Every Wednesday after the snow disappears, the message goes out: Who can play soccer this week? “Want” appears nowhere in the question; it’s assumed that everyone is desperate to get out and play. A poll in a private Facebook group gauges how many people can show up. Only 16 can play at a time, as 8 vs. 8 is as big as the games are allowed to get. There are no set teams, no jerseys, no referees, and very little English spoken. Small nets, no keepers, first team to 10 goals wins. Beers after the game at the bar around the corner.
I’ve been playing with the same crew of pick-up soccer players in Worcester, Mass. for three years now. We play on a local college’s field; I can’t say which because what we do is considered trespassing. If there isn’t an AAU baseball game going on in the complex, one of us has to hop the fence and open the gate, inserting a water bottle or rock into the lock so the next guy can get through.
We go through this trouble because the city is desperately lacking soccer fields. This isn’t to say that there aren’t suitable fields in the city where pick-up soccer could be played, but all the good ones belong to colleges and private high schools that lock their gates and enforce trespassing laws. Worcester is like many cities in America, a place that’s filled with people—many of them immigrants from Latin and South America, Ghana, and Southeast Asia—who have to scrounge for a place to play the sport they love for a few hours each week. Meanwhile, the city is busy building a new minor-league baseball stadium at one of the worst intersections in the country.
This is not how pick-up soccer is played around the world. Go to any soccer-mad city outside of the U.S. and you’ll have no trouble finding the simplest form of the sport played on fields, dirt patches, and empty lots. It’s the soccer tradition in which many of the best players in the world grew up, and it’s one that teaches young players how to be creative and survive against stiff competition.
Things work differently in America, where youth soccer has become a big and lucrative business. It’s becoming harder and harder for kids without financial means—or the desire to play a highly regimented version of soccer—to find a way to play and fall in love with the sport. It’s a problem that some believe is having negative effects at the highest levels of U.S. Soccer
Youth soccer in America starts at the town level. Parents sign their kids up when they’re in preschool or kindergarten and pay a nominal fee that goes towards field use and referees. Those parents spend the next few years watching their children bump into each other while trying to kick a ball. As children develop, the game becomes more complex, and parents that want their kids to continue down a path towards professional soccer will need to get them on a club team. Club teams cover players all the way from elementary school until the end of high school, sometimes with multiple teams per age group. MLS teams have their own academies that don’t have fees attached, but a young player hoping to find a spot there will have to play for some sort of club to get spotted.
Club soccer comes with enormous costs. It’s a year-round commitment and can cost a family thousands of dollars in fees, which in turn pay for referees, fields, equipment, coaches, and club management. Then there are the costs associated with traveling to tournaments. If a player is good enough, some clubs will make an exception where those costs are concerned, but for the most part, players have to pay their way onto a team to get elite coaching and be seen by college or professional coaches. Clubs are highly professionalized, with the idea being that access to specialty coaches, practice facilities, and high-level competition will aid in player advancement. All those perks come with costs that lock out players and families that can’t afford them.
Kyle Martino is one of the people trying to change the way soccer talent gets developed in this country. Martino, who enjoyed an injury-shortened career in MLS before becoming a Premier League analyst for NBC Sports, ran for the U.S. Soccer presidency that was vacated by Sunil Gulati following the USMNT’s embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Martino lost out to Carlos Cordeiro, but his number one campaign issue is still one he’s trying to fix.
The way Martino sees it, the biggest problem facing U.S. Soccer’s talent pipeline are the economic factors that conspire to keep players away from the game at the youth level. “The thing that concerned me the most was the lack of access, which was a problem back when I played, and how they’ve professionalized the game at such a young age,” Martino tells me in a phone interview. “It’s turned into a rich kids’ game in this country, where those that were locked out, or hit a ceiling in their development [couldn’t afford the next step]. When I was younger, [there were] better players than I was. The socio-economic golden ticket was a problem back then, it’s just gotten worse and worse. The incredible focus on being in a professional environment, it coincides with an enormous cost, and it has ended up in a market confusion, where parents are being preyed on and kids just aren’t having fun anymore.”
