Golden Gate Conference

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Golden Gate Conference

Academica SC

Were brand new to NPSL in 2018, having come into the league from Liga NorCal during the off season. AC were founded in 1972, so despite heading into year two of their league existence, they are the grand old man of the conference – older even, than El Farolito or The Sol. The club is run by a board of directors, with 8 board members, a president and a general manager—this ensures that all club decisions are balanced and measured. The club owns its own 500 seat stadium, which was built by their hands over the years, called Academica Field, which significantly cuts down on ground fees for training and match days. While the stadium meets the league standards, they have an additional training ground adjacent to the stadium to use for scrimmages and for their youth teams to play on.

While down in Liga NorCal, they had squared off against the reserves for Napa 1839, so when they opened their inaugural NPSL season away to Napa, there was some familiarity; however, the rest of the conference knew very little about Academica and despite finishing 5th, their season was more than decent. Midfielder Alex Bettencourt made Golden Gate Conference Best XI and Defender Brennan Canfield made Best XI for both conference as well as the West Region. Cody Golbad, who bagged 14 league goals, was best XI for conference, region and won national honors, making the NPSL Best XI. Head Coach Sergio Sousa was recognized for conference honors too; his squad had 11 goal scorers who scored 29 total team goals.

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Currently, the club has no in-conference rival, but they are looking forward to taking on Stockton FC. Turlock is about two hours away from most clubs in the Bay Area, but they are much closer to Stockton, California – just a 45 minute jaunt up Highway 99. Academica open against Napa 1839 again this year on March 9th, and don’t play expansion side Stockton until the 4th of May but they’re hoping that the away side bring fans with them and that Academica fans travel away to Stockton en masse on June 22nd, when AC make that short trip north. A budding rivalry can be good for growing the clubs and the league.

It’s just a short drive out to the stadium from Turlock, a town of nearly 70K, but according to the General Manager, there is no discernible supporters group. One of the goals for the club this year is to improve the gameday experience, which should help Academica SC build a solid base of support; the club seems really well run and it’s only a matter of time before they ascend to the top of the table—if not this year, then soon. Despite a few poor results last year, the club learned a lot about seeing out the match and taking nothing for granted. In a league interview last year, Simon Bettencourt, the GM, stated “we’re going to play an attacking brand of soccer with a lot of work ethic, something we hope will entertain the fans.” If AC stick to this design and bring back fantastic players like Bettencourt, Canfield and Golbad, I see no reason why they can’t climb up the standings in 2019.

El Farolito

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Founded in 1985, by a Mexican restaurant chain of the same name, the club from San Francisco, California has a legendary trophy cabinet in which you’ll find their 1993 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. In just their first year in the NPSL, El Farolito managed to beat out some of the most established clubs in the entire league for a trip to the playoffs. Finishing with 9 wins, 5 draws and zero losses, the legendary club from San Francisco ended the year with a +20 goal difference; including 13 from Edson Cardona, who made the conference, regional and national best XI. Head Coach Santiago Lopez tells me he’s also looking forward to the return of both Carlos Montes of Santa Clara University, who’s been with the club for three years, as well as Jose Cabeza from St Mary’s.

“El Faro” play in the historic Boxer Stadium at Balboa Park in San Francisco and can’t wait to get back. Being in front of their supporters group, the Burrito Brava, makes it “a special feeling to return home.” Their historic rival is the Greek Americans of the SFSFL, back in the 1990s the two clubs would battle annually for the league title—of course the Greek Americans aren’t in the NPSL so the new boys from San Francisco don’t have a natural in league rival quite yet.

2018 was a season of learning and transition for them; El Faro’s desire to be one of the strongest clubs in the country will require patience and adaptability. While they won their conference last year, making that the base is their goal—they hope to win it this year too, of course, and every year thereafter I’m sure. With nearly 80% of the squad returning, and stability in the coaching ranks, there very well may be a good chance of them returning to the top in 2019. They start their campaign with a long drive to Sacramento Gold’s home at Capitol Christian HS on March 16th.

East Bay Stompers

Moved from legendary Boxer Stadium in San Francisco to historic Raimondi Park in Oakland in 2016. That year turned out to be their best season on record, finishing 3rd place in their conference and making the playoffs. Aside from that, however, Stompers have not finished inside the top three since their founding in 2012. Which is a shame, as their organization has developed quite a bit of the Bay Area’s best talent. Something tells me their fortunes are about to change as all their talent catches up with them in 2019.

