Father Time, like his better half Mother Nature, is undefeated. He comes for all of us. Except James Milner. Recently, I felt he’d come for the part of my life that involved playing football. Various adult leagues left my legs and ego tattooed with bruises. I was sick of referees who didn’t care and opponents who cared way too much. The desire to trek across New York City for a 10:30 p.m. Monday kickoff was replaced by one to be in bed asleep. I began to play in fewer leagues and made peace with the idea I was transitioning into the winter of my playing days, which would consist mostly of beer-in-hand kickabouts.
But about a year ago, as my desire to play began to atrophy, I was invited via Rog to attend a Brooklyn pickup game with His Highness of Hair, Sir Kyle Martino. Until this point, I never really considered pickup an option. Even in places like New York City, where definitive football culture exists and genuinely great players live, we haven’t ascended to that utopian society where garbage cans and discarded sneakers double as posts.
So I turned up to the Brooklyn Waterfront, pickup-curious. My first impression. Holy crap, the players in Martino’s pickup game could ball. Many of them were former pros and truly elite players whose velcro touch and balletic grace quickly extinguish any delusions of grandeur regular players like myself might have about being able to do a job in an MLS midfield. Eventually, the intimidation waned, giving way to a game that was free, easy and filled with joy. The type of game I hadn't experienced since I was a kid. I wasn’t there because I’d already replied “IN” to a mass team email and worried about being shamed if I bailed. I was there for one reason: to have fun.
The game's vibe not only allowed, but encouraged that type of attitude. It existed in the tiny overlap of the adult soccer Venn diagram that features both “competitive” and “perspective.” The injury players are most likely to sustain is to their pride after being megged. Not that that happened me. That definitely didn’t happen. Not to me…
Not long after that, Rog and I were in Santa Barbara to work on the American Legend Series. We met up with OG GFOP Arturo Calisto at a bar for beers. Calisto - a 38-year-old middle school math and science teacher - was flanked by a group of friends. When I asked how they knew each other, he said they played in a weekly pickup game in nearby Ventura. It was instantly clear these games - not the score, but the act of being together - was important to them. Their instant recall of triumph and failures past, and the way certain saves, shots and dodgy tackles made them all laugh, drove home what an amazing shared experience pickup can be.
“This is what we’re living for during the hard weeks,” Calisto told me when I called him recently to talk about the role pickup plays in his lives. “We usually go out for coffee after we play, and it’s almost like a college party in the sense that it’s not about the party itself, but recapping it together afterward. That’s what makes it so special to us.”
Speaking with Art, both in person and on the phone, and hearing the joy in his voice when he talks about his game drove home pickup’s role as one of football’s purest forms.
In the months since I first played in Kyle’s weekly pickup game, it has transformed into Street FC, an organization that offers daily pickup games across New York City, all of which strike the perfect balance between welcoming and competitive (while featuring better playlists than any bar I’ve ever been in. Honestly, the music is just amazing.). New York Parks and Rec have even converted one of Street FC’s home courts, a once-generic asphalt slab known as “The Pit,” into a soccer-specific court in the heart of Chinatown.
And then there’s what’s happening out West with Venice Beach FC, whom I follow with great admiration via Instagram, and where the likes of Kylian Mbappe have turned up for a game. It all portends a bright future for pickup football culture in America.
While not everyone in America has resources like Street FC or Venice Beach FC at their disposal, nothing is stopping you from being like Art and starting a game with your friends and family members. In the end, the beauty of pickup is about creating memories on the field/street/court that bleed into blurry nights at the bar.
If you already play in a pickup game, or if you decide to start one, please send us photos via social media or email. We’ll send patches to everyone who submits.