When I taught first-year composition at Notre Dame in 2006, Matt Besler, then a freshman on the soccer team, was one of my students. As I understood it, he was one of the few freshmen to make an immediate impact -- something I wouldn't have guessed from looking at him. He was skinny and Midwestern: dirty blond cropped hair, red skin, friendly eyes, wide grin. He looked straight out of a 1950s Coca-Cola commercial. He had none of the cocky swagger I associated with collegiate male athletes. Plus, he was smart, one of the strongest writers in my class.
His footballing talent prompted me to lecture him. As a former collegiate athlete who felt taken aback when my own career ended, I wanted Besler to realize that soccer was temporary. Don't, I said often, think of it as a career.
Seven years later I watched my former student make his debut at center back for the U.S. Men's National Team on ESPN2. I told anyone within earshot that he was my once my student. Sure, he had a ways to go -- starting against Canada in a friendly (a pretty wretched friendly) doesn't cement your spot on the national team. But, as the MLS Defender of the Year known for composure and distribution, Besler was on his way, and I am happy to be the teacher who was wrong.
Two weeks before that Canada friendly, on day two of the January national team camp, I reunited with Besler during the half hour of press availability. I was there to write an article about the men's and women's U.S. national teams and their relationship to what our country calls pickup soccer.
"My first memory of futebol is on the street," said Brazil's Robinho in a Nike video. "Barefoot with friends, playing for fun. I always just wanted to play football -- futsal, football on the field, football on the street, football in the court, football on the sand. Sleeping with the ball, waking up with the ball, breaking my mother's furniture with the ball."
Countryman Luis Fabiano described it this way: "In Brazil, the first gift is a ball." In other words, the first gift is the game.
Maybe every American fan believes that we have no story to tell -- no equivalent history. That our version of the game is missing the romance, the folklore, the streets filled with barefoot 5-year-olds. Our players grew up with carpools and club practices, which don't quite have the same ring. Even our word -- soccer -- is embarrassing, indicative of a late start and competing pastimes. (Tellingly, the word "soccer" originates from "association," while the word "football" originates from the more primal "foot.") Maybe we secretly suspect that we haven't earned a right to greatness.
When I talked first with Besler, and then any player (past, present, or cusp) I could manage to track down or get info on, I was hoping to learn that we have more stories than we think we do.
Many of our players do in fact inherit the game. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan's father, a Yugoslavian immigrant of Serbian descent who snuck across the U.S. border in the trunk of a car with $120 to his name, briefly played in a semi-pro league. When he arrived in the U.S., he dialed every Serbian or Croatian-sounding name in the phone book and asked for a job. One call recipient asked, "This isn't the Slavko Kljestan who played for Celik?"
He offered Slavko a job, a place to live and a team to play on. Several years later, when Sacha was born, his crib featured multiple stuffed soccer balls. When Sacha was learning to walk, his dad had a ball in front of each foot.
"His first step was made with a soccer ball," Slavko said.
Kljestan's not the only with crib stories. Edson Buddle, who played in the 2010 World Cup, has a father who played professionally in Jamaica and Greece. His dad told the Associated Press, "The ball was there before he was born. It was in the crib waiting for him." Herculez Gomez's father, from Mexico, also described leaning into the crib, starting in on Herc's leg reflexes before he was old enough to crawl.
The fathers didn't stop the game-giving in the toddling years. Jozy Altidore, who has the all-time scoring record for an American playing in Europe (28 goals), first got scouted as an 8-year-old after his Haitian father took him to play pickup in the park. (According to Ben Reiter's
Buddle grew up playing in pickup games with his dad -- in Jamaica, in Greece, in the inner-city leagues in New York. "I was a skinny teenager playing with 30-year-olds from all over the world," he said. "They called me 'Prentice.'"
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber spent his first six years in Brazil playing in
This -- the apprenticeship, the begging to play, one generation passing down the game to the next -- is something we saw all over the world. A year after I taught Besler, I -- along with Ryan White, Rebekah Fergusson and Luke Boughen (my then boyfriend, now husband, and a Notre Dame soccer alum who graduated a year before Besler arrived) -- went to 25 countries in search of informal games.