In 2018, they finished 4th on 18 points and broke even on goal difference, giving up as many as they scored—24. Khalid Arramdani finished the season with five goals, after a four goal performance away to Napa, toward the end of the season. Both Ali Radman, who is now on trial with AD Alcorcon, and Isaiah Dairo were called into the 2018 NPSL Showcase. Former Stomper, Victor Parra signed with second division professional Portuguese outfit FC Familicao. “Our goal is to facilitate a level of exposure to help players move to the professional levels, but also allow for veteran players to play at the highest levels of local soccer,” according to William Forte, President and GM of East Bay Stompers.

Head Coach Martin Sierra Jr. has a lot of potential in his roster and just found out that team captain Eder Guzman has recovered after missing the past two seasons. They have added former US National Team player Benji Joya to his midfield; he started his youth career playing for the prestigious De Anza Force and has spent time at Santos Laguna, Chicago Fire, Necaxa, and Sporting KC—now he can help Stompers climb up the table this Spring. Gustavo Tavera-Rico, Greivin Pacheco and possibly Dom Jakubek are all set to return—this could be a very strong roster.

Currently, there is no supporters group for Stompers at Raimondi Park in Oakland—but that could change, its taken a couple of years to bed into the community and things could happen this year in that department. It doesn’t help when the club’s closest rivals fold or change leagues, CD Aguiluchos last year, Real San Jose and Bay Area Ambassadors well before them, but Stompers are looking to new rivalries within the Golden Gate Conference. They open the season at home against Napa Valley 1839 FC, a few matches later they host Sonoma County Sol on April 13th—this is a club they’ve targeted and hope to beat to show improvement from last year. If they can remain consistent, sky’s the limit. One more to circle on your calendar will be the return leg versus El Farolito on June 15th where they get to travel back across the Bay Bridge and play at Boxer Stadium.

FC Davis

The Lions were added to the Golden Gate Conference in 2018, alongside El Farolito and Academica SC; however, they were a true expansion and were starting from scratch in the NPSL. It wasn’t a bad start, really, the club drew a regular season record 10,000 total fans through their turnstiles and had an excess of 2,000 on hand for their first ever “Causeway Classico,” the rivalry match between FC Davis and their more well-established neighbors in Sacramento. Their home in 2018, UC Davis’ Aggie Stadium, is a 10,000 plus seater and despite the great numbers, it felt cavernous at times. So, for 2019 the club has moved up the causeway a little bit and helped the community prepare Playfields Park to host both the Men’s and Women’s club in a more intimate setting.

Prior to last season, in a league interview, team president Adam Lewin said “getting used to conference play and the teams and playing locations takes time,” he knew the first year would have some growing pains, but “we are a technical, athletic team, and deep at every position,” he said. He spoke with a great deal of confidence in the squad and of Head Coach Andrew Baily’s ability to organize the side who finished 6th, above new rival Sacramento, and with a lot to look forward to in 2019. Midfielder Miguel Acevedo made the conference Best XI and led the team with six goals. Coach Bailey is also the director of coach at nearby Northbay Elite and has likely helped develop a handful of his players.

In 2018, the Lions started off the season looking competitive, but caught a snag in June and lost their last five matches; they were outscored 3-21 in that stretch and gave up 6 goals at home against Sacramento on June 17th—there’s no doubt about it, FC Davis has circled May 4th when they travel to Sacramento and June 22nd when they host their rivals in their new home field. Before that, however, the Lions have to travel to Stockton FC’s Edison High School stadium on March 16th for their regular season opener and Stockton’s first ever match.

Sonoma County Sol

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An hour north of San Francisco, are the Sol of Sonoma County, who play their games at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma. They were founded in 2004, and are the longest running participant in the league, which was only founded one year prior as the MPSL. The Sol have qualified for the playoffs 11 times in their 15 seasons; entered four finals, and won the NPSL championship in 2009. Insofar as the league goes, they are one of its most well-regarded organizations, having represented NPSL 6 times in the US Open Cup too.  Additionally, in 2006 the Sol won the USASA Amateur Open Cup. They’ve only finished outside of the top three in their conference three times in 15 years—last year was no exception, having finished in 3rd place in the Golden Gate Conference, on 24 points with a +14 goal difference. The Sol fielded 14 different goalscorers and were led by conference Best XI forward, Omar Nuno, who banged in 13

Midfielder Miguel Lara joined Omar joined Nuno as a Best XI, not only for Conference, but made the Regional list. The Sol have a history of scouting and developing local talent; some notable players have come through their system including former Portland Timber defender Steve Purdy, former Sporting Kansas City goalie Eric Kronberg, and former LA Galaxy defender Troy Roberts. Head Coach Vinnie Cortezzo, who is also the organization’s President, recognizes their pedigree and works to maintain the Sol’s vision of “winning regional and national championships and developing players so that they can continue to play at an advanced level.”

