Bill Chu, head coach of the Glens’ adult amateur team, soccer has grown tremendously, especially here in the Bay Area.

“The biggest change has been the last 10 years,” Chu said. “Ten years ago, the soccer in this area was pretty awful. The kids were awful, the coaching was awful. Nobody really understands the game. Now, in this area in particular, technically, soccer has gotten a lot better.”

One of the Glens’ most recent products, Adrian Medina, is headed to play at San Francisco State this fall.

No doubt soccer in America is still light years away from the level of play in Europe, but the Glens have an official partnership with Celtic FC, a powerhouse in the Scottish Premiership, who’s made the Champions League seven times in a row, are here to hold a two-week clinic for training, as they did a year ago.

One kid Celtic FC discovered was Pete Lesperance, 15, who’s a sophomore at George Washington High School in San Francisco. Alongside teammate Omataye Martins, he’s scheduled to fly to Glasgow, Scotland for a trial with Celtic this month.

Lesperance thinks baseball is boring, which seems to be the sentiment of the younger generation. He’s over baseball and is focused solely on progressing in soccer.

“I mean, how can it not be exciting to travel across the world and learn soccer from a different culture? In Europe, they are so technically sound,” Lesperance said. “But the infrastructure in soccer is a lot better in America now.”

The real question is if soccer can thrive in a non-World Cup year. Will folks latch on to the MLS and know that they actually have games aired on ESPN?

Glens head coach Javier Ayala-Hil, who also is the San Francisco State men’s soccer coach, thinks the U.S. not making the World Cup will hurt soccer here in the short term, but believes the resources are here in the country to thrive.

“It’s a lot of talented players out here. It’s just getting the communities involved,” Ayala-Hil said. “The soccer academies are getting stronger, especially here in the Bay Area.  “On the personal level, usually the most talented players are coming from the inner-city. We have to tap into that talent pool.”

Soccer will always be huge in South America, Central America, Africa and of course Europe. The main reason? The best athletes in those regions gravitate towards soccer. In the United States, at least, until 10 years ago, those athletes went into basketball, baseball and football. The question is: Can a shifting youth sports landscape pull enough athletes away that soccer one day leapfrogs baseball and football? Time will tell.

Bonta Hill of 95.7 The Game can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. on the Greg Papa Show. Born and bred in San Francisco, he is a sports junkie who loves to sit in the lab (home), eats breakfast food for dinner and has a newfound love for tequila. Follow at your own risk on Twitter @BontaHill.

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