The expansion California Victory plays their first home game at Kezar Stadium on Saturday at 7 p.m., but with ties to Deportivo Alaves of the Spanish second league, the team represents more than The City’s introduction to the United Soccer Leagues’ First Division.
The Victory’s first season in San Francisco represents alternative, accessible entertainment for sports fans, from the fair-weather to died-in-the-wool soccer devotees. Like any start-up, it represents a blank canvas,a chance for some of California’s lesser-known soccer stars to make a name for themselves. And as the American arm of owner Dimitri Piterman’s Deportivo Alaves, it represents an open door for these players, a springboard to reach international leagues of the highest level.
The 12-team USL First Division is akin to Triple-A baseball. USL-1 has a reputation for being a tier below Major League Soccer and USL teams have traditionally been more successful in smaller markets where they have fewer major competitors for fans’ summer ticket dollars.
But Piterman, general manager Terry Fisher and coach Glenn Van Straatum haven’t set out to compete with the Giants, A’s, Sharks or Warriors for fans. They have set out merely to bring the first pro soccer team to the Bay Area since the MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes left in 2005 for Houston.
Sooner or later, people are going to talk about whether the Victory is a feeder team. With an ambitious young roster of the state’s up-and-coming soccer stars, an internationally minded owner and ties to top leagues in Spain, that is one role the team will play.
Van Straatum’s inaugural roster includes midfielder and Southern California native Chuck Kim. Thanks to graduating early from high school to go pro at 17, Kim, at 23, is one of the Victory’s more experienced professional players. Kim played in the USL with Pittsburgh when it was known as the A-League before stints in Belgium and Germany and he brings a perspective to the team not common in players his age.
“We have a lot of local boys who are finally getting chances to get some experience and make their names, including myself,” Kim said. “And I’m so thankful and grateful for this opportunity. Mostly, I’m grateful. I’m more grateful than I think Glen or anybody else will really ever know. … Other teams, they have a lot more players with seniority, but over here it’s a lot of local boys, a lot of Cali boys.”
The Victory roster also boasts two USF alums.
Team captain Chris Schwarze, a defender-midfielder, went 28th in the 2005 MLS supplemental draft after winning the West Coast Conference championship with the Dons in 2004. Forward Josh Hansen was first-team All-WCC for USF in 2002.
Van Straatum said the varied levels of professional experience will be both a strength and weakness for the young team.
“I’ve already noticed that even if we don’t have that much experience and other teams are stronger defensively, I feel like we try to knock it always, knock the ball around and show entertaining soccer,” Kim said. “And now we have to believe in our system and play as one unit and play tight defensively and I think we can play with anybody in this league. And that’s not just my belief, that’s the coach’s belief and the whole team’s belief. I think we really believe in that. I know we believe in that. I believe in it.”