Amateur soccer in America – is it just the game of our youth?

Last month, I was scheduled to coach a New York City third division game down at the bottom of Manhattan. It was the type of fixture that makes you question why the hell you involve yourself in amateur-level football.

I wasted my Saturday night on my phone asking, coaxing and – at some points – begging grown men to spend more of their Sunday evening transporting themselves down to the field than even playing football. The game was an end-of-season dead-rubber in the league, while we had our eyes focused on a cup final in a few weeks.

The traffic kept piling up on an hour-long drive down from the Bronx. I was in the passenger seat the whole ride down but I couldn’t relax due to random Google-Maps detours off the highway through Harlem, stress induced from bad driving, and constant texts on the team group chat with confusion about the directions, parking, and the location of the field.

A half-hour before kick-off, our center half, who was probably just being a contrarian Kerryman, declared that he was taking the West-Side Highway to the Lower East Side to avoid the traffic. Fantastic. Parking took even longer for us, before we found a legally questionable spot outside a school. From here, it was still a twenty minute walk away from the riverside field and I was nursing a broken foot.

“So scheduling home games like this is why this awful team is somehow ahead of us in the table,” I thought to myself as I was walking. But, we got there five minutes before kick-off, and to my relief, we had the bare eleven with a few more coming. And we had a team that would win that night. So, for now, everything was fine in the world.

When it was clear earlier on that we were struggling for numbers, I texted an old club stalwart who has hung up the boots asking him to play. He told me that he was struggling to find motivation. In a half-serious, half tongue-in-cheek reply which I intended to be humorously sappy, I responded, “Playing football on a river in Manhattan on an early summer evening is something hundreds of thousands of people in the world can only dream of.”

But I was right. It was a balmy, breezy night on the East River hinting that summer was on its way, with the iconic Brooklyn Bridge looming in the background. It was the New York of Woody Allen movies. It was the type of evening where you could feel as if you could fall in love with a city in the way that you previously thought was reserved for a person.

Except it was a fine evening for a game that never was. The very competent governing powers of the New York parks somehow double-booked the field for the same time. This sort of issue would be particularly contentious here, given the scarcity of space to play games on in the city.

Two Under-11 teams waited to take the field at the same time as our opponents and us. Obviously, in this scenario, the children were always going to get the field, because, well, they’re children. It’d be absolutely rotten for it to be any other way. Although it became clear that our Sunday night trip to Manhattan would be for naught, we at least got treated to a spectacle with the quarrels that ensued.

The scenes were surreal and evoked a variety of emotions and thoughts inside my mind. The kids from both teams started chanting “LET US PLAY!” The cynic in me was unsettled by their sense of entitlement.

This cranky side, of course, doesn’t bode well for me in terms of child-raising in the future. On another level, I admired the absurdity of the situation we had witnessed. A concerned middle-aged soccer dad decided to stage a “sit-in” on the field – it was one of the most shameless and cringeworthy moments I’ve ever witnessed. The home team’s coach argued and argued with the coaches of the youth teams over one of the worst fields in all of New York.

A dodgy artificial turf surface, which was essentially a row of worn-out carpets linked together by visible duct tape, was being fought over as if it was the last piece of real estate in the Garden of Eden. All three of the coaches of the other respective teams looked to the crooked ref, who was assigned to the field, as if he could be the righteous arbitrator in the mix-up. This was the same man who, while reffing us two weeks before, openly instructed the home team to go down in the box if they wanted a penalty.

Our team, as the visitors, thankfully weren’t involved in the arguments. Despite our innocence in and abstinence from the ongoing confrontations, we weren’t immune from the firing line as disgruntled parents threw a slew of verbal jabs and derogatory statements our way. And it was these openly dismissive attitudes of parents towards adults still seeking to play the game that stuck with me most from that night.

I’ve previously been aware that competitive adult amateur sport is very much a fringe subculture in America, but it was never as boldly striking to me as it was on that night.

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I can’t wholly understand the lack of interest and the general misunderstanding attached to participation on a competitive amateur team as an adult. I am well aware that not everyone can see the appeal in my hobby.

Conversely, things like young-professional happy hours, Goldman-Sachs sponsored networking breakfasts where free tote bags are distributed, or craft beer tasting events – all things which are extremely popular amongst my fellow American millennials – definitely aren’t my cups of tea.

But participation rates of American adults in competitive soccer, and competitive sports more generally, are so low that they are not only perplexing; they’re also perhaps harmful to soccer in general in this country.