Martino looks back to his own childhood as a model for increasing the size and depth of the talent pool. He remembers first encountering soccer as a six-year-old living in Westport, Conn. He’d gotten a hold of the remote, and instead of Sunday morning cartoons or children’s TV, he changed the channel to a soccer game. “I saw something beautiful that no one showed me,” Martino says. The day has stuck with him ever since.
Martino, the grandson of Italian immigrants, had found an Italian broadcast of Serie A game, Italy’s top-division, featuring one of the great AC Milan teams of the 1980s. It was Arrigo Sacchi’s first season in charge and his conquest of European soccer had yet to begin. For years afterwards, Martino and his brothers would shout ”Donadoni!” referring to Milan midfielder Roberto Donadoni, when they scored in their basement soccer games.
Martino played club soccer, but he learned more playing on the street. Westport, for all of its white-collar affluence, had a bit of an old-world soccer mentality. Martino grew up playing pick-up games, referred to as “short goal,” on a patch next to the local high school. Adults and kids played together. Winner stayed. No one had to pay to play.
It was in these games that Martino found the freedom to try the dribbling tricks he saw on TV. He got to test himself against bigger, stronger, and more experienced players without any bureaucratic interference. There were no referees to slow down the game, or coaches and parents to tell him how he should or shouldn’t play.
When winter arrived and the games inevitably ended, Martino and his friend, Edson Buddle, owner of 11 U.S Men’s National Team caps and three goals, traveled to nearby towns to play indoor games with the local Caribbean and Latin community. “That’s where, for me, the game lived and breathed,” Martino says. “That’s where I learned how to be competitive, creative, a good teammate.” Martino says those games accounted for some of the most competitive nights he’s ever experienced, including his professional career.
Those nights helped Martino develop into the national player of the year while at Staples High School. He went on to play collegiate soccer at the University of Virginia, leaving after his junior year when the Columbus Crew selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2002 Major League Soccer draft. He was named Rookie of the Year and played five seasons with the Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy, and made eight appearances for the U.S. National Team. He looked like a new breed of attacking midfielder in MLS, but injuries cut his career short. He stayed with the game and worked his way into a studio analyst seat for NBC Sports. Those pick-up games that bonded him to the sport stayed on Martino’s mind throughout his life in soccer, though, and making those experiences and that bond available to the next generation of players was the foundation of his U.S. Soccer presidential campaign. It’s still something like his life’s work
Earlier this year, Martino started The Street FC, a community based pick-up game in New York City that plays three to five nights a week in various neighborhoods, on any hard surface organizers can find. There are no goalkeepers. Five-a-side games with a time limit. Winner stays. Everyone is welcome to play, everyone is treated the same. If you step on the court, you can play.
“Building Street FC was a way to shift the paradigm,” he says, “to show people they don’t have to wait for the big turf field with the midnight kick-off. There are spaces to play all around you. You can play anywhere. If I can shift the paradigm to people understanding that—as sort of hardcore, you know, players or pick-up players know—then we can activate so many spaces and engage people to start playing the game.”
Street FC games are always played on hardcourts, and are always 5 vs. 5 or 4 vs. 4. The games end after a brisk four minutes, or first to three goals. They’re fast games with players rotating, pushing, pulling, and spinning. The floodlights glow, the cages rattle with misplaced passes and shots, and the game doesn’t stop until the night is over. Men and women play in a co-ed environment that isn’t anything like the 11 vs. 11 co-ed games that define the college intramural experience. In those games, a select few players run around with the ball and don’t pass while everyone else just waits to drink after, but because Street FC games are played in tight spaces, everyone has to be ready to receive the ball. There’s no hiding.
Usually the game moves fast, with the ball zipping across the floor and players flicking or touching it around opponents. There are players trying to take on defenders and no safe passes, because safe passes will get you nowhere. Bodies run and move in coordinated scrambles, with teams overloading sides and areas of the field and often getting caught out on the counter. Some former professionals that show up—Martino himself plays—and some current professionals like USWNT and Seattle Reign midfielder Allie Long and her Reign teammate Yael Averbuch have gotten into some games. Mostly, though, these are just games for people that love soccer and want to play it.
Martino is attempting to follow a blueprint laid out by predecessors like Kephern Fuller. Growing up in North Carolina, Fuller started playing soccer with other kids in an after school program. He moved to Atlanta and continued playing with kids in the neighborhood, mostly Brazilians, and went on to play college soccer at George Mason University. He had some tryouts in Europe after graduating, but ultimately returned to the Washington D.C. area, where he launched his own club, Joga FC. His goal was the same as Martino’s—bringing street soccer to American kids.
