The Beauty of a Neighborhood Game

Washington D.C. America United States Soccer Community
Art by Charbak Dipta

The August nights were humid and pleasantly long. As the summer turns to fall, the game gets shorter. The kids take the fields until six and it’s dark by 7:45. The weather is still lovely, bolstered whenever the sun shines. Before the field is completely shaded, one of the teams must deal with devilish natural floodlights casting long shadows through the trees, blinding keepers, defenders, and attackers as the ball flies high from a goal kick. I guess it balances out because the team dealing with those sneaky shadows also gets the luxury of playing downhill. At this park, a little slice of magic finished less than a decade ago, there is a subtle reminder: yes, it is still a city park, and yes, we’re still dealing with inequities.

When I move to a new place, I almost immediately scour google maps looking for the green splotches, digital signifiers of the parks nearby. Wandering on foot or bike, I go and check them out. Public spaces can be magical and magnetic. They are gathering spots, centering points for a community, and a space to be outside in the busyness of the city. 

Raymond Recreation Center seems to be one of these beautiful spaces, a bastion for the beautiful game. The gentrifying Petworth neighborhood in Northwest D.C. is tree lined, but the break in the storied old homes and soulless tall new construction is welcome. Guardrail and bench lined paths, two small turf pitches, one basketball court, one tennis court, rundown outdoor exercise equipment that double as benches, a padded playground, and two picnic tables under a gazebo – all make the park a place many different people can congregate and exist. Capitalism, efficiency, and modern design have seemed to make more and more places sterile, the same. It impacts sports too. Data saturates the games, the play becomes the same. Analysis sometimes negates the creativity and joy that grown men and women find playing a game. Every year there is a new ‘moneyball’ team. 

Soccer though, for me right now at least, isn’t any of that. It has the speed, the reaction, creativity, and the excitement that seems lacking. My youth soccer career ended in middle school, but I stay active and am decently coordinated. I’ve also become a fan in the last few years, buoyed by international soccer’s extending arm and the ever-increasing streaming capabilities. My Italian heritage and a lucky FIFA selection landed me supporting Napoli. (My hometown of Pittsburgh has a team, so I root for the Riverhounds in the USL).  I Partenopei, as they’re known, have given me some proper ups and downs. Downs being the beautiful rhythm, and then halting of that rhythm, of the Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Kalidou Koulibaly teams. Ups being the incredible form the team find themselves in now, Kvaradona of course, and the giddy excitement with seeing your team at the top of the table. The soccer they play isn’t too shabby either.

On the topic of beautiful and exciting soccer, there must be a trend in soccer goals, glorifying the long range, swerving, beautiful stunners that populate so many goals of the year videos. I don’t care about the data. I understand. Young basketball players shoot from further and further away as Steph Curry keeps backing up. It’s cool to make those buckets. It’s cool to score a goal that the goalie has no chance at. At Raymond, there is no shortage of tiragirros, a word recently added to the Italian dictionary in honor of Insigne’s mystical, curling, right foot. The golazos are screamed and the whistles shower down upon the field if you’re lucky enough to find the back of the net on this humble stage. Even me, in my humbly increasing skills, dream of one of those.

There are two different games played at Raymond. One on weeknights, one on Sundays. Both are distinct, but the roots of the game intertwine. Like a forest where growth is connected, a city which depends on its balance, or the team that needs delicately overlapping runs from the midfielder and fullback, the games map their presence on the park, and there are figures who ground the games independently and collectively. The oldest man there, probably in his fifties, affectionately called Tio, guides the weeknight games. After work, the main patrons of the exercise equipment benches come to play. A mix of ages, always in Spanish, the game is fun, quick, and sometimes gets crowded – depending on who else is at the park on a given night. I’ve seen games there almost every day, but like pick-up in other sports, there is a mysterious quality to finding the best game. Within 10 blocks, there are at least two other fields which host the mixture of recreational soccer players, formal teams and coaches (of soccer or otherwise), and those taking advantage of this precious public good to exercise or simply live. 

The inequities of urban space are real and felt. In many cities, the urban heat island effect adds 10 degrees or more to the temperature in the summer. Neighborhoods with trees are often safer – an issue which intersects with many things too broad for this space. Parks and shared public spaces strengthen the bonds which link communities. At Raymond, there is a warmth in the shadows of the park, and of the people there, welcoming players of different skills and experiences, zipping the ball around and always to trying hit one more ridiculous volley.