A Harvard study in 2015 found that just one in four American adults participate in “competitive sports”, while three of every four had participated as children. This drop-off is staggering, and doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. “Competitive” in this context is a definition which does not capture the severe decline in attitudes towards the seriousness of athletic competition which occur as Americans mature into adulthood.

From my own experience, it is incredibly rare to find someone who takes part in team sports with organized training sessions and regular games. The greater majority of my friends and acquaintances in college were good athletes in one team sport or another during their teenage years, yet I would struggle to identify more than one or two of them that continue to play a sport at similar levels of intensity.

The United States continues to be one of the most sports-saturated markets in the world, with the five major sports of American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer turning profits and drawing millions of viewers year-in, year-out.

Support of professional soccer has particularly risen in popularity within my generation. It’s not as if Americans immediately lose their love of sport once they are handed a high school or college degree. They just stop playing, ironically, when they are supposed to be entering their peak physical conditions.

This issue leaves me with a barrage of questions. Why am I the only one still playing competitively out of a 20-player underage team which was one of the best in New York? Why can’t people understand why my father is playing in an over-30 league as a 53-year-old? Why are his games always on a poor, muddy field while most local kids have access to state-of-the-art turf fields? Why have so many approached my brother’s ACL repair with a lack of urgency, just because his days playing at college are over?

Why are yuppy Manhattan parents, who probably tell anyone who will listen about the life-changing effects of their yoga classes, asserting to us (as innocent passengers in the incident nonetheless!) that our competition is “just a men’s league” at the same time that they treat their children’s U-11 game like a World Cup final? How do youth games matter more than adult games and how does everyone over here, not just parents, instinctually and resolutely determine that this is the case? When parents enroll their children in sports, shouldn’t they hope that the kids never lose that they love the competitive nature of being on a team and the joy of playing?

Once American social norms are pushed aside, it makes less sense to stop playing the game than to keep playing it, particularly after one reaches a certain threshold of competition and appreciation for the game as a young adult.

Parents enroll their children in organised sports for a variety of reasons, according to the previously mentioned Harvard poll. Beyond the obvious health benefits of exercise, the reasons cited include that sports taught their child dedication and benefited their social life. These necessary components of human life do not magically disappear at an adult level. Year after year, new studies are released which in one way or another demonstrate that loneliness and a lack of friends for adults within my age group reach shocking levels in the United States.

Similarly, the benefits of participating in soccer don’t cease to exist on an individual level as one matures. For those who play, the sport will never cease to be a therapeutic diversion from life’s problems due to the physical exertion and the mental focus required.

As a 26-year-old, playing a game for 90 minutes can make me temporarily escape the troubling facts that Trump is president, that the universe will eventually stop expanding, and that the quality of chocolate coating had been downgraded on Cadbury Créme eggs in the same vein that Sunday afternoons 18 years ago allowed me to forget that I had undone homework or that I was grounded with no television for misbehaving earlier that day in mass.

Anecdotally speaking, many people have told me that they have stopped playing sports as adults for career-motivated reasons. When scrutinised, this doesn’t seem to add up. The societal emphasis on work-leisure balance has never been higher than now since the marked decline of labor unions into the 21st century. In today’s age, people’s motivations in work fall somewhere on the spectrum between doing what you enjoy and making as much money as possible.

If one seeks out a career in a field that they’re passionate about, it follows that they should be inclined to pursue their other passions outside of work. Alternatively, if one declares that money and retirement funds are the goal, then life can be fairly dreary.

In that instance, shouldn’t we strive to cling on even tighter to the game of our innocent youth in that case to distract ourselves from these shackles and desires imposed on us? Even in a sporting context, if people resign themselves to living by socially imposed ideas of what matters and what does not, they risk signing away the authorship of their own lives.

Despite the widespread awareness of the benefits of participation in youth sports, American sporting culture attaches a high level of significance to progression through the conveyor belt. A recent poll from NPR suggests that over a quarter of American parents of high school athletes hope their children will play a sport professionally. It’s no wonder that, in this climate, players will quickly jump ship if their dreams aren’t realised.

If one doesn’t progress to the next level, (s)he normally gives up playing the game at the previously-reached level of intensity. If teenagers don’t make the high school team, they generally quit, and the same goes for most high school players that don’t reach the college standard.

Young adults and their parents chase coveted athletic scholarships to an obsessive degree, but the majority of athletes and their parents alike lose interest in the continuation of athletic careers post-college if the professional game is not on the horizon. Even many professional players will readily abandon their ambitions once their careers begin to stagnate. This is, I believe, the real reason why competitive adult soccer is so unpopular out here.