In Hungary, grandfathers played in the same game as grandsons. On a beach in Guarda do Embau, Brazil, a 4-year-old was our center forward -- his father, a riverboat guide, along with the other riverboat guides, was teaching him the game. In Malick, a rough neighborhood of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, 17- and 18-year-olds played on a concrete court; one little brother hung out in the stands, jumping up after each game, pleading to be let on. A couple hours into the night, the older brother put his hands on the kid's shoulders, stared hard into his face and grinned: "Alright." This, to me, is the game at its best.
Interestingly, while the U.S. men's team is a montage of Jamaican, Haitian, Mexican, Serbian, German and Brazilian footballing heritages, on the women's side, there are no equivalent stories of immigrant fathers passing down the game, of dads placing soccer balls in cribs. Most likely, this is cultural -- while female participation in soccer is a given in the U.S., it is not anywhere else. American dads are much more likely to push their daughters in the athletic realm.
A few of the players had fathers in the know: Ali Krieger, the right back who scored the penalty kick to send the U.S. past Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup, was coached by her father, Ken, from early on. He told the
Lori Lindsey, a substitute in the center midfield who wowed me when I played against her in college, had a father who was, in her words, "something of a football progressive." Lindsey explained, "You know, it was the 1980s. It was Indiana. Yet my dad followed the English Premier League and Champions League, all of it. And he was always encouraging us to play with the ball."
But Lindsey and Krieger are exceptions. Most parents discovered the game at the same time as their daughters. Jeff Heath described watching Tobin as a 4-year-old: "We weren't paying a lot of attention at the time," he said. "Cindy and I were good athletes, but we didn't have soccer on our résumé. But then the other fathers started saying, 'Who is this little girl stealing the ball from our boys?'"
Christen Press, who has scored four goals in her first four games with the U.S. national team, said, "[My parents] never played, but as soon as I took to the sport, they became the biggest fans in America. Not just of women's college soccer, but at every level. My mom is constantly sending me YouTube videos of her favorite European players." Rather than the families passing the game down to their kids, in the U.S., the kids pioneered their own course, and the families followed close behind.
By international standards, most Americans get a late start to the sandlot.
My own pickup beginning didn't happen until I was a sophomore in high school. C.D. Harris, the best player in the Florida panhandle, picked me up in his mom's 1987 blue Buick and drove to Shoreline Park.
C.D., a youth national pool player whose bleached afro matched the neon yellow swoosh on his Nike cleats, was a player in more than one sense of the word, and while my eyes never left him on the field, I tried to ignore him off of it. But one day in SAT prep class, he leaned over me, fingers curled around the edge of my desk.
"I watch you at your games," he said into my ear. He went on to tell me that I drifted in and out mentally, that I wasn't dominating like I could. "What you got, 13 goals for the season? Please."
For the rest of the school year and through the summer, we did one-v-ones, playing for hours in the heat. Four or five days out of the week, we did double-days, nights taken over by pickup games with the rest of the high school guys in the outfield of the baseball diamond until the lights shut off at 11. Our games were all-out, the type of intensity that a coach wishes he could create in a practice. But the very fact that there is no coach is what creates it: the hunger, the freedom, the thrill.
In the fall, my junior soccer season, I scored 66 goals, averaging three per game. It was the most I ever improved as a player. C.D. and I both eventually flamed out, but the players who did make it to the national ranks have similar stories, always told in nostalgic voices, of pickup immersion. While there are games that are low key and casual, marked by hands on the knees and I-didn't-get-back-and-defend laughter, those aren't the ones I heard about.
As Chris Wondolowski, the leading scorer in the MLS and a 2013 January camp resident, put it: "The favorite pickup games were always the ones that were the most competitive."
When Besler was an eighth grader, his down-the-street neighbor, three years older, invited Besler out to the Friday night high school kickarounds.
"I was so nervous, so nervous," Besler said. "I was just trying to fit in and not mess up. Everyone was way bigger than me. But playing with older people is how you get better. "
Jimmy Conrad, who played with Besler on the Sporting Kansas City backline and won MLS Defender of the Year seven years before Besler did, told a story centered on the experience of playing with someone better than you: Conrad played at UCLA at the same time former Ajax player Nwankwo Kanu was in Los Angeles, recovering from open-heart surgery. Kanu -- a two-time African Player of the Year and one of few players to have won the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup and an Olympic gold medal -- had rented an empty Bel Air mansion and frequently invited the UCLA guys to come play pickup with him as he tried to return to form.
