“Playing Forward” is a five-part report on 2010′s Street Soccer USA Cup, a 4 v 4 tournament contested between homeless or recently homeless soccer players and held in Washington, DC from July 30 to August 1. It is being printed here in advance of this year’s event, which is scheduled for June 10-12 in DC. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.
In practice, Street Soccer teams play wherever they can. When I practiced with the Denver team, our scrimmage was outdoors at the Denver School for International Studies near downtown, not far from the Urban Peak Shelter. We played 8 v 8 or 9 v 9 against the high school kids in a big field with Pugg goals at either end. The now-defunct Austin team practiced in a church gymnasium. Lots of squads — Sacramento, Denver, and D.C. among them — play in indoor leagues whenever they can.
The Street Soccer USA Cup itself is played on a walled-off court of hard blue plastic that’s just a little bit smaller than a basketball court. Goals, you’ll recall, are half-size. In front of each goal is a red semicircle a little bit wider than the goal that’s reserved for the goalie; no offensive or defensive players are allowed to enter it, and the goalie can’t step foot outside of it.12 The latter part of that rule, confining the goalie to the area around his goal, is especially important because of the next restriction, which is that the defensive team can only have three players, counting the goalie, in their own half of the court.
This leads to a near-perpetual 3 on 2 situation on offense, and also means that there’salways one player stationed at or just over half court, waiting to receive outlets once the defense wins the ball. Because the goalie can’t leave his crease, clearances to the corners can be an effective strategy because the defense’s forward player almost always has a head start. This makes the game more novice-friendly than it might otherwise be — defensive players not comfortable on the ball always have that option once they get it. These rules are meant to make the games fast-paced and high scoring, which is important, because each game consists of just two seven-minute periods.
Plenty of scoring is certainly possible. In their third game of the tournament, on the evening of the first day, I watched Denver get beaten by Los Angeles 14-3. L.A. scored their first goal before the scorekeeper had even started the clock. The difference in quality was obvious; L.A. had been playing for longer than three months. But Denver wasn’t exactly making it difficult for them. They didn’t do enough to stay in front of the men they were guarding on this short field where shots can come from anywhere. They were passing the ball across the front of the goal — something I’d heard them warned against when I was at practice.
Their big jump in quality between the first and third days of the competition wasn’t the result of steroids or angels or a big water bottle filled with Zinedine’s Secret Stuff. Their skill levels took no great leaps forward, but their understanding of how to play the game in this context and their own best roles on the court did.
When I was in Denver, Braxton tried to explain the team’s positions. He told me that Yidne was primarily an offensive player, Sean was their defensive enforcer, and that he could be “a good forward or centerfielder or whatever,” but that he would probably play goalie in D.C., because he doubted the others would want to do that. He went on to compare their team to the Denver Nuggets; Yidne, in Braxton’s estimation was Carmelo Anthony, Sean Kenyon Martin, and he was Chauncey Billups.14
All that changed between the second and third days. They put their trust in A.J. in goal, rather than alternating at the half between him and Braxton. This allowed Braxton to affect the game more as a defender, preventing players from getting shots off, than he could trying to stop them as a keeper. They also made Sean their forward, when previously the position had rotated between all four players.
Sean Spencer is 19, big and fast,15 with a head-full of dreadlocks that dangle down past his neck and a long goatee. At practice in Denver he tells me he’s an artist, and offers to photograph or draw a cover for my book for “50, 60, 70, or 80 percent” of the royalties. Sean had been playing soccer for just a month and a half when he travelled to D.C. for the tournament. A few weeks before in Denver, he was still getting the hang of kicking properly.
It seemed to be a mental, not physical block. It was as though he was nervous, like he was overthinking the act of kicking before the ball even arrived. “He just gets a little antsy when the ball comes his way because he wants to score so bad,” Braxton explains. Crossing the ball was especially difficult for him. He tended to scuff the ground, and the cross would piddle out and bounce into a defender at the near post. In D.C. that’s no longer a problem. Sean hits the ball hard, if not particularly accurately, when he’s shooting, and his passing has improved as well. More importantly, he’s found a role he fits into.
The ideal street soccer team requires three types of players:
1. Because of the rule where only three defensive players (counting the goalie) can be in the defensive half, you want a target forward, someone who can win the ball in the opposite end when it’s cleared out and hold it up until his teammates can get in a position to receive passes from him. So an Emile Heskey-type. Except he also needs to be able to occasionally score goals, so not Emile Heskey.
2. With only two field players allowed back on defense, one of them needs to have the speed and range to cover a lot of ground quickly. A fast defensive midfielder, capable of playing the angles, intercepting passes, and sliding over in front of his man fast enough to deflect or discourage the shot being taken would be ideal. Then he should also be comfortable enough on the ball to play it out quickly when he does get it.
3. Finally, with a defensive midfielder covering the space behind him, you need a wingback comfortable in a one-on-one defensive battle, who can force players with the ball out of dangerous spots on the court and can make the tackle when necessary. And, if possible, someone with a cannon for a foot.
Denver’s players complement each other in ways that make the team as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Sean wasn’t beating very many players on the dribble in D.C., but he has the size, strength, and raw speed to be a quality target forward.16 Applying pressure to opposing defenders — or pinning them in the corner — plays to his defensive strengths, where he lacks the footspeed to take the ball away from an advancing opponent. Braxton is quick enough to cover two opponents on defense, and Yidne has the confidence on the ball to bring it forward under control, and take an accurate shot when the opportunity presents itself.
The team has potential as a defensively-minded squad who can counter with a vengeance. For their goal against Seattle, Denver had possession of the ball for some two seconds; Braxton stepped in front of a pass on the defensive end and used one touch to hit it forward to Sean, lurking in the Seattle half. Sean trapped it, turned, and fired a nasty shot into one of the corners.
 Rather like the rules of team handball, for those of you who know the rules of team handball.
 And entertaining too. I had watched a lot of soccer in the summer before the SSUSA Cup, but even with the wide range of skill levels on display, I found the tournament entertaining as hell.
 A.J. at this point was still relatively new to the team, and it was unclear whether he’d be travelling with the team to D.C.
 He asked me to describe him as “big as a tank, fast as a Lamborghini.”
 By coincidence, he ended up with the number 9 jersey in D.C.