When the club launched in 2010, Kephern had to explain to parents that their kids would play every day. Street soccer was a chance for players to experiment and play on instinct. It was about getting out and accumulating what Martino calls “log hours.” The goal was not only to have the kids play freely and against better opponents, but to make sure they were having fun while doing it. “They’re in school all day,” says Fuller. “Let them do what they want.”
Now, Fuller runs the club from outside his wife’s hometown of Amsterdam. He brings his kids to the local street soccer court in his neighborhood every day after school, and families mingle until it’s too late to play anymore. The patch of pavement acts as a local community center. The games are intense, but no one is left out. There are no trophies or big contracts at the end of the day, naturally, although there are plenty of scraped knees and elbows and lightly bruised egos. In these games, players learn things that can’t be taught on the training field. The game moves fast, in tight quarters; being strong on the ball and creative are necessities to survive in such a physical game environment.
“It’s instant trial and error,” Fuller says. “You learn by trial and error; not from coaches’ feedback but other players. You learn moves by watching other players and copycat. It’s more than just skills. It’s figuring it out.”
Personal experience is how players grow, Fuller says. It’s about learning from moments in games, with and without the ball; because a street game moves at a pace that a full-sided game can’t, and because the small area and limited number of players make for more touches for everyone, each game is loaded with these sorts of little teaching moments. The goal is smaller, which requires creative methods of scoring. These are the things that Fuller and Martino believe are missing from the academies across America.
“Small goals are a very important part of teaching kids how to break things down and break down a defensive unit, find angles and learn movement and keep the ball low,” Martino says. “Everyone wants to score, but scoring through a small goal is more like making a really dangerous final pass. In a way we’re kind of tricking kids, right? Like we’re giving them their vegetables, you know, with some sugar on top.”
I only got into my regular pick-up game because I was invited by a friend from an old Sunday co-ed league. We hated playing it, and hated the subsequent winter indoor games. The play was poor, the refereeing was garbage, and the fields were a disaster. Plus, it cost too much money—higher and higher fees for a product that got less and less fun with each session.
In contrast, the pick-up game has no goalies, no referees, and little in the way of macho overcompensation. There’s no need for shin-guards. The teams are different every week even though the players remain the same, and the small nets ensure that everyone has to work together in order to earn a goal. Most importantly, though, the game is good. Everyone can play, and the other players help you get better by making you accountable and pushing you to try new things—passes you’ve never looked to make before, dribbles you never thought possible.
Most of the guys grew up around the game. There are the dribblers, the passers and the shooters, a few strong defenders, and two brothers whose cousin plays on the Ecuadorian national team. I came in as a product of a totally different culture, having never played street soccer, and I simply wasn’t on their level. I was used to playing organized soccer on big fields, where I could use my endurance to my advantage. The tight area of the pick-up games meant I had to get better at all the technical and creative aspects of the game. I got better at making short passes, and I learned how to dink and dunk balls over and around defenders. I learned the art of the no-look pass, how to dribble in tight spaces, and became more confident on the turn. One-touch and flicked passes suddenly made their way into my arsenal. I’m 32 and have been playing soccer all my life, but it wasn’t until I joined this pick-up game that I finally learned to do the things that my favorite players do on TV. Pick-up taught me not only how to play, but also how to love the game again.
Writing about soccer and watching it endlessly had eroded my love of it. It had become a job, and playing in the old Sunday league felt like work. But now, once or twice a week, I get to enjoy it, far from the FIFA scandals of the moment and the clubs owned by oil oligarchs and human rights-abusing royalty. The games, too, are free from fights and referee decisions. For a few hours every week, life stops and I play a purer form of the game than I’d ever enjoyed in my life.
For a lot of kids in America, this version of the game remains far from their grasp. There are no pick-up games to help them learn how to play and be playmakers, to realize their potential, and to really fall in love with the game. This isn’t something they’ll learn in a sterile academy world where players are treated like robots. They deserve the opportunity to get out in the streets and play. They might just change the future of American soccer while they’re at it.