"At the time he was one of top five players in the world," Conrad said. "To get a glimpse of somebody of that quality -- how easy the game was for him, was a real eye opener. But I could compete. It made me think, maybe I can do this, maybe this won't end after college."
Alexi Lalas, one of the most recognizable faces of the 1990s, the ginger Tarzan, grew up going back and forth between Athens, Greece and Detroit. Every afternoon in Athens he'd walk to a local lot where people played, even though he wasn't let on at first.
"I was the red-headed American who didn't speak Greek," he said. "I would stand on the sideline until somebody needed me -- and it usually took someone's complete desperation -- then they'd stick me in goal. But I got better and learned how to swear and became more accepted. We'd play nonstop -- hour after hour."
Clint Dempsey, whose Nacogdoches, Texas, origin stories are well-documented, spent afternoons playing on makeshift fields, using flip-flops as goals, dribbling around three tree stumps with his brother and two friends. Victor Sr., the father of Dempsey's playing mates, saw promise and knew that in order to really improve, the boys needed to get beat. He talked the local adult Mexican league into letting the teenagers play; Dempsey's team lost their first game 6-0 but won the league a season later.
Mia Hamm is another U.S. legend who grew up playing with her brother, Garrett, often drafting his sister to come play in pickup games against older guys. At North Carolina, she kept playing against guys -- Hamm recounted study breaks via pickup, describing night games under the track flood lights. Her junior year at UNC, she dated Kerry Zavagnin, the star on the men's team who went on to anchor Kansas City's midfield and garner a dozen caps with the national team.
"It was Mia's year of greatest improvement," said Anson Dorrance, North Carolina's women's coach and former coach of the national team. "They'd go play every day, and he never let her win. It drove her bat-sh-- crazy. The next season her goal-scoring tally skyrocketed."
Heather O'Reilly, a North Carolina alum who graduated more than a decade after Hamm and is a speedster on the wing for the current U.S. women, also relied on one-v-ones. She spent her high school years dueling against the neighborhood guys (John Mulhern, who later played for Columbia, and Danny Kramer, who went on to play for Duke). At UNC, the pickup tradition continued into O'Reilly's era -- the men's and women's teams would sneak onto the Tar Heel game field and drag out trash cans. Like Hamm, O'Reilly fondly described the dim glow of the track flood lights.
Many others, including Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey, also described intense collegiate pickup games with men's teams. Morgan, the star U.S. forward referred to affectionately by her teammates as "Baby Horse," acknowledged, "I did not play much pickup as a child. ... Growing up I played all kinds of sports, so when I pursued soccer, it wasn't necessarily my technical ability that got me anywhere. It was my strength, speed, competitive mindset, overall athletic ability -- yes, typical American. Once I got to college, I realized that practicing three to six days wasn't enough for me."
Over the summers, she started playing pickup with California's men's team.
"I couldn't keep up physically, but technically, I got better with my feet and I started thinking faster," she said. "I didn't use to feel comfortable with the ball at my feet. I didn't even want the ball, unless I was in a shooting position or on the run. Playing pick up with the Cal men's team, random guys, and with teams BeastMode Soccer put together, I was forced to want the ball. I felt out of my comfort zone, a lot, but that's when I knew I was improving."
She added, "It was so fun thinking that coaches weren't watching me and I could actually try things that I wouldn't normally in a practice." Somewhat paradoxically, the pickup field, the place that allows you to feel the most comfortable, is also the place where you leave comfort zones behind.
While Americans may have gotten a late start (many believe the most critical development happens before age 8), once we do arrive at the pickup field, we go at it full force.
In my mind, pickup is on one side of the playing spectrum, professional leagues and national teams on the other. But, it turns out, in the U.S. at least, especially on the women's side, this isn't true. Pickup is not just a nostalgic thing from our players' pasts.
"The American professional schedule gives players a six month off-season, so many of us have become pickup regulars while training without an organized team," Press said.
