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3:33 Sports Short #21 // Pick Up Soccer in the City by Rob Jacklosky

Seven years ago, six strangers met in the "dust bowl" of Central Park on a hot Saturday morning to kick a soccer ball around. The woman who organized this "Meet Up" was named Julie. It was called the "The Manhattan (Beginning) Pick-Up Soccer Meetup." Others in attendance that day and the succeeding Saturdays were Dale, Paul, and Simon. Like other Meet Ups organized through Meet Up.com, these people had nothing other than soccer in common, and affiliated randomly on the basis of a whim. They somehow found the Meet Up post, paid two dollars and met at the corner of Central Park West to see what was up.

Since that time, those in attendance have organized Meet Ups in Queens, Bronx and all over Manhattan. They have names like “NYC Co-ed Soccer” (6400 members); "Manhattan-International-Co-Ed Soccer" (3400 members) and "Manhattan Co-ed Soccer" (2400 members). Rules evolved and "regulars" came to know each other through these permanent floating soccer games. This is not a league. There are no uniforms, and until a few summers in, there were no tournaments or win-loss records. The only organization it involves is the organizer securing permits for the city parks, but the cast of characters and teams are week-to-week improvisation. Games (three thirty minute games between rotating teams) are posted by organizers and co-organizers. Players rsvp, are sorted into teams based on ability, and show up as their schedules permit. Prices have risen from that original $2 to $6 or $8---still a bargain.

Players are men and women, all ages, all skill levels, and come from all backgrounds. I found that just as in the novel Netherland, about a similar cricket culture, lawyers and financial analysts play with laborers, restaurant workers and recent arrivals from Britain, South Africa, and Argentina. Here, the roster of nations would include Brazil, Mexico, Italy and Guyana.

There are many soccer leagues in the city, and other Soccer Meet Ups: "Better Than A Gerbil Wheel" is a long standing one. But many of the pick-up soccer games that proliferate on MeetUp.com now are direct descendants of that first Saturday morning. They are, as the names suggest, Co-Ed and International in character and emphasis casual, easy-going play: "No Slide Tackling!" They play through the winter, sometimes shoveling the snow off the field before the day's games began.

Despite the easy-going ethos that typifies all of the pick-up soccer Meet Ups no matter the borough (the Bronx Meet Up is especially affirming), a feud is what precipitated the splintering of that first group into many. It was a disagreement over the ratio of beginner instruction vs. actual play that caused Dale and Paul to move on to their own Meet Ups. But once those original players fractured and spun off to different boroughs, a self-sustaining, ever-growing good-natured soccer culture of "Soccerheads" took root across the city.

It is a culture that is affirming and supportive and deceptively gentle. In fact, when I played a game outside the structure of this Meet Up web, I broke a finger: upended by a rough challenge that I was not expecting. Pick-up soccer absent the Meet-Up ethos, I learned, can be dangerous. But when the metal pins came out of the finger, I returned to soccer---but the gentle Meet Up soccer that was apparently my speed, now.

Let's be clear: I am not what you would call "good." I am old---44 when all this started, and 51 now. I am an English professor whose best days--never all that good-- were on a High School playing field. I am not very "skilled on the ball." When I have what I think is a moment of creativity and make what I believe to be a deft pass to the corner flag, my Brazilian-teammate-for-the-day may look at me, shake his head, and say "That's never going to happen." And when, after $8,000 of surgery and two months of recovery, I was eager to get back on the pitch, and my wife asked "Why?" I couldn't exactly say.

But here’s a theory. English Premiere League commentators talk about “finding Joy,” as in “Arsenal is finding no Joy down the right wing today.” Joy is in short supply in adult recreation. I’ve run a lot of road races (four marathons, five half-marathons, and lots and lots of shorter races), and there’s no such thing as runner’s high, in my experience. I’m slow and it’s hard. I’m even a member of a local running club, where there’s some comradery, but even in a group, running is private, and often, pretty grim. So, it might have something to do with being able to (for 30 or 90 minutes) forget yourself, and become another person: not a professor, not 51, and capable of competing, collaborating, assisting, and given a chance or half-chance, of scoring. I wouldn’t say this out loud, at least not to my wife. (I should probably look into that.) I am a little ashamed of “finding Joy down that right wing” on a random Saturday on a small field. on 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Rob Jacklosky has been published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency (where he was a columnist, writing a series of dispatches over two years); Sonora Review and Dappled Things. He was a top-ten finalist in the Esquire Short Short Fiction Contest, judged by Colum McCann.