Twice a week for the past few years, I shake myself out of evening languor, fill up a water bottle, throw on my old FDNY t-shirt (lettering on the back: KEEP BACK 200 FEET), and schlep eight miles to a large, boxy edifice that has become a kind of second home. Opening the glass doors to entry, I am assaulted by a gust that seems to be trying to escape from itself, stale with sweat, feet, and popcorn, like a gym locker room that doubles as a dive bar. I spot a couple of my teammates sitting at a rickety table further inside, draw their attention with a wave, then blow a bubble of gum that pops all over my mouth. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It’s soccer night.
Think of the beautiful game. Recall the matches that made your heart swell for love of 22 men and a ball: the national rivalries played out on the scale of a football pitch; the sublime coherence of the German juggernaut; the silky passes and jaw-dropping Messi chips that made you hail Barcelona, even as you hated them.
Then forget all that and imagine a bunch of washed up 30-year olds using sports as an excuse to get drunk on weeknights.
Welcome, friends, to League D co-ed recreational indoor soccer.
The first soccer-like game was probably played in China, in about 200 BC. In 2016, in Seattle, the dream of putting a ball in a net without using your hands is alive and well. In this town, haven for the footy-crazed, even low-level rec soccer is a moderately serious affair. There are virtually no true beginners. Most of us played in high school or intramural or even college, and at some point we’ve said to ourselves, Huh, I remember enjoying that whole moving-my-body business. Hell, I think I was pretty good! Plus I haven’t figured out how to meet people since college and I’m afraid my social skills are starting to degrade irrecoverably. And so our motley crew was formed.
We play in an athletic complex that consists of three turf fields, a gym, an inflatable playground for kids, and a concessions booth. The booth sells beer, and after each game, we share a few pitchers among whoever sticks around, airing our joys and sorrows, and idly scheming ways of sneaking into the bouncy house. Folks with kids of their own linger for a temporary reprieve; the rest of us while away the evening in easy chatter, tracking whatever game lights up the TV screens overhead.
The arena is not air-conditioned. Come summer, we run at half-pace, pushing through a damp lethargy, like in one of those dreams where your legs have mysteriously turned to jello.
Indoor soccer is, of course, an entirely different animal from outdoor. Games feature a shrunken field, half the players, and much less out-of-bounds territory. Matches last 45 minutes, long enough to wear us out, but not so long that we necessarily have to wash our socks after every game. Because play rarely stops, an indoor soccer game is one long wind sprint, and anyone who tells you they can play a full 45 at full steam is either lying or Alexis Sanchez.
Every year, the gulf widens between what we envision in our minds and what we can do with our feet. Dreams of one-touch blasts to the upper 90 give way to accidental notches with a shin guard—but hey, a goal’s a goal. We try to calibrate our strategy to match our creaking joints and slowed reaction times; we can often be heard to yell “Play feet! Play feet!” by which we mean, the person you’re passing to probably isn’t fast or motivated enough to reach a forward ball, so kick it to where they’re standing now.
We sustain our fair share of injuries, mostly mid-level musculoskeletal knocks: ankle strain, tendinitis, the occasional ACL tear. In our first season, an errant whiz-bang of a shot hit me point blank between the eyes. My uncle, who happened to be playing with us that day, ran over to where I lay on the pitch, trying to blink away the pain. He asked if I thought my nose was broken. I found this question rich, since it was obvious my whole face was broken.
Nothing was broken. I did, however, suffer two black eyes and a week of coworkers’ amusing themselves by offering me numbers for domestic abuse hotlines.
Teams in our league have names like: Advil FC, Sharknado, Balls to the Wall, Balls Deep, Regular Ball Movements. We all think we are very clever.
I’d Hit It FC (copyright me) is peopled by a colorful cast of characters. There’s Evan, whose giraffish legs eat up the field in about five strides, and Alex, a dreamy Australian with the personality of a hectoring younger brother. We suffer from a surfeit of central midfielders and a total absence of strikers, but our best ball handlers, Lindsey and Amy, have stepped in to fill the gap. Because Lindsey is about 5’2”, refs let her get away with some gnarly fouls until about ten minutes into the game, when they realize she is fast, skilled, and vengeful. Amy is a girl-next-door-looking tornado whose shot players quickly learn to fear.