Press played three times a week at a public park in Huntington Beach, Calif. When O'Reilly lived in New York, she trained by playing in pickup games at Pier 40, at least a dozen different nationalities present on the field at any time. Lindsey and Krieger, who will play together for the Washington Spirit of the new National Women's Soccer League, currently play in a pickup game with a bunch of guys on a public field in Fairfax, Va. While Morgan is at home, she gets together a group of women in the L.A. area. Sauerbrunn, a U.S. center back, played at 10:30 am every day at a beat-up turf field 20 minutes from her house. The games were open to anyone, but some might have been scared away.
"We were a little intimidating though in our competitiveness," Sauerbrunn said. "We would have national team players, current pros, ex-pros (men and women), college players, guys who had played in high school but didn't in college, etc. ... The field was always set smaller than was comfortable so that technique and decision-making trumped physical abilities."
While preparing for the 2011 Women's World Cup, Sauerbrunn and Lindsey drove to an indoor place in Maryland to pay $5 to get on a field and train. (I find this slightly staggering -- the United States center back paid money to train for that small thing known as the World Cup. One minute she's un-crumpling bills at an indoor center; the next she's starting against France in the semifinals.)
"Most of the time there were 20 or so young Mexican men playing pickup on the next field over," Sauerbrunn said. "They'd invite us to play, and we would spend the end of our training session crammed onto a small turf field, basically playing 11 aside."
Perhaps some will view the absence of more organized, structured playing opportunities as evidence of how far U.S. soccer has to go -- but the U.S. players themselves are full of pickup praise. In the article "11 reasons that Megan Rapinoe achieved her Women's World Cup dream," pickup came in at No. 8: "My ability to read the game, my creativity and willingness to try new things on the field are aspects of my game which I am sure come from the playground field across the street from my childhood home."
Press credited pickup and "the ability to play with men," as well as "the focus on flair," as a major key in her development. O'Reilly said of the impact of playing with guys: "Against girls, I basically relied on my athleticism. But my simple sort of moves don't cut it against top-level guys. I've got to play one touch, or I'm going to get stripped real fast."
Similarly, Sauerbrunn emphasized speed of play: "All those years playing pickup in the morning got me to be super comfortable with the ball at my feet in small spaces and with tight pressure. I see passing channels better and know what balls I can thread through seams. And most importantly, it's helped me to make decisions faster on the field. ... It all translates to the bigger game, in one way or another."
Beside the tangible effects of pickup on playing output, there's also the intrinsic value of staying in touch with the game's roots. O'Reilly described "the joy."
"You forget about everything else in your life," she said.
Here's a description of Press' Huntington pickup game from her blog:
For Spider, for most of us -- this declaration of supreme greatness is a joke we make, a game of adult pretend. For Press, the leading scorer in the Swedish professional league, the only player in U.S. history to score three goals in her first two national games, the pursuit of supreme greatness is very real. And there they are, Spider and Press, playing together at a public park in Huntington.
Simon Kuper, renowned football writer, recently wrote a convincing article, "Why I've Fallen Out of Love with Football." Among other reasons, he cited football's changed economic circumstances, which cause a player to change clubs more often, which obviously influences one's attitude toward his playing gig. A memorable excerpt:
Which is why I'm a sucker for proof that it's not just a job, why I go in for any story that shows a player drawn to the game: Three hours after winning the NCAA Championship, a triumphant end to a grueling season, Heath organized a midnight pickup game and convinced the other players to once again head down to the game field. Right after Morgan flew home from the U-20 World Cup, she got a phone call to come play in an indoor game with her friend. (At first, they sat the girl on the bench -- it being the playoffs and all -- but it took about 30 seconds of Morgan advancing down field to reevaluate.)
In my husband's adult league, there are sometimes sightings, the news spreading along the sideline: "Feilhaber's here."
"When your season's over, you want a break, but one week later, you're dying to play again," said Benny Feilhaber, the Kansas City midfielder. "I'd go play whenever I was in town -- for the guys I was playing with, they were league games, but for me it was just pickup."
