San Fran’s Soccer Startup: Meteoric Rise for the International ‘Good Guys’

Amir Darabi has done more than is reasonable since founding amateur side Inter San Francisco 19 months ago – and fostering a family-feel has been crucial in helping find the right balance.
By: Jonah Fontela
How do you conjure a club from thin air, climb to the top tier of one of the country’s best amateur leagues and qualify at a canter for the U.S. Open Cup Proper -- all in the space of 19 months?

Dr. Amir Darabi knows the secret.

“You can’t just be a team, you have to be one family,” said the sometimes-striker, head coach and founder of International San Francisco, who’ve done more in a little over a year and a half than many amateur clubs manage in a lifetime. “You have to be like brothers, totally bonded.”

Inter San Francisco before the Second Round Qualifier with Real San Jose

Darabi, now 30, was born in Iran and lived a stretch in Europe before arriving in the States. He settled in the San Francisco area after years and years of undergrad and post-grad work. Then came the go-go life of a busy urban professional.

But he didn’t want to see soccer, his lifelong passion, shrink to nothing and disappear in the rearview. A perfectionist by nature, it’s no surprise he was disappointed with the first local team he ended up on. “It sucks when you see people who don’t know anything about soccer running soccer,” he said.

Surrounded by techies in the boomtown by the Bay, all with their own pet startup projects in their pockets, he decided he’d follow the trend. A “soccer startup,” he thought. And he brought all the consideration and know-how at his disposal to the project. “I thought, why not start my own team,” said Darabi. “I wanted to have my own team. And when I do something I go all the way.”

Motivation and Balance

“He’s an extremely motivated guy,” Jack Callan, the team’s young captain, who’s been a fixture from the very beginning back in May of 2021, said of Darabi. And when asked why, as a 24-year-old former NAIA journeyman, he’s captaining a team with at least four recognizable ex-pros in the squad, Callan pauses.

It’s an endearing, oh-shucks kind of pause. He’s hesitant to toot his own horn.

And there’s the secret of Darabi’s success. He’s put together a team of good guys, who all get along and pull in the same direction. “Being here from day-one helps,” said Callan, who was born in the Bay Area but grew up in Tasmania, Australia, where his mother is from. “I guess I’m a pretty outgoing guy.”
International San Francisco’s fourth Qualifier in frozen temps in Nevada

“The other pros, like Matt, they’re really good guys too,” added Callan, a sure-footed center-back. “There’s just a lot of trust here.”

The Matt Callan is referring to is one Matt Fondy, former USL Championship top-scorer and MVP who played in Major League Soccer and even reached an Open Cup Semifinal in 2012. He’s 33-years-old now, a solid veteran who’s maintained his fitness and scoring touch, and who might, in a world of smaller mentalities, be miffed about being captained by a youngster like Callan.

But Fondy, and you might have guessed this already, is another good egg. He runs a Bay Area soccer-based non-profit, Oakland Genesis, and you’d waste a lot of time trying to find a nicer guy in the game. And that goes double for two of the other ex-pros in the side, Quintero Harnolis and Alfonso Lazaro, who both played for professional clubs in their native Colombia.

“I love this mix of players,” said Fondy, the oldest in the team, who scored four goals in a four-game Open Cup Qualifying run which saw Inter score 19 times and concede just once. “We have college guys, ex-pros, guys from all over, but the main thing is we all love competing and getting a few drinks after.”

Getting the Inter Cocktail Right

“Amir [Darabi] is super dedicated and ambitious and he sees the potential of having a good team in San Francisco,” Fondy went on. “He’s got big plans and it’s exciting.”

Before Darabi could begin to consider a future for International as a pro side, something he readily admits to, he had to actually start a team. And he didn’t have much time. In spring of 2021, he had two weeks to find a squad to get out on the field. It started from a pick-up game he assembled with the help of the Meetup app and by reaching out to nearby high school and college coaches

He barely pulled 11 men together for the first game of the 2021 Spring season in the bottom (third) tier of the historic San Francisco Soccer Football League (SFSFL) – producer of numerous Open Cup winners through the years.

Matt Fondy (in blue) – former MLS pro and Open Cup Semifinalist

“That’s where the story began for us,” said Darabi, who tended his startup with care and a keen eye.

He brought in more players as the first season wore on. Word of mouth, and the usual paths to player recruitment, kicked in. Inter were promoted to the second division in that first season. But Darabi realized a change was needed.

He took himself out of the squad to focus on the coaching side and introduced a reserve team to encourage movement and competition at the club. He added a few players and he, crucially, dropped a few too. That proved to be a turning point.

“We won fifteen games [in a row] after that,” Darabi said with a smile, pointing out that his young Inter club is the first team in the SFSFL’s 150-year history to climb from the bottom to the top division in the space of two seasons. “You have to let some trouble makers go and make sure the team has the right feel – that everyone is pulling together in the same way,” he said.

Making sure the cocktail has the right proportions, a complementary mix of flavors and essences, is key for Inter San Francisco. And they’ll now travel across the state of California to Minden, Nevada (likely to be under some snow on December 17) for a crucial game with BattleBorn FC. The winner books a place in the U.S. Open Cup Proper – another planned step forward for this fast-rising club.

Inter showed they have the talent – but also the grit – to make a mark in the Open Cup Proper, which kicks off in late March. Their first test is against El Farolito, formerly of their own SFSFL – a team who won the Open Cup in 1993 (when it was largely amateur and semi-pro) under the name CD Mexico. 

Riding the Open Cup Vibe

“The Open Cup is the only path where you can really be seen,” said Darabi, about the over century-old tournament, U.S. Soccer’s annual national championship where amateurs and pros have the opportunity to square off in direct competition. “It’s a chance for us to shine and really show who we are.”

It’s also a chance for Darabi’s ambitions of a future professional side in the city of San Francisco – the first since the former NASL national-champion Deltas – to inch closer to reality. But that’s a long way in the future and the project now remains a simple one. Keep the balance, go on a Cup run and keep it fun.

Inter have won three Qualifiers to reach the Fourth Round

“We’ve had a couple of, you know, pieces of work [at the club] in our time,” said captain Callan when asked if arrogant, selfish players – no matter how talented – can ruin the balance. “But since then the focus became about the chemistry [in the team] and it’s really made a difference. You can be a really good player, and not a great person and that can really bring the team down.

“We’re always looking for good guys,” added Callan, a steady force and a friendly face since day-one. “Sure, we want good players, but good people in general. It’s important.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.

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