COVID has spoiled soccer spontaneity

Delivery workers parked their scooters outside the soccer field at Grover Cleveland Park in Ridgewood for an 8 a.m. match on a Tuesday in December 2020.

I miss the spontaneity. The exploration, with soccer as the vehicle.

That’s what drove me to start this website back in June 2014, on the eve of that year’s World Cup. I loved traveling around the five boroughs answering the question, How do New Yorkers experience soccer?

The coronavirus has taken that away from me as I strictly stick to the restrictions, avoiding groups, keeping to myself.

It’s one of the smaller but still sad impacts of the pandemic. I’ve been thinking about two experiences on Ridgewood soccer fields — one in pre-COVID late-2019, the other in COVID-resurgent January 2021 — that illustrate the differences.

First, the new reality:

About two months ago, I was taking my son for a walk in the park, our morning ritual, when we passed a row of electric scooters next to the gate outside the soccer field. Two teams of delivery workers had gathered on a Tuesday at 8 a.m. for a match — one team dressed as Atletico, the other as Napoli. A few days later, two reporters I admire wrote an impactful story about workers like the guys in that match. They’re the deliveristas — underpaid, under-appreciated, unprotected immigrants who risk their lives on city streets and then get screwed over by billion-dollar delivery apps, corporations that steal their tips. Some of them are organizing for their right to fair wages — and to be allowed to use the bathrooms in the restaurants where they pick up food through GrubHub, Seamless and DoorDash.

The deliveristas park their scooters at fields across NYC and kick it around during their off hours, before the afternoon or evening rush. Then they hop back on the bikes and deliver lunch and dinner to millions of New Yorkers.

My son takes in a few minutes of match among delivery workers.

About six weeks after that December encounter, the deliveristas were back at our park. I took my son onto the field while they warmed up and talked to one guy lacing up his cleats. They were all delivery workers, he said, and they organized their meet ups on WhatsApp. He and I even passed a ball around for a few moments while my son watched from his stroller.

But then the guy approached my son to say hi and coo at him and I got scared. He wasn’t wearing a mask, so I steered the stroller away and said goodbye; we had to get back home. The game was beginning anyway.

A moment of harmony spoiled by the coronavirus.

I miss when a random encounter on a field was fun and fostered fleeting friendship, when spontaneous soccer connections could happen.

Here’s one amazing example, from November 2019:

One night in November, about two months after my son was born, I was jogging when I saw a group of players unlocking the gate to Grover Cleveland Field in Ridgewood (down the street from Grover Cleveland Park). It’s an immaculate pitch with concrete stands built into a hill and a running track that is never open to the public.

I decided to enter through the gates with them so I could run sprints on the empty track with a beautiful view of Manhattan. I thought they were there for a kids match, but it was soon clear they were all adults. After a few laps, I stopped and asked a a couple guys from one of the teams what league they were in.

It turned out to be a State Cup match and the team, Germania SC, had travelled all the way from Poughkeepsie to play a team from Queens.

But they were short a few guys on a Sunday night two hours away from home. Did I want to join them?

Of course! What an opportunity. To me, it was the perfect New York City soccer moment. So I ran home, grabbed my cleats and a blue t-shirt and searched for my rarely used shinguards.

I returned to the field and they handed me a jersey. I joined the warm up and we played 5 v 2 and kicked it around before the match.

For an evening, I was a member of Germania Soccer Club of Poughkeepsie before a State Cup forfeit.

There was an inane technical problem, however. Germania apparently failed to submit their roster sheet to the referee early enough, so the three officials decided not to sanction the game. The 8 p.m. match was called off due to some random rule for a team that had, again, just driven down to Queens from Poughkeepsie on a work night.

The players left the field frustrated and prepared to head back up north. I gave them a few good bar recommendations in Ridgewood (Aunt Ginny’s, in particular) in case they wanted to hang around for a bit.

Personally, I wasn’t so disappointed about the forfeit. I only lived a half-mile away and I had just run a few miles and done sprints, so I was wary about playing a 90-minute match. The experience was cool and memorable at is is. Still, it would have been fun to play a State Cup match.

I stuck around at the field for a little while and started talking to players from the other team, each dressed in red-and-white striped Atletico home kits. They represented a Serbian club based in Glendale and played mostly teams from Queens and Nassau County. One guy even gave me his phone number and told me to consider joining them.

I have been meaning to write about that moment here.

I’m finally doing it now, 15 months later, because it has taken on new importance as I think about the things we’ve lost during the pandemic, and the moments I am eager to reclaim.

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