The Lowest Level: Pickup Soccer in America

On the value of pickup soccer.

Soccer on the Ellipse, Washington D.C.

It seems to me that only a group of Americans would think to make a documentary about pickup soccer.

Only to an American viewpoint does the idea of people gathering informally to play soccer seem foreign enough or noteworthy enough to warrant feature-length examination, which is what a pair of former college soccer players and their two behind-the-camera partners gave it in 2010’s Pelada.

“Away from the bright lights and manicured fields, there’s another side of soccer,” the tagline reads. The movie is quite good, mostly because player/stars Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham and their collaborators, Ryan White and Rebekah Fergusson, do a good job interviewing the characters they meet about what the game means to them. As you can imagine, it means quite a lot, and to hear that from a Kenyan villager who makes his living distilling moonshine or a Chinese banker who quit his job so he could practice freestyle juggling and not someone paid to play or coach or write about the game is powerful. Pelada is populated with people for whom soccer enriches their lives, not makes them rich.

People in this country who think a lot about soccer tend to view pickup as a kind of elevated ideal of the sport. We have the sense that those men and women who go out every week, sometimes two or three times, to play in the open spaces provided by municipal or educational or soft/baseball authorities are the country’s “real” players. That the low stakes — the lack of money or scholarship opportunities on the line — means they love the game more. That since they are literally just using a ball, they are somehow more in tune with the game’s essence.

This isn’t a soccer-specific phenomenon: our sporting culture celebrates the amateur ideal. It’s why The Sandlot and Field of Dreams are popular; why we like stories of players learning to shoot baskets on a backboard nailed to a telephone pole; why commercials used to show Brett Favre recklessly gunslinging and being like a kid out there in a muddy field somewhere in Mississippi with his buddies rather than in a stadium with his teammates. We love love-of-the-game. All this contributes to our lofty opinion of informal soccer arrangements, but more importantly, pickup — or our lack thereof — is viewed as one of the things that separates this country’s players from those in more powerful soccer nations. We see pickup as a development tool that we don’t have.

The origin stories of great baseball players detail how that player learned his craft hitting roses off the bushes or swinging at bottle caps with a stick. Football players drill in the backyard with their fathers and an old tire throughout childhood before emerging onto field as a fully-formed freshman, dominating the competition and looking ready to lead a pro team to the promised land. Basketball stars spend hours in the gym or on the court down the block, making a thousand jump shots a day, 500 with each hand. This is how American players develop: hard work and perseverance, practice makes perfect, all that stuff.

Except in soccer, where one of the commonly given reasons for why the U.S. doesn’t produce as many or as high-quality soccer players as other nations is because our kids practice too much, and too early on, as opposed to just going out and playing. We hear of Zidane learning his close control in the housing projects of Marseille, Ronaldo lying to his mother about going to school, of players in Italy, Argentina, or Ghana who wake up and go play with their friends in the street until dinner, or until they’re scooped up and signed to a local club’s youth team by a sharp-eyed scout passing through town, whichever comes first.

In America, some bemoan what I’ve seen called “adult intervention,” the habit of coaches and parents pulling kids into regimented programs too early, draining a player’s love of the game and stunting his or her creativity before it can be developed. This is what the pickup advocates denounce.

These people made me the (mediocre) player I am today.

The problem is this assumes there’s a kid’s pickup game on every street that the kids would be playing in if they weren’t out running through drills. Pickup was an impossibility for me when I was first learning the game. There just weren’t enough kids on my side of my small Alabama hometown to play with. My friends and I started meeting regularly on weekends for kickabouts only once some of their older, soccer-playing siblings got their driver’s licenses, at which point we played just about every weekend, off-season or midseason or summer, cars ranging all over town picking up players who otherwise couldn’t get there. But by then we were 15 and 16, far past the time when we could play pickup until we were good enough to get noticed by a scout before dinner.

Pickup’s absence underlines its importance. Nearly every coach now realizes that small-sided games — like those you typically have playing pickup — are important because they maximize touches and time spent with the ball for young players. What’s missing when a player participates in small-sided games in practice with his or her teammates is the mystery, the unknown variables that change a game. Pickup is an incredibly useful teaching tool not just because of its numbers, but because of its informality which means coaches — those who might be the pickup advocates — couldn’t create the ideal pickup scenario even if they wanted to. It has to be organic.[1]

That’s because pickup necessitates flexibility. As the cast of characters in your group rotates, you’re finding your way into a new game each time you play. Without a coach, it’s a constant exercise for your personal tactical acumen as you search for where you can be most effective on the field for this game, and for your skill set as you try to adapt to playing there. Even that changes drastically based on who you’re playing with and where they’ve decided they’re going to be most useful.