On Sundays, the game is more consistent. Raymond is the closest green space to me and I visited within a day or so of moving in. I had that feeling in my gut when you know there’s something worth seeing. I went with my roommate over the weekend, excited to try out my first soccer ball in 10 years. We could only stay to kick around for 45 minutes in the August sun. In exciting news for me, there was a game going on.

“Do y’all play here a lot?” I asked the keeper when the ball was at the other end. “Yeah man, every Sunday at 11. It’s like church for some of these guys.” Definitely something worth seeing.

The first week I laced up I was fortuitous to find a ball scooting across the box and I couldn’t miss. Nominally playing full-back, running a lot – the positions in 7v7 are fluid – I held my own. A couple of the guys from my team that day made sure to seek me out and invite me back the next week. I saw them at a weeknight game and was reminded again. 

The next week, talking with two of the longer-playing members of the game, I heard about the grill. These are practical men at varying stages in life, mindful of being a good neighbor or parent, and of having to go to work on Monday. After Labor Day, the grill came out. We all felt pure joy when it was unearthed from a corner of the park. It had been there for a while, stashed away until its moment to shine. The grill was ad-hoc but brought together with a lot of love, and a desire to eat some food in between games. One midfielder scootered home with his daughter and brought back grates to cook on. Someone got a delivery from Wal-Mart with buns, hot dogs, and chorizo. Someone else brought charcoal, tortillas, and tin foil. The construction looked like it could have been a tin-foil hat. Whoever thought of it was most likely wearing one. The hot dogs and chorizo cooked, and the buns and tortillas toasted, on the tin foil, on top of the stovetop grates, over the charcoal. It was not pretty – but the food was cooked and enjoyed. 

While there are a lot of good vibes at the games played at Raymond, there is a fire too. The yelling registers on two levels. The intensity of competition, heated men coming from more advanced levels of play, egged on by the rising temperatures of the turf and either good or bad play – everyone wants to win. It is also familial, trash talk and shouts to push friends’ buttons, characters joking in English or Spanish and sometimes French. Reacting to missed goals or not getting back fast enough. A camaraderie built over countless hours on the pitch, and one that is auditory. Broken up by the smooth danceability of Latin R&B, the shouts are a chorus and welcome reminder of the sound of sports and a joyous and human use of the public park. Something found on fields around the world. Shouts of switch, linea, shoot, mira. Instructions on how we can score and stay on the field to keep playing. Before the legs get too tired after a few hours, the voices must remind the importance of winning, of getting one more than the other guys. 

The small things in football are some of the most beautiful as well. A perfectly placed through ball, an extra step over, an expertly blocked shot. The small things matter. An extra moment of conversation helps build a community. Consciously or not, extending bonds and care, glue people and places together. It doesn’t happen across the board, and sometimes not at all, but it’s a beautiful phenomenon to behold and even better to be a part of it. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, rain blanketed the DMV. However, amidst the rain and gray, games must be played. I was surprised when I ambled my three blocks to the pitch and found the group gathered, gearing up to play. Mentally, I knew what I needed and it was clear that many others did as well. Community matters, and there is community found in this Sunday game. In community, like a team, there is a power and agency that is greater together. On that gray day I found some form in front of goal and overheard a conversation that was a reminder of the political ties that undergird soccer’s history. 

“What could we do if we got all of these guys together?” 

The conversation bounced as we watched the ball ping hopelessly around between what now had become a full 10 v. 10 game. The field is too small for that, but it was the last game, so everyone played. Ideas sprung up about getting a group of dogs to sniff out the rats, buying a building or a field collectively. There was silence too; lulls in the rhythm. 

The imagination that went along with this conversation is important. More and more, all but the highest classes must hustle and grind to make it in a seemingly nonsensical world. These class imbalances have been exposed through action and protests. Still, we are shaped by what we can afford. But knowing all of this, the pitch at Raymond becomes even more valuable. The people and community, often excluded in other realms, can stake a claim to a space. They can exercise, laugh, compete, play, and simply be themselves. The field offers time, space, and energy for these men, who are going to work on Monday (myself included). It also offers a chance to imagine together, a better world. But only after one more goal is scored.