Then there’s Soren. Soren and I met sucking down liters of Weissbier at a local German pub most days of the 2014 World Cup. You can only find yourself shitfaced at the same beer hall-style table with someone so many times before you have to admit you’re friends. Soren has an ineffable quality that evokes the German term backpfeifengesicht, or, a face that needs to be slapped. What I mean is, Soren is a smartass and someday he’s going to get punched. It already almost happened once, when he bantered a little too hard at an opposing goalie, who decided to restrain Soren from leaving the field until he apologized (other, larger members of the team intervened on Soren’s behalf). Probably the most annoying thing about Soren, though, is that he’s really an extremely talented soccer player.
Dr. Abbasi is a gastroenterologist and his post-game chatter comprises a steady stream of butt jokes and one-liners drawn from an apparently inexhaustible well of puns on the word “colon.” The more we drink, the funnier these become, until we are doubled over, gasping for breath, alarming people around us.
As in the Premier League, the quality of officiating leaves something to be desired, but in our case it’s mostly because the refs are high. Look, weed is legal in this state, and anyway, I don’t judge. It’s not a great job. The arena smells terrible, the players can be a pain, and I can’t imagine refs get paid very much. Plus, games basically run themselves, save the odd guy (it’s always a guy) per game who Thinks It’s Theworldcup (TIT for short). The TIT has decided to live out his adolescent fantasies of becoming the next Ronaldo right here in League D, mugging and hollering and generally make a spectacle of himself, alienating his own teammates, who just wanted to come out for a casual after-work run-around, damn it, and now they’re casting the other team apologetic looks to distance themselves from this preening lunatic, someone’s cousin in town for the week, how much longer left in the half, anyway? Sometimes the TIT really is too good for our division, and watching him juke three defenders in a row, I wonder if he’s even having any fun, dancing around us like a ‘50s bunny hopper. In fact I have asked a couple of TITs this very question, and received mostly uncomprehending stares in reply, and once a sharp little smirk that I may have addressed with, as my grandmother would say, language.
Then there are the men who don’t pass to women. I suspect most of them don’t even realize they’re doing it, but the women on their team do, and they don’t stay.
League standings are posted online and we study them religiously. It’s not clear why. There are no prizes for winning, not even, frankly, any measure of pride. Each twelve-game season folds seamlessly into the next, making a years-long comedy of lofted misfires, keeping gaffes, and defensive breakdowns. I will say this: my team is good, for our league. Mostly we win.
I am team captain, or Team Mom, as my players call me when they’re asking for it. This means all the glamorous responsibilities default to me, like getting people to pay for the season, or ferrying car-less teammates to the arena. I let whoever’s in the car with me choose the music while I drive, and somehow “Started From the Bottom” has come up enough times that it’s been declared Team Song. I did get to choose what color we wear; our red shirts represent a symbolic nod to the Arsenal, and a little fuck-you to the couple of Chelsea supporters we inadvertently allowed to join.
I ask players not to get plastered beforehand. You can guess how well this goes. One night, Lindsey shows up four-deep after a party and starts cartwheeling around the field. I don’t blame her; as a surgery resident, she works grueling 30-hour shifts, and rec soccer is reliably the best part of her week. She’s not alone, in her love of the game or her fellow players. Time and experience have knit our team tight. We have been woven together not by common interests or hobbies, but by the simple fact of showing up, week after week, month after month, cheering the same victory, mourning the same defeat. Every pass of the ball I make is to a dear friend.
Returning to our “real lives” is sweet sorrow. If we leave the arena before darkness sets in and take the highway southbound, we are treated to a spectacular vista of the city, the lake, and the mountains draped in the amber light of magic hour. I catch a glimpse of Lindsey in the passenger seat, and see my mood reflected in her eye, a lake of contentment. In the back, Soren falls silent for once in his life. For a moment, the world appears utterly congenial, a partner in all our endeavors. We take it all in. We will sleep well tonight.