In the second entry of covering American supporter culture we move from Southern soccer to the “City by the Bay”– San Francisco, to take a look at The Northsiders! From the Golden Gate Bridge to the recent sighting of Godzilla, the city where it is easy to lose one’s heart is also home to the NBA World Champion Golden State Warriors, the San Francisco Giants, and one of the NFL’s most storied franchises in the San Francisco 49ers.
But if you think there is no room for the beautiful game in San Fran, guess again! There is one club who not only plays the beautiful game, but also makes sure the club is the focal point to bring support and solidarity among the fans and fanatical supporters. Growing the game is the most important thing, but growing with the community and helping to make its mark is equally important for them.
Formed in 2001, San Francisco City FC may be the first club to have majority supporter ownership. Modeled after the club system in the Bundesliga, 51% of ownership is controlled by the SFCFC Members Organization while the other 49% is owned by operations/investors. Think of it, the supporters having a strong voice to the direction of the club and all the operations involved.
While this is an amazing thing to happen in any club in America, our focus will be on the supporter’s culture and what they do that may be different from others in the nation. I found out that they have a unique style of their own.
I spoke with members of The Northsiders—the Supporters Group for SFCFC– in what would be the largest interview I’ve ever conducted. Joachim Steinber, Mike Gonos, Brendan Browne and Peter Bogdis joined me for the majority part of the conversation. Later, I talked with the groups capo, Casey Proud, the next day. He wasn’t able to make it with me for the group talk, but from the way that the other guys spoke about him, and what I would later find out about his life and this season, he would be worth the wait.
As I started the conversation, I had to admit to Joachim my mind was still swirling from a weekend in Detroit, Michigan. I helped cheer on my Dayton Dynamo FC in the NPSL Midwest Regional Conference Tournament. Though we lost, we stayed for the next two nights to watch Detroit City FC advance and later win the Regional Championship in two thrilling matches. Being in the middle of the Northern Guard section, with thousands of supporters, the noise, the smoke, the chants; they were still spinning in my subconscious while trying my hardest to focus on the men I was talking to. But Joachim would later share something about his background that connected my weekend buzz with a part of his own personal history.
Joachim: I used to be a DCFC season ticket holder. I remember those games, and how they screwed with the rest of the week, well.
Ed: Well, I have a feeling you should be a happy man with the result from Saturday! The place was bonkers when they won the Regional Championship!
J: Yeah! A great result for the club. The last match I attended before I moved from Detroit was the 2013 championship game against Erie when they rattled off four second half goals to give DCFC its first loss of the year. Don’t think we’d been back to the championship game since.
E: From being in the Northern Guard that night, when they handed out the medals the folks came over the railings and headed to the middle in one full pile and just celebrated, cried, and just had a grand ole’ time. I’m just sorry my Dynamo didn’t get to play them, but I was extremely happy for them, especially beating AFC Ann Arbor!
J: Oh man, you’re making me jealous. But yeah, one of the most fun experiences in U.S. Sports and yeah, FUCK Ann Arbor! Worse than Zaynesville!
E: Brilliant! Let me ask, since you had that background and influence by the Northern Guard did that carry over to where you are at in San Francisco with the Northsiders?
J: Yes, absolutely! I can’t speak for the rest of the supporters group. And compared to some of the other guys who will be joining us later. I’m a newcomer—as in, I joined the group at halftime of our first big match together rather than the meetings before the match.
E: What drew you in?
J: In terms of a personal story, I lived in Detroit before I moved to San Fran. I’m a native New Yorker, and due to some insistent family members in North London, a lifetime Arsenal supporter. I was a weak follower of MLS who just really liked soccer and had always felt out of place in the U.S.
E: Carrying on the family tradition I see.
J: I moved to Detroit and went to a DCFC game, and for the first time in the US I saw the kind of support I’d seen in Europe. This is not to go all ‘Euro-snobby’ but I’d personally– in part because of family and in part because of the atmosphere at NYRB games at Giants stadiums tended to be dull, I had seen more of that in Europe. I’d stood with the Dutch fans for a World Cup Qualifier. I’ve been to a Vienna derby, saw a couple of league two games in England, etc.
So the experience living in Detroit really made me fall in love with lower division U.S. Soccer.
E: Now I’m the one who should be jealous! What a background! Back to your experience with Detroit City FC, I think it is true what you said. They’ve been supportive of the growth of our group. Plus, I think when you get to know the supporters they are like family both to newbies and to those who truly get what they are about.
J: I was in Detroit during the year that the city got an “emergency manager” and declared bankruptcy and gravitated towards communities, including my friends who were farming, or running non-profits, or were participating in my synagogue so a community of people with the attitude of “we don’t have a soccer team, let’s build a fucking soccer team really” appealed to me. And that attitude is very much true of the people who are involved with SF City, as a supporter owned club.
E: So you weren’t there when they moved to Keyworth [Stadium, their current home] right?
J: No, they were still at Cass Tech (High School). It was cool to see it go from like crowds of 800 to selling out in one season. Also, that was the year the Masonic Theatre went into tax foreclosure, and Jack White (a Cass Tech alum and founder of the White Stripes) purchased it anonymously. You could see the theater from Cass Tech. It’s crazy now that they have 7,000 now, great for the club and for soccer generally I think!
E: Let’s talk more about SF City FC. Can you give me some history of how they formed or how the club developed?
J: So, others can tell you more about how the group formed; I know the story of the club a little better. San Francisco has a league: The SF Soccer Football League. It is one of the oldest continuous leagues in the country.
E: And they include Promotion/Relegation right?
J: They do. Semi-closed system, you have to apply to get into the league, I think. but once you are in, there is pro/rel through five divisions.
E: Now see that’s news to me. I knew of the Cosmopolitan League in New York City, and then USPL is adapting it [pro/rel] next season.
J: Yeah, no reason to know about it if you’re not local. I didn’t know much about it until after I got involved with SF City FC; my playing days at anything besides rec level were well past, if they ever existed, by the time I moved out here.
Anyways, SF City was formed in that league in 2001, and played in various divisions eventually moving up to the higher ranks. We’ve started an internal open-source document for club history and a few guys, including Jacques Pelham, the current CEO and a former SF City player, Mike Gonos, Casey Proud and others started talking about creating a supporter-owned club.
E: Now did they start the SG [The Northsiders]?
J: No, the SG [The Northsiders] was founded independently of that, though Casey and Mike were involved. Jacques moved into management for the club. Mike went onto the board, and Casey stayed totally independent. My involvement with the SG started at a USOC match in 2015.
We got more into the nuts and bolts of The Northsiders’ ownership model and how it works, but we’ll save that for the second part of this interview. In part two of this interview Joachim shared more about his involvement into the group. Plus, a few other members of the group joined us to share their thoughts and passion about the Northsiders. In that section of the interview, one of the guys shares what I feel to be one of the most inspiring insights about the impact of a club I’ve ever heard.
*Capo: Italian for “captain” or leader of a group or friends. Supporters group leading chants.