For the varsity soccer players at one San Francisco school, their team is their family, and futbol might be their only ticket to college. Jordan Conn shadowed the team last fall, as they defended their title against a neighborhood rival.
The guy on the trophy looks white.
This much has been decided as the Mission High School soccer players pass around the statuette they’ve owned for four years running, the foot-tall piece of wood lined with bronze that represents their status as the best soccer team in the city.
The figure who sits atop the trophy, the one the players rub with reverence, the one whose company is coveted by all of the city’s coaches—well, he doesn’t look a damn thing like his current owners. His hair is parted perfectly to the side, too long to match Jose Guevara’s close-cropped spike and too neat to resemble Diego Tamayo’s faux-hawk. His jersey looks like it belongs on an Ivy League rugby player, with its plunging neckline and its collar folded down.
And the shorts?
“Those things are hella short,” says Jose Mendoza, laughing as he points. “You can’t be wearing those around here.”
Welcome to the Mission District, one of San Francisco’s most dynamic, constantly-buzzing neighborhoods. It’s a place where twenty-something hipsters from Williamsburg live next to sixty-something abuelas from Oaxaca, where residents range from lawyers to activists to artists to gang-bangers.
It’s a neighborhood that has drawn wide attention for its irrepressible culture (at once Pan-American and unmistakably San Franciscan), its progressive politics, and its semi-regular streaks of violent crime. It’s also the home of the two best high school soccer teams in the city, the Mission Bears and the O’Connell Boilermakers, both set to compete for the city’s championship on an overcast fall day.
They won’t be playing in the Mission—there is no field here worthy of hosting such an event—but before the Bears take the J train to Balboa Park’s Boxer Stadium, they sit in the bowels of Mission High School, and they admire their hardware.
Mario Ruiz leans over to examine the trophy. Listed on the official roster as 5-foot-3 and 89 pounds, Ruiz looks more like he’s preparing for a sixth-grade gym class than a varsity soccer game. His Mission warm-up jacket—deep brown with gold trim, the team’s logo on its breast—swallows up his small frame. His gold jersey and matching shorts look like a costume, the get-up of a kid going as a soccer player for Halloween.
But whether or not Mission wins today, or he gets into the game, it’s clear to the freshman midfielder that he’s already part of a San Francisco dynasty. “Mission, Mission, Mission, Balboa, Mission, Mission,” he calls out to his teammates, reading the names etched on the trophy as city champions during the 1970s.
He giggles and bounces ecstatically on his feet. In all, he discovers, the Bears have won thirty-two championships in the city league’s 73-year history. No other school has more than ten.
Mission won its first city championship in 1939, and at that time, the white guy on top of the trophy would have fit right in.
The neighborhood was mostly composed of recent Irish and Italian immigrants in the first half of the 20th century, but many Mission residents left in the 1950s after the G.I. bill gave World War II veterans an opportunity to move away from low-income areas. “White flight left a void that people of color could fill,” says longtime Mission-based community organizer Eric Quezada, pointing to the influx of Mexican immigrants who moved into the neighborhood.
That community grew over the next several decades, and as turmoil gripped much of Central and South America, new nationalities began popping up in the Mission. In recent years, young whites have flooded the western part of the neighborhood (the area closest to Mission High School), giving the neighborhood a distinct duality. On one block, you’ll walk past vegan restaurants and coffee shops, on the next, you enter a world of taquerias and tabernas.
The Mission’s streets are lined on one side with murals that boast of the Latino community’s long history of political activism and on the other side with boutique shops that mark the district’s status as one of America’s hippest neighborhoods. But the Bears roster reflects the fact that, despite the Mission’s demographic dynamism, this is still an immigrant-dominated community.
Nearly all of the players on the team were born either outside the U.S. or are the children of parents born outside the U.S. About half the team is of Mexican heritage, and many others are Guatemalan or Salvadoran. There are no Anglos on the squad. Except the coach.
Scott Kennedy sits in silence on his folded-out lawn chair, watching the ritual he designed play out before his eyes. In parallel lines, Kennedy’s players jog back and forth across the field, varying form and pace to prepare their muscles for the match. He’s nervous.
The jitters that began today, when he awoke in his suburban Marin County home, are reaching a crescendo. It’s minutes before kickoff. They will win, he believes. They will win and it won’t be close. Five to one, maybe. Three goals for Jose Mendoza, the senior striker who hasn’t fully realized his potential—at least not until this, the final game of his high school career. Maybe a headed-in score for Diego Tamayo, the junior midfielder with the body of a linebacker and the temper of a street-brawler. And several spectacular saves from Jose Guevara, of course.
Guevara is the best goalkeeper in the city, a junior who has started since he was a freshman, the kid with the talent to play D-1 ball, the brain to aim for Stanford or Berkeley, and the leadership skills to become only the second non-senior Kennedy has ever named captain.
A win today would be a thrilling end to a frustrating season. The Bears have lost two out of their 15 games. For most teams, a banner year. For Mission, a disappointment. “There’s a lot of luck involved,” says Kennedy. “We just haven’t had any of it. I keep thinking that’s finally going to change with this game.”
When you play at an inner-city school like Mission—where players are tempted by the allure of the neighborhood’s dominant norteño and sureño gangs, where some of the boys have no mothers and even more have no fathers, where instability in the home can lead to inconsistency on the field—sometimes, you need all the luck you can get.
Often, off-field issues ransack Mission’s roster before it’s even been formed. “There’s a lot of talented kids in this school who aren’t even on our team,” says Kennedy. Many would-be players fall short of the 2.0 grade point average required to participate in varsity sports (among Bears players, the average GPA is 3.23).
On the team, instability is a constant. Junior twin brothers Isai and Josue Rosales are still acclimating to life in the U.S. after immigrating last year from Guatemala. Jose Mendoza has floated back and forth between San Francisco and Mexico, readjusting to new friends and a new culture each time.
Diego Tamayo was four when his father died in a car accident. Even goalkeeper Jose Guevara, whose family is more stable than most of the Bears’, has had to be a caretaker to his younger siblings, with his mother working at a taqueria and his father at a bakery, logging as many hours as they can.
Kennedy, 42, looks like the kind of inner-city coach invented on a Hollywood scriptwriter’s laptop—a snarling, barking, cackling, foulmouthed hard-ass who is big on discipline and short on patience. In the machismo-fueled Mission District, Kennedy may be the high school’s biggest tough guy, his 5-foot-6 frame supporting the body of a grizzly bear.
On a team whose players get coach-mandated haircuts, Kennedy’s ‘do is the shortest of them all—perhaps a legacy of his seven years in the Marines. After service, Kennedy studied criminal justice and psychology at San Francisco State, then took a job at Mission fourteen years ago as a community liaison, working to cut down truancy and criminal behavior among students.
He took over as coach of both the boys and girls soccer teams two years after that, and became athletic director a year after he started coaching. His teams have regularly made the playoffs throughout his tenure and since 2005, as the trophy attests, the Bears haven’t lost their grip on the city championship.