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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Screw the World Cup. Americans dominate pickup soccer.

His name is Pro. No, but seriously…

I first met the kid when my long-time friend invited me to join her co-ed team… she claimed it was a dream team from all around the world. We had a Canadian, a Jew, a Mormon, a brown one, a red head, a pot head and an Asian. Pro was the Indian. As soon as he knew there was a golden boot to win for the most goals in a season, Pro had a mission. Three undefeated seasons in the NYC co-ed circuit and three golden boots later, he is lovingly known as Starboots. Here’s his first BTBG post, hopefully it’s not the last. Sound off…

An Italian, a Russian, two Japanese, three Chinese, a Portuguese and two Mexicans walk onto a pitch at 12:30 on a Friday afternoon. There’s no punch line here, only bitter disappointment when I realized the caliber of competition I’d be wasting the next 2 hours of a summer afternoon against. Long story short, the four American players danced circles around the others like transvestite prostitutes around O Fenomeno (the original Ronaldo) at Carnival.

You think they’d be good. It’s the game they grew up with.
They know which EPL teams were relegated last year, we don’t. Yet on this Friday afternoon, while we are the ones playing through-balls, making runs to the corners, and keeping proper spacing on the field, why do they look like they’re playing in jeans-shorts wearing shin-guards over their socks? Just uncoordinated, no soccer-sense, shooting balls 30 feet high and wide of the net. How did that happen?

I’ll tell you how.

Ever ask an American if he or she wants to play pickup soccer? And I’m not talking about those bullsh*t social leagues where people use the beautiful game as a means to create fake friendships. The fact is, when you ask an American to play in a competitive game of footie, you get an honest answer. If it’s a yes, you get an ex-high school standout who has played in numerous adult leagues to keep him in playing shape since his glory days. But if you ask an American who hasn’t played since his 12 year-old intramural team won participation trophies, he has enough self-awareness and humility to bow out. It’s like asking your wife of 10 years to play for your company softball team – if she sucks, she knows it, she knows she’ll be miserable, she says no, and you get 2 hours a week to show off your deteriorating skills to younger girls without consequence.

The quintessential pick-up soccer nightmare

Same scenario, different nationality. This time you ask someone who grew up in a country that worships the game. A European or Latin American or Far East Asian presented with the prospect of playing pickup soccer never has that moment of self-doubt. Never that thought of “Hmm, will I really be able to keep up with decent players? Will I actually have fun when I constantly dribble out of bounds and then no one passes me the ball?” When a European hears ‘futbol’ their ears perk up like the Mr. Softee truck just rounded the corner. Regardless of soccer ability, he suddenly sees himself as a member of the Azzurri. A sure acceptance of the invitation will ensue, likely followed by a less-than-ESPY-worthy performance.

The point is this: A standard pickup soccer game in the States will have both Americans and foreigners. All the (few) Americans will be good. One or two foreigners will good. And the rest should be in their basements playing FIFA.

My theory is that growing up in a more diverse sports culture gives Americans options. When choosing a recreational exercise, an American can go play basketball or toss a baseball around or do some other hippie activity that requires very little athletic ability (ahem Frisbee). But most foreigners know soccer and only soccer. You never see a group of Guatemalans juggling a hacky-sack or throwing beanbags into a hole twenty feet away. Basically all foreigners will list soccer as their primary athletic hobby despite their physical competence. So when the ball drops, the game is diluted with riff-raff who know where the Fox Soccer Channel is on the dial but can’t put a PK into an empty net.

Ever notice that hippies are better at juggling a hacky-sack than actual soccer players?

Look, I can’t blame people from soccer countries for wanting to play soccer. If you stick a piece of double-layer chocolate cake in front of a fat kid he will eat it – all of it – even though the other parents at the birthday party will be uncomfortably eyeing the kid’s mom like “Please take that thing away from your son.” But eventually the fat kid’s gotta learn not to stuff his face in front of his peers. Bad soccer players need to have the same mentality. If you’re a fat kid who likes to eat double-layer chocolate cake, then go ahead. Just don’t invite the varsity track team to come and watch you. Americans with a diverse sports background have this mentality. Internationals with a soccer-only background do not.

Every Friday morning I get an email titled ‘Soccer is on!’ And every Friday morning I get that same disgusted feeling in my stomach that I got when my Philly Union traded away El Pescadito, our only viable offensive threat, a month ago. Now the thought of stepping onto that pitch with the same Italian, Russian, two Japanese, three Chinese, Portuguese and two Mexicans forces me instead to tee it up for an equally frustrating 18 holes, and I’m starting to lose my touch!

Now if only I can get some of my company softball team to read this, we can trim down that 17-man roster.


  1. As a redhead who last played on a 12 year-old intramural team that won participation trophies, I approve of this message. However, I do like to play soccer when I have the chance, and by play soccer I mean run around aimlessly for an hour and whiff on 95% of my kicks.

  2. Good thoughts. I work at a soccer complex and I see this sort of thing first-hand during every lunchtime pick up session. The Americans who don't feel like they can hang usually end up on the side of the field knocking around with a buddy, rather than actually playing due to fear of embarrassment. Meanwhile, they're watching a lot of the foreigners embarrass themselves. Go figure.

  3. What's wrong with playing a beautiful game that you love, but playing it terribly. If you love it, do it. It's completely wrong to discourage people from playing if their level is not high enough. The notion that you have to be "competitive" to play a game in the park is totally at odds with the total accessibility of a game of football (equipment required: err, feet). The idea that you should have "enough humility to bow out" is just as bad. Play the game.

    I am generally impressed with the standard of American football players and agree with your points about why that is the case.