For instance, last summer I was in Austin’s Zilker Park[2], struggling to get into a game. When I play, I typically slot myself in as either an outside midfielder, hitting crosses from the wings and getting back on defense in order to be an outlet when we win the ball, or a classic target forward: chasing passes, holding the ball up, looking to lay it off to my teammates and generally making a nuisance of myself in the box.

Pickup in Austin.

In Austin, I thought I was playing competently enough in the latter role, but aside from a few runs to draw defenders out of position and create space, it didn’t seem like I was having much of an impact. I tried to move to the outside, but we had guys playing on the wings who I determined, after a couple of instances where we ran into each other, weren’t ready to cede their positions. So, I struggled.

Until, that is, this older man, a Hispanic man with one of those distinguished-looking full mustaches that only Hispanic men older than 40 seem to be able to pull off,  moved up out of our defense and took up a position behind me as a second striker. In half an hour, we set each other up for four or five goals, him threading a pass between two guys to me at the far post of our small goal, me cutting back from the endline to center to him, etc. It was a completely different experience. I was like a new player out there. You don’t get these moments very often in organized soccer. With pickup, they can happen every game.

[1] By the time a young player realizes how important pickup might be to his development, it’s already too late.
[2] I was in Zilker Park the day before the World Cup started. I joined the first game in the park right at 5:30 when it started up, and it didn’t take long before we had full 11v11 and were turning people away. By the time we finished between 7:30 and 8, there were at least nine other games being played, all of which had at least 6 people on each side.

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10 Responses to The Lowest Level: Pickup Soccer in America

  1. Dunl says:

    [They don’t want people watching their trailer??]

    • Eric Betts says:

      Apparently not. I’ll see if I can’t find another one, but I suppose that’s their call to make.

  2. There is more to pick up than player is an important part of child development. There are documented studies that show discovery is an important ingredient to any sport participation. Organized sports run by adults takes it away. By the time kids are 12 , they are done.

    Only a small percent of players ever become truly high level players. This is a fact most parents and coaches ignore. Savants are rare.

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  5. Jerry Moyer says:

    I played at Penn State (1981-85) and a few years professionally after graduation. I also coached college soccer at the D-1 and D-3 levels. Playing pick-up soccer is where I learned my craft. I started playing soccer around 1970. We went to watch the Cosmos play and then we tried to mimic what we saw in our informal training grounds. There was a show on tv…if I remember correctly…a 30 minute hi-lite show called Soccer Made in Germany…with Toby Charles. Again, we watched the amazing goals, dribbling feats etc. and then wanted to try them ourselves. The pick-up games allowed us the opportunity to explore, have freedom, develop our own styles. I’ve seen both sides of the coin…the one with little coaching etc (the one I grew up with) and the more formalized on of today with high quaility coaches and players helping to now coach our young players. It is my opinion that there is benefit from both. I 100percent feel that kids today are not playing enough ‘on their own’. The 2v2 or 6v6 games we played on the tennis courts or the school fields (without any coaches) seem to be a thing of the past. That is sad. With that said however, I watched my own kids develop under the guidance of some amazing coaches. With my background…there was no way I was going to simply turn these kids over to anyone. I found a club FC Revolution in the Reading, PA area that is doing it right. They have coaches who have both coached and played at very high levels …most professionally. They ‘instruct’ but also allow the free expression and development of the players. One part of their regular training is 3v3 futsal without coaches. It’s amazing! The stuff the kids are trying and learning is unbelievable. This environment for experimenting and developing is awesome. The club owners are Eric Puls and Mike Moyer (my brother). I have to give a special ‘shout out’ to a guy named Jeff Koegel. Without a doubt, Jeff is the best I’ve seen at working with young players. He is very talented with the ball at his feet and can do virtually any move you have seen. The abililty for him to show things in person and then encourage the players to ‘try’ them is fantastic. In closing…I guess I’ll just say this. Player development can be “increased” with a good, quality trainer helping the process but there is nothing that will replace kids getting together and playing, and playing, and playing, and playing, and playing ….Have you read the book Outliers? There is something called the 20,000 hour rule. Check it out…. Great article and great topic…

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  7. ChadH says:

    I feel your pain about soccer in Alabama. My High School didn’t even have a team so I really didn’t start playing til college. Now if I’m not playing three times a week, its a bad week… moving out of Alabama helped.

  8. Pingback: The Lowest Level: Pickup Soccer in America, Part II | The Other 87

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