Oakland Leopards; a Coach with a Vision, a Club with a Purpose

While Oakland Roots may be the newest soccer club to make its home in Oakland, it certainly isn’t the only group in the Town with a vision and understanding for how the power of soccer can be utilized as a force for social good.   The Oakland Leopards have grown deep roots in the city of Oakland, providing opportunities to Oakland soccer players since 1998. The Leopards have evolved from humble beginnings fielding just one youth rec team into an organization that today boasts multiple teams and offers a clear pathway for Oakland soccer players seeking opportunities to play at a competitive men’s level.

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The Club has been led by Edward Stephen since 2000. Stephen, who at the time, was working in San Francisco as an Arts director, was laid off in 2000 and not long after was approached by his neighbor’s son about the prospect of coaching his soccer team.  Their coach was leaving and absent a new coach, his team would disband.   It was in that moment that Coach Edward realized that this was an opportunity and a perfect time to get back into the game he loved so dearly.  Fast forward 18 years and his commitment to Leopards and the players in his program only continues to grow, as evident through their entry in the 2019 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. 

No stranger to the game, Coach Edward was first introduced to the art of coaching through his mother, who worked as the girl’s head coach at his high school. Edward had played soccer growing up, playing from his time in grade school all the way through high school.  Although he claims to have been nothing more than an average player, it was from an early age that his love and passion for the game allowed him to keep up with the more technically gifted players. It would also be through his possession of a self-motivation and an unmatched work ethic that he would build the foundation that would go on to make him a successful coach, years later.  Following his mother’s unexpected death just after his graduation, her passing inspired Edward to take up coaching boy’s youth soccer in order to pick up where she had left off. He would go on to coach a little while in college, allowing him to still be involved in the sport.  Following his college graduation, Edward unintendedly left soccer coaching and wouldn’t coach again until that fateful day in 2000; the rest as they say is history. 

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In taking over the Leopards, he quickly helped turn the club from a U12 boy’s team into a competitive youth team. He would go on to work with this same group of players until their graduation from youth soccer at the U19 age group. For a while this was the highest level the club offered. However, over time, Coach Edwards’ players started expressing interest and a strong desire to continue to play for him, leading to the addition of a men’s team to the club.  This development led coach Edward to begin to look for a vehicle to help showcase the talented players of Oakland who had come through his club over the years.  His next move was to bring in a well-known local coach named Tony Peña to help take the Leopards to the next level.   

The Club’s men’s team currently plays in the San Francisco Soccer Football League in the Majors division. They finished mid table this season after being promoted last year. This is an accomplishment that Coach Edward is proud of, as it showed the level at which the club can compete. For Edward, the main reason to participate in the SFSFL was because of their affiliation with US Soccer which among many things, offers a pathway into tournaments like the US Open Cup.

Aside from their league standing, the Oakland Leopards also boast accomplishments which have centered on their ability to provide opportunities for their players to advance on to higher levels of play.  The Leopards have had players go on to USL trials, play for NPSL teams such as the East Bay Stompers, Napa Valley 1839, and CD Aguiluchos USA, as well as PDL clubs like SF City FC. Many players have also gone on to play in college as well at places like Sacramento State and many at City College of San Francisco; a school with whom Coach Edward has created a good relationship with over the years.

The Club’s U19’s and Men’s team recently went on a trip to London this past July to further expose the clubs players to the game of soccer. Coach Edward rates this as the single best thing he has ever done, both as a coach and his life overall.  Through a trip which represented the first time for many of their players to travel to Europe, the Leopards stayed at a youth hostel on the edge of London while playing three different non-league level clubs during their 10-day trip. These friendly matches, played against K-Sports in Aylesford, Redbridge FC in Essex, as well as Biggleswade United in Biggleswade, provided an amazing life experience for the Leopards players and leaves coach Edward with even more drive and desire for what can be possible for Oakland players.

Several months ago, Oakland Roots approached Coach Edward about the prospect of building a relationship whereby Leopards would become the Roots’ development and reserve squad.  As part of this partnership, both groups targeted the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as a place where they could make their first imprint, together, on Oakland soccer.

“Playing the U.S. Open Cup has always been a dream since I first started thinking about organizing a men’s team,” said Coach Edward. “Don’t get me wrong, we were not at a level to enter the U.S. Open Cup, but I mean, that’s the dream isn’t it. Like the FA Cup in England, to be the little dark horse club that theoretically, can advance on to play the professional sides. This would never have happened without our connection with and support from Oakland Roots. Roots were able to attract the quality players and coaches I feel will give us a good run in this competition. We will prepare and play to win, but just being in the Lamar Hunt Cup is a dream come true for me personally and a huge success for Oakland Leopards.”   