The Sol start this year’s run at the conference title on March 16th when the host Academica SC at Casa Grande HS Stadium. Omar Nuno won the Golden Boot last year and had a belter of a match against Napa 1839, when he nailed-on his second hattrick of the season – in 2019, Napa 1839 gets their shot at revenge on April 27th in what they refer to as the “Wine Country Derby.” This club has a rich history of finishing at or near the top of the table and we expect nothing less this season.

Napa Valley 1839 FC

When they began play in 2017, they finished last in their conference; Napa Valley 1839 FC improved to second to last in 2018 with only 13 points and a -17 goal difference. But there’s hope in this squad, who had two players in the conference Best XI, including goalie Javier Valdez-Reya and defender Jorge Lualua, who also made the regional honors. Francisco Mendoza scored 6 times and there were nine other goal scorers who tallied 13 for the season. This gives Head Coach Rogelio Ochoa something to work with—he’s used to working with this level of talent, as he is also the current coach at Napa Valley College.

In addition to recruiting fresh talent for the 2019 campaign, the club might turn to Academy Director Gavin Taylor to find one or two gems ready to move up from their affiliated youth teams out at Napa United, a youth program in the region. There’s nearly 141, 000 people living in Napa Valley including the nearly 80,000 in the city of Napa—there’s has got to be some great talent for the club to work with. Not to mention that Napa and its neighbors are soccer crazy; when “The Green Machine” hosted big friendlies against Morelia Monarchas and Club America U20 of Mexico, they brought about 2,800 fans through the turnstile. They averaged about 500 fans during their regular season, a number any club would be envious of.

Alejandro Villalpando prepares to shoot. Photo courtesy of  his twitter account .

Alejandro Villalpando prepares to shoot. Photo courtesy of his twitter account.

In an interview with the Napa Valley Register, co-owner Arik Housley stated “We want this organization to be deeply connected to all aspects of our community and make a significant connection to our Napa Valley Heritage.” So providing opportunity to develop and play is a no-brainer, but the club also recognizes that their community loves soccer and bringing high-level entertainment to Dodd Stadium at Justin Siena High School is a component of meeting their community’s needs. In 2019, Napa Valley 1839 FC will host its third large friendly when CD Guadalajara “Chivas” visit in March.

Assistant Coach, Daniel Morales says they’ve met the goal, and will continue to, “give local players an opportunity to showcase themselves. If they’re committed, work hard and can play at the NPSL level, the door is open.” However, “as for the league we haven’t made playoffs. It’s a goal we are hoping to achieve this year and trust that coaching staff and players will work hard to achieve this in 2019. Hosting a playoff game would be big for the city of Napa and put our soccer more in the map.”

About half of the 2018 squad will be returning this year, but one of those might not be their top scorer Francisco Mendoza, as he is on trial with Sporting Kansas City in MLS—this can only be a good thing for the club though, it shows local talent that there are opportunities for fun and for career advancement at Napa. This season will be a fresh start for them and Napa Valley 1839 FC go away to Academica SC to start the season on March 9th. If they can grab a result to start the season, it will give them good momentum as they host El Farolito on March 30th for their Home Opener. Another match to watch for is their “Wine Country Derby,” away to Sonoma County Sol on April 27th and hosting them on June 22nd.

Sacramento Gold

In the NPSL’s 8th season, back in 2010, twelve new clubs joined as seven folded and five just left the league—it was break even, but one of the new clubs made a lot of noise that first year and have been around ever since. That was the year Sacramento Gold entered the NPSL and won the league—they had run, neck and neck with Sonoma County Sol for years, with their championship, two USOC appearances, five playoff appearances but have not qualified since 2015. In 2017, they had missed by just two points in the table and touted the conference’s best defense. However, 2018 was a different story and one of regression; finishing dead last in the Golden Gate Conference with a -16 goal difference.

