The Lowest Level: Pickup Soccer in America, Part II

The last time I wrote about pickup at length, on the first day of our site’s existence, I talked about its usefulness as a teaching tool. The thrust of the piece was that in pickup, your personal tactical acumen is constantly challenged in each game you play and even within the game, that it’s helpful as a tool for developing players. Each time you go out there with a new group or even a slightly different one, you have to find the best position and the best way to play that position, sometimes in wildly different circumstances.

I remember two games I played within the span of just a couple of days last summer. The first had some friends and I playing three-a-side on a tiny pitch temporarily etched with spare tennis shoes and bags into a corner of an on-campus recreational field. My team had more soccer experience, but our opponents were more athletic, leading to a dynamic where we’d try to pass around them, while they’d try to use their speed to dribble by us. Our passes had little margin for error against fast opponents in a small space, while the lack of room allowed us to cover closely, stacking defenders and forcing them to beat two of us in quick succession.

A couple of days later in my hometown, my little brother’s friend pulled together a game that topped off at 15v14, where you could receive the ball, turn, and find 6 defenders, a deep-lying midfielder and a keeper between you and the goal. I played as a combination right-sided carrilero and playmaker – a lot of the players were soccer neophytes, so there weren’t many other people who could carry the ball forward. We were at a near deadlock for two hours. Goals trickled in as the crowd slowly thinned out, and as the numbers dwindled I pushed further forward. When we finally made it down to 7v7, the field seemed so full of space there was a scoring explosion, even though we were exhausted from playing for two hours in the late-May Alabama heat. It was like pulling the weighted donut off a baseball bat and having it suddenly feel lighter as you swing.

These were both, strictly speaking, pickup soccer, but beyond that they had little in common. Those variables are what make pickup challenging, and not just for a typical adult player.

When I was coaching rec league youth soccer in Indiana last year, our league did a pickup-esque style series of games during one of our practice times, where full teams divided up into five-man units and played four or five games within an hour/hour and a half. I told my kids beforehand that I wasn’t going to coach them, that they should figure out their own positions and how they wanted to play.

It was bedlam. My two squads got rocked in nearly every game they had played. Everything they had seemed to grasp when I was explaining it to them went out the window. They regressed, even at 12 and 13, to kick and rush. It was incredibly disheartening, but also somewhat revealing.

Many of those kids at that age had likely never played pick-up before, certainly not on a consistent basis. Those neighborhood games don’t exist here for them to get practice in; they played organized soccer, or backyard 1v1 with their siblings, but aside from some inter-squad scrimmages they probably had little experience with the game informally. So the fact that they weren’t able to organically figure out where they needed to play to make their team better makes sense.

Finding that ideal spot is a lot easier to talk about than it is to actually do. Where that position might be and what it requires of you is a lot looser than in a typical game. You might be a right winger who has to play right back all game; a center forward in possession and a defensive midfielder out of it; a sweeper who’s the only reliable source of service from the left side; or all of the above. Roles are fluid. Everyone’s a total footballer between the cones of a pickup field, but the game also demands some semblance of form, because otherwise it’s just bunch ball.

For me personally, there’s a special kind of dread involved with entering a game I’m not familiar with. For one, I live in constant fear of being the pickup limiting factor, the worst player in a particular game. It doesn’t help that I’m a terrible judge of pre-match talent; it takes just a mediocre level of ball control and juggling ability to convince me that you’re a much better player than I am. This is partially because even for someone of my mediocre ability I’m a bad juggler, yet I haven’t quite fallen out of the youthful trap of believing that everyone who is a better juggler than I am is a better player than I am too, which is like assuming that the guy who can throw the football the farthest will be the best quarterback, or that the kid who successfully diagrams the most sentences will become the best writer.

It’s compounded by the fact that the positions I prefer to play – up front as a target forward or out wide as a winger/wide midfielder –  aren’t exactly essential in a typical pickup game. You don’t really need a target man when defense through the midfield is as lax as it normally is, so that player ends up standing in the front while the Number 10’s and the Faux Ronaldos and the Wingbacks bring it all the way up. If you’re playing with smaller teams — 4v4 or 7v7 — your field is generally smaller too, leaving less room down the side to exploit. Plus, if the goals are small, then it doesn’t matter how good of a cross you hit; it’s going to be tough for someone in front of the goal to steer it down and into a pop-up Pug or below knee height between a pair of cones. There’s not a lot in life that’s more frustrating than hitting a perfect ball for someone to head or volley that the other team calls off because it crossed the plane at mid-thigh.

So I have to adjust, deciding where best to put my skills to use in terms of both what the team needs and where everyone else is using theirs. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: Pickup is only half physical; the other 90 percent is mental.

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