In the U.S. -- where we are relative newcomers to the game, where our domestic professional players often make significantly less than other professional soccer players (economic conditions not nearly as changed as the league Kuper focuses on), where fringe players on professional rosters are likely to have secondary jobs (while my friend was a developmental player for Chivas, he also worked as a waiter at IHOP), where national team players pay $5 to use a field, where our stars still play pickup with nobodies -- we do have a humble "magic behind the curtain." It's almost like there is no curtain.
"If you want to become extraordinary at something, you have to absolutely love it," Dorrance said.
On the day I talked with him, Lalas had driven past an early-morning game on his way to drop off his kids at school -- a quick look told him it was a bunch of guys who regularly woke up early and came to the field.
"I wanted to pull over," he said. "Had I not had a van full of first-graders, I would've stopped. Whenever there is a game, there's an incredible pull. Doesn't matter who you are or how much money you've made, you want to be a part of it."
Obviously, this "pull" is not unique to Americans.
When my husband and I played on the Asheville Wizards, a men's team in North Carolina, the annual highlight was a tournament in Charleston. (You pack sunscreen, a Costco-flat of waters and five or six players in a van and go and pretend like you're a teenager again.) On one of the dozen fields in Charleston, you could see the giant yellow afro of Carlos Valderrama, the Colombian superstar, as he roamed the midfield. This, everyone agreed, was immeasurably cool. You stood there on the sideline with your cleat bag and your shin-guard tan and took it in -- a player who was once one of the best in the world, who'd played in the most dream-worthy games you could play in, playing here, same place you were -- just because, just for fun. He still felt like coming to play; he never got sick of it.
And while in Amsterdam for a screening of our documentary, our hosts took us to a pickup game at a housing complex on the outskirts of the city; there, on the court, was one of Ajax's first team players, even though the season had just begun, even though he'd get reamed if the coaching staff knew he was risking injury in a neighborhood game.
Yes, the professionals play for money -- but I love knowing that they'd also play for nothing.
"I run a soccer camp in the summer in my hometown," said Conrad. "Ninety-five percent of the kids I see only play when they're told to play -- it's always in a structured environment; they're never making decisions on their own. I think that spontaneous play has gotten lost in our goal to develop soccer as fast as possible in this country.
"And I get it -- I want us to be good as possible as soon as possible too, and if I coached a team, maybe I'd want a five-days-a-week regimen. But kids need to have opportunities to be themselves, to figure out why they enjoy the game. Kids seems more like robots now. Give them the framework, give them the ideas -- then they can go out and do it on their own."
A recent ESPN article, "America's Next Top Messi," asks, "Is U.S. soccer doing everything it can to develop the best players in the country." Jeff Agoos and Tony Lepore, the men in charge of the new academy approach for U.S. youth soccer, describe their vision of more rigorous training schedules: four to five practices a week, plus one day of games, which doesn't leave much time for pickup, for going "out and doing it on their own."
But so far, with each successive generation, from Lalas to Conrad to Besler, from Hamm to Morgan and Press, pickup has stuck around, an important piece of development for elite Americans.
Quite possibly, with more and more players and families passing down the game, pickup will become more widespread, sandlot games starting earlier and earlier. (We're expecting our first kid, a son, and chances are good that we will be introducing the ball to our toddler.) Hopefully the future will see continued off-the-grid exploration, where players discover, as Dorrance said, that "there's nothing like a ball at your foot -- when no one's telling you what to do, when you can do whatever you want."
This feeling that Dorrance described is what Besler and I talked about when we sat in the Carson hotel conference room. Besler spoke out of the same Midwestern grin that I remember:
"My best friend, Wade, and I would go out in the Kansas winter every day after school and do one-v-ones," Besler said.
He said something felt good about being out there in the cold, trying to read each other, trying to trick each other, all while dreaming of one day playing for the national team.
A decade or so later, when Wade and Matt are back in town together, they reminisce about those afternoons at the field in Overland Park. (Wade to Besler: "You only had two moves -- cut it back or go to your right. But I still couldn't figure it out.") Back then, Besler was a forward, his friend a defender. Now, as one of three main center-back options for the national team, Besler's dreams from Overland Park have been reached. On March 26, he earned his second cap. Anchoring the back alongside Omar Gonzalez, he helped the U.S. shut out Mexico. From pickup games to the feared Estadio Azteca.