Despite having 10 players scoring goals, they had only scored four goals until June 2nd against Academica then hit FC Davis for six on June 17th. None of Sacramento’s talent made the conference or regional Best XI. All of this is in contrast to their pedigree, this club has been viewed as one of the best in the region for years and has a history of developing quality players. In fact, according to their website, that is part of their mission, “Sacramento Gold FC is not only about providing high quality on and off the field, but also providing a pathway to the pros for local talent.”

Guys like Daniel Cuevas and Clay Silvas showed they had something going on last year, it just didn’t all connect for the entire squad. If Head Coach Ruben Mora can pull them together there’s wiggle room in the table to show improvement. Sacramento Gold FC are set to host El Farolito on their home field at Capital Christian High School on March 16th. The home and away matches in the “Causeway Classico” should prove interesting for them as well; home on May 4th versus FC Davis and they travel to their rivals on June 22nd.

San Ramon FC

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San Ramon FC is coming over to the Golden Gate Conference from Liga NorCal—as Academica SC had the year before. Though they are being labeled as an expansion side, it’s not like they’re reinventing the wheel. As a part of Liga NorCal, San Ramon FC have game day and travel protocols, they know how to host a club for a home match, they already have a complete staff in place—these are all advantages over an expansion club with no experience or practical application. As a matter of fact, the organization's foundations go back to 1973, when they were begun as San Ramon Soccer Club; they transitioned to San Ramon Soccer Azzuri during the early 2000s and updated their branding when they moved up a league to NPSL this offseason.

The club have a youth program in place, starting with local kids from age 3 to 4, and moves them along through camps, clinics, juniors and selects programs. To be able to grow your own talent is priceless in this business and for Head Coach Mani Salimpour, this is an advantage over his sibling expansion side in the Golden Gate Conference this season. In addition to that, the club boast a detailed recruiting process, in which they help players grow into college ready athletes and they help college athletes find playing time in their off-season without compromising their NCAA eligibility.

San Ramon’s programs have a history of developing players who have moved on to USL, MLS or even nationally capped; including, goal keepers David Bingham and Andre Rawls, defenders Kyle Davies and Emrah Klimenta as well as forward Andrew Weideman of FC Cincinnati. Who knows, maybe the next big star will be on their roster this season. We can see at the home opener on March 23rd when they take on East Bay Stompers; an early win will be a good way to gauge their place in the conference. If they can follow that up with a good home performance against former Liga NorCal foe Academica SC on May 11th and get a result away to fellow newcomer Stockton FC, they might be set up for a good first season.

Stockton FC

The expansion side from Stockton, California are set to make their debut on March 16th vs FC Davis. Not just a season opener, but their first match ever, will take place at Edison High School’s Stadium. The “Club from Concrete” is the first of its kind in the city; there’s a YMCA club a typical pay-to-play organization and a MASL league 2 team which just started, but there doesn’t seem to be a history of soccer being played at this level or beyond in the city.

The story of the club is one of overseas connections and a hometown boy returning to improve his community, “we wish to bring the community of Stockton together,” said incoming president, CEO, and first head coach Chris Hernandez in an interview with the league. “There have been so many shortcomings that have divided our city in recent decades, but one sport remains true to unify us, and that is football.” Also in leadership are Dr. Bennet Omalu, the club’s vice president and world renown neuropathologist as well as Abraham Kurdich, who will serve as the Club Director of Operations.

Chris Hernandez and staff - “The Club from Concrete”   Photo courtesy of Stockton FC Facebook

Chris Hernandez and staff - “The Club from Concrete”

Photo courtesy of Stockton FC Facebook

No players have been announced, no additional coaching staff members have been posted to the website; only two social media posts have been made and no emails or messages were returned with comment on the club’s status headed into the season. A couple additional matches to look forward to are away to Academica SC on May 4th – as the team in Turlock is looking forward to the prospect of having a rival close by (about a 45 minute drive). The match on April 27th could be fun as well, with the expansion side hosting San Ramon FC, who just came up from Liga NorCal.

The club has posted a link to join their Ultra Fan Zone, smartly avoiding the words “Supporters and Club,” which could lead to a social media nightmare. While there is a prevailing opinion that a club’s supporters group needs to form organically, when there is no history of support for a brand new team and in a city brand new to this level of soccer, its gotta start somewhere. I hope that both the team and the fans show up to give this great project an injection—they have bold ambitions to grow the club into something that loves the community and that the city of Stockton loves back.

Photos courtesy of club social media. Custom art designed by Laura Mills. Previews written by Joshua Duder with input from David Baker and Dan Vaughn.