On New Year’s Eve I found myself in Málaga for some winter sunshine and while sat at our hotel’s rooftop bar I was inspired by Sam Diss’ fantastic piece in Mundial magazine on the amateur and pick-up football scene in New York. The kernel of an idea began forming in my football-obsessed mind.
Knowing that I’d soon be in the Big Apple for work, I started to wonder whether I could get a game in, in one of my absolute favourite cities on the planet.
Fast forward a few weeks and it’s 11:30 on a Saturday morning in Lower Manhattan and I’m navigating my way up from the Bowery, through Soho in weather the morning news simply described as “a soaking.”
I’m meeting up with StreetFC at a drenched William F. Passannante ballfield, a concrete baseball park and a late change to the originally scheduled astro turf of Sara D. Roosevelt Park. This was proper street soccer (sorry, football).
StreetFC is a really interesting concept. They are a football culture movement who arrange daily pick-up games in under-utilised spaces such as basketball courts, warehouses and the aforementioned baseball cages for players of all genders, abilities and playing experience around the Five Boroughs, via their app.
“StreetFC were co-founded by former US Men’s National Team and MLS player (with Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy); Kyle Martino”
Martino, a Premier League analyst for television network NBC, had campaigned to become president of U.S. Soccer in 2018 with a focus on making the game more accessible and inclusive. He wanted to arrest what he saw as the decline in participation (particularly at youth level) which he felt was a result of increased professionalisation of youth soccer which in turn saw kids fall out of love with the game. He also felt that access to the game was being denied to those from lower income households.
Whilst his campaign to lead the governing body was ultimately unsuccessful, Martino subsequently became chairman of the national board of Street Soccer USA, a non-profit organisation combating poverty and providing activities and programmes to under-served communities before teaming up with Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley to launch StreetFC.
Martino can often be seen on StreetFC’s Instagram account (which is well worth a follow by the way) playing in the games his company helps to organise, particularly those which take place around breakfast time.
I arrived at the park on the corner of the busy West Houston Street and 6th Avenue and chatted with the StreetFC rep who explained the basics for the games ahead. The rules were simple, four minutes, five on five, a small goal at each end, no keepers, first team to three goals wins and stays on. The game could also be won before the four minutes was up should a player score a first time volley with the heavier futsal ball we were using.
Despite the horrendous weather (which disappointingly meant that my Norwich City away shirt with Pukki 22 on the back remained covered by my track top), the standard was very high from the men and women playing with everyone displaying good movement and technical proficiency and the goals were flying in at both ends.
StreetFC are keen for all players regardless of skill level or playing experience to get out on the courts and offer games for both beginners as well as for those more experienced and proficient players.
This was definitely one for the latter and I quickly identified the various different playing styles of those involved. The style of play of two of the women players in particular really stood out.
Whilst not on the court, I got chatting with one of the lads taking part. He explained that a number of the players in attendance also played in the local amateur 11-a-side scene and that he’d been to other StreetFC games on the Lower East side where Under 15 US Women’s National Team players had joined in. Naturally they were on another level entirely when it came to skill and ability.
As soon as it had been confirmed that I would be playing, I’d said to my wife Sammy that I had to score so I could say that I’d netted a goal on another continent.
Having got my touch in, during the first three minutes, my opportunity soon arose in the second game when, with my back to goal, I controlled with my first touch before turning to side foot home with my second from a tight angle! Mission accomplished and another random brag to be used down the pub in the locker.
The games were competitive but played in the right spirit with the StreetFC rep making it clear from the outset that everyone had jobs to go too and that nobody needed to be a hero.
He needn’t have worried and I have to say it was a really enjoyable hour of football played against a quintessential Lower East Side backdrop of street art and yellow taxis moving down West Houston Street.
While the game I played in was clearly for regular players, it should not deter beginners or anyone in the city looking to try a new sport from reaching out to StreetFC as they organise games for all abilities.
They are trying to make football available to all in New York. Martino has gone on record as saying that he is concerned that one of the cheapest and most accessible games in the world is being turned into a rich kid’s game whereby the more you want to play, the more you have to pay.
For most players whether young or old they develop their game by playing more minutes. When you fall in love with this game as a child, all you want to do is go outside and find somewhere to play and by default you become better as you play more. This passion for playing is something that has stayed with me (and no doubt countless other people) and it’s why whenever I can get a game in, even at 36 years old, I will.
In my opinion, it is imperative that football is made as accessible as possible to all, regardless of their economic situation, and Martino’s passion and enthusiasm to make sure that those wanting to play can and that the game is introduced to as many young people in the US as possible through his work with StreetSoccer USA and StreetFC is truly inspiring.