We sat down with Edward, to learn more about his clubs history, his goals and his vision on the future of Oakland soccer.

What is your ultimate goal with the club? 

Edward: My ultimate goal is to develop players both in game and character to such a level that they can someday play professional internationally in a second or third division level, play division 1 college soccer, or make a national team pool. To help achieve that goal, I want our teams participating and promoting to the highest levels, divisions and leagues possible, but always with player development and opportunity in mind.

Playing in the SFSFL premier division or at the NPSL level would be good goals to strive towards. I want to give opportunities to and showcase the many overlooked talents of our community. There are many local young players with great potential who are dismissed because they are low income, cannot afford the associated costs, or lack transportation to higher level opportunities. I want to find those players, develop them, showcase them and provide them opportunities they would not normally have access to. I want our players to leave here with a strong work ethic, discipline, be respectful and have strong character. I want to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

Oh, another ultimate goal or dream is to someday have our own field with clubhouse, bar and trophy case!

What are you most proud of about the Leopards?

Edward: I am most proud of Oakland Leopards character and reputation. 

Building a positive reputation is extremely important to me and it is what we are trying to accomplish. We constantly emphasize acting professional on and off the pitch. Youth players are not allowed to curse, or have sagging pants, etc. when representing our club. If an opportunity does ever come up for one of our players, I want to do everything I possibly can to ensure they know how to act and behave to be successful in that situation. I think talent and skill is pretty common, but character and behavior can be the deciding factor in getting opportunities and chances.

Oakland Leopards are not perfect, and we’ve had our challenges. Players are human and make mistakes. I try to help them learn, correct the behavior and succeed. All the years, sacrifice, effort and energy put into building Oakland Leopards quickly can be undone in a moment. When someone sees our kit or our name, I want it to mean something positive. Players past and present are the ones who create that reputation, so I am most proud of their character, discipline, professionalism and behavior.

What does the city of Oakland mean to you and what made you so connected and attached to the city?

Edward: That is tough. It’s like trying to describe Oakland to someone not familiar with the Town. Oakland to me is like my marriage. There are many beautiful experiences and moments. There are also a few big hairy arguments that make my head explode sometimes. But we have been through so much together, good and bad, that we are connected and part of each other.

It makes me sad and angry whenever I hear people disparage Oakland or it’s people. Almost always, it is from people who never spent time here or that don’t know the people living in Oakland. Oakland is not perfect; there are gunshots in the background during trainings, the crazy naked lady dancing at the corner, the poverty, the crime, and the general oppressiveness.

But then there is the beauty of Oakland; the warmth and welcoming of all the families who invite me into their homes. You don’t get that in the suburbs. The way many neighbors look after one another. The diversity of Oakland is a treasured experience to be protected and celebrated. The character, strength and determination of the people who live in the rough and poor parts of Oakland are inspiring.

Oakland and I have been through good times and bad, but I have no interest in coaching in a different community. It is my relationships and connections to Leopards players and their families that make me so connected to Oakland. It is not so much about coaching the sport of soccer in Oakland as it is about being honored to be part of their lives and making a positive impact.

What do you think the potential is for Soccer in the city of Oakland?

Edward: The potential is there. I think great opportunity exists for the sport of soccer to develop in Oakland. We have the Raiders moving to Las Vegas. I cannot think of many other fan bases that would have so passionately supported a professional team as they have over the years.  The Warriors will be leaving as well. I think the community has demonstrated that they can and will support a professional team. But they have been burned and I don’t think they give their hearts and minds so freely.

Soccer in Oakland needs to be genuine and inclusive. It needs to understand, represent and just generally see and hear the people of Oakland. If soccer can reach so many lives in Oakland and help with some issues affecting the community like gentrification, lack of opportunities, poverty and crime, I think there is a big chance for the sport to succeed.

Oakland is a very international city. I’ve had players come through Leopards from all over the world, England, Japan, Belgium, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Tanzania, South Africa and many more. Soccer is the common denominator. Soccer is the main sport of the world and Oakland. Oakland people are passionate about soccer. Oakland lives and breathes soccer. 

There are so many players in Oakland I feel are overlooked or invisible to the soccer system. I see so much soccer talent, skill and creativity in the community. It would be terrific if there were a professional soccer establishment in Oakland that could reach the talent that slips though the national soccer system.

You can see the Oakland Leopards as their US Open Cup journey begins this Saturday September 22nd at 7pm at Burrell Field in San Leandro, California. Admission is free!

Thomas HodulComment