Americans quite clearly don’t treat amateur adult sports with the same sort of glamour assigned to youth, high school, college, and professional sports. These attitudes are both reflected and reinforced in the media, with a gluttonous amount of coverage devoted to high school, college and professional sports.

This approach is infectious within various elements of American sporting culture, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the somewhat corrupt governing power of collegiate sports.

The NCAA ran a prominent multi-year advertisement campaign at the turn of this decade which proudly proclaimed that most collegiate athletes would be “going pro in something other than sports”. The dishonest attempt to present the NCAA as an organization focused on education was marked by television images such as a swimmer transforming off the diving board to the white jacket of a doctor. In this commercial, the woman stopped existing as an athlete of any significance and would become readily identifiable by her job upon graduation.

This approach to amateur sports in America contrasts starkly with those of the other two countries I have lived in: Ireland and England. The Irish have an entirely different attitude towards amateur sports, which is of course largely attributable to the GAA’s perpetual resistance to professionalising the Gaelic games. Playing for the local senior team is the pinnacle of the sporting career of most serious amateur athletes, rather than the high school days as is the case for most Americans.

I know of a then 20-year-old who couldn’t sleep on the night before his senior debut for the parish. The same outlook is applied to soccer, albeit with less magnitude in most parts of the country. In England, there is a similar sense of pride in playing for one’s local community. Footballers often play in two different divisions – county Saturday leagues, and Sunday leagues, with the former being marked as serious competition and the latter as a lighter form of recreation.

Tellingly, the amateur men’s game has somehow managed to grow in New York City, despite the general American distaste for adult sports. The Cosmopolitan Soccer League, the leading football association, contains over 100 men’s teams. This growth is due in large part to the establishment of teams from ethnic-based communities, such as our own Irish club, Lansdowne Bhoys.

Still, interest in the league from outside of it remains marginal, and accomplishments by some of the top sides are not celebrated as much as they should be because of the relatively low value of amateur football in American sporting culture. Similar opportunities of serious amateur competition are unavailable in other parts of the country in the same depth.

Disturbingly, the women’s game has not experienced similar levels of growth, including in New York where many “ethnic” American communities harboring the men’s game simply do not produce female players at similar rates. The lack of significant growth in women’s soccer is all the more glaring when one considers the facts that the US is the standalone superpower in the women’s game and that the amateur game is vital given that women’s professional opportunities in the sport are extremely limited across the globe.

This approach to adult soccer is clearly not healthy for the perpetuation and growth of soccer in this country as it trickles down to the youth level. The implicit and explicit emphasis on success clearly drives children, and, eventually, young adults away from the sport if they don’t reach a certain level of performance. Parents, who aren’t finding any competitive outlet of their own, often live vicariously through their children’s soccer careers.

The pressure on children to perform is unrealistically increased and their capabilities of thinking creatively and autonomously are stifled. The games cease to be the sources of fun they were intended to be. Sport can lose its meaning and appeal quite quickly in this environment. Whatever the age group or skill level, the lack of depth and interest in playing football detracts from establishing an overall environment in which the game can grow and thrive here.

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While I wish that America hosted a more receptive climate to amateur sports, I still subscribe to the idea that sports must be viewed in the grander scheme of life. I’m certainly not under any illusions as to what our team is, especially after watching games on the sideline for the past year. An old friend that used to play with us summed it up best when injuries rendered us both as spectators as he turned to me and said “Jesus, it’s a miracle there’s anyone in the stands at all with the type of football on display here.”

We love our tackles, we love our arguments with the refs, and we love our couple of bottles afterwards. But we can also play a little bit of tidy soccer and we take it seriously.

However, at this level, we often come up against a team that think they’re professionals, with lineup graphics posted on Facebook and Ronaldo-style socks. And I love beating (and fouling) them, because I can’t stand people who lack an ounce of self-awareness. I’m all for taking competition seriously, but your match is not being televised at the Camp Nou. For God’s sake, just take a second to look at the state of the field you’re on and the size of the bellies on the boys you’re standing next to.

But, even then, who am I to say they’re wrong? At the end of the day, they’re using their 90 minutes to escape just like we are – maybe to erase the pain of immigration, maybe to ignore financial woes, maybe to just forget the large parts of existence filled with monotony and suffering. They are functioning as part of a larger whole and transcending the human limitations of being an individual.

The joy and the sense of camaraderie that one derives from playing shouldn’t – and in my experience, doesn’t – disappear with age.

Author Details

Eugene O'Driscoll

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