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Soccer culture shock: From Philly to D.C.

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

The fields here are different.

It’s the first thing I noticed upon playing soccer in the D.C. area after years in Philadelphia. Fields are perfectly manicured, because they’re often artificial (particularly in Northern Virginia). The ball goes where you intend it, but it moves so fast. Your cleats fill with tiny, rubber-like pellets that hold the fake turf. When you slide, it burns in a different way. It just feels a little … wrong.

It’s not like Philadelphia.

You don’t expect culture shock when moving 150 miles away, particularly in sports. The ball is round. The posts are straight.

But the differences I observed upon moving from Philadelphia to the D.C. area last year went well beyond just the fields, which were simply a symptom. Leagues are different. Pickup games are different. People are different.

In D.C., everything is Serious Business, except maybe happy hour. The area is full of type-A movers and shakers and those who want to be them.

So too are the soccer leagues. Soccer is huge in the Washington area. (If D.C. United ever gets a proper stadium, watch out.) Many adult rec league teams have tryouts far more elaborate and extended than anything I’d ever seen in the Casa Soccer League, Philadelphia’s biggest adult amateur league. I tried out for a third division team in the biggest D.C.-area league, and they evaluated players over two or three friendlies. A few guys got cut. I made the team, spent the season playing out of position, and left at season’s end. People were always arguing, just like Washington politics.

Sure, every league has a few teams like this. Here, it seemed more common.

Pickup games weren’t the same. My old pickup game in Hatfield, Pa. was comprised mostly of Ethiopian players, with a scattering of Sudanese, Ghanaian, Liberian, Latin American and American guys. You played, you won, you lost, you broke bread after (sometimes injera), and you considered the guys friends. I split my Union season tickets with one of my Ethiopian buddies in 2010 and even learned some Amharic. That’s just the way it was

In the D.C. area, there are some pickup games, but they’re often overcrowded. I found a game in my neighborhood comprised entirely of Somalis. Good players, but they were always arguing in English or Somali. Once, I asked a guy what two guys were arguing about this time. He laughed and said, “You have to understand, this is just how our culture is.” He was probably talking about Somalia, but he could have been talking about Washington too.

The metaphor solidified the notion in my head that too many Washingtonians took themselves way too seriously. While I’ve met some great people here, there are just as many who fancy themselves the elite. It only confirmed the view I’d picked up after years of reporting on politics from outside the Beltway.

Elitists can affect longtime journalists in a few ways. Some journalists become just like them. Others become sycophants to power, basking in the reflective glow of the aristocracy. Then some view it all as BS and talk to them just like anyone else. Take a guess which category I fall into.

It’s enough to make me miss Philadelphia’s soccer scene. Pickup games are often lower key and easier to find. Philly didn’t have a major adult amateur league until 2006, but the one that exists was created as a “house” league and still carries that name and humble ethos. The soccer bars have that down-to-earth feel. (Or is that just The 700?) Folks don’t take themselves too seriously.

Sure, things may not be as organized, and many fields are subpar.

But you know, the grass and the people are straight up real. (And so is the MLS team’s stadium.)

I thought of this while preparing to drive to north Jersey on Saturday morning. I’d just gotten a mass email about Casa’s opening day and realized that, if I timed it just right, I could veer off course into Philly to go catch my old Casa team’s game that day. I haven’t been playing lately, because my dissatisfaction with the D.C. scene makes me less inclined to continue pounding my concussion-prone head with the headers center backs regularly make. But I could catch up with the guys, watch a game, and have some fun.

Instead, I kept driving. I had a lot to do.

 NOTE: Check out the post from new PSP contributor Nate Emeritz, who writes about his experience moving in the other direction, from D.C. to Philly.

8 Comments

  1. Great stuff! Sorry that the silly stuff made you loose the love of playing. Keep looking for more pickup games; there must be one that will suit you.

  2. We miss you too, Dan! Great read, as always.

  3. I’m a recent transplant from the Philly suburbs to DC as a college student, and off of my campus, I’ve found the same thing. Many of the college campuses in the area have pickup games that seem to be more relaxed, and neighborhood guys will often join us students to hang out and kick the ball around. However, I’ve played off campus just once and the intensity of people over mundane issues was absurd. Two guys almost started throwing punches because they couldn’t decide if one player had been offsides or not, even though he had immediately fallen and lost possession.

  4. and there was that DC United player – Chris Korb- that booted his own player in the FACE at a reserves game last season out of frustration with just losing a ball out of bounds… as they were winning the game handily and just had to kill clock anyway, then United’s Joseph Ngwenya had a red card for touching the ref when they were up 3 goals in the 90th minute! In a practice game! This is called taking soccer way too serious…

  5. Liked reading this contribution 🙂 Thanks!

  6. Hey, thanks for the nice words. Yeah, hopefully I’ll find a game sooner or later. I figured it would at least make an entertaining read. One thing we wanted to do when we launched PSP was focus much more on the grass roots of the game in Philly, but now that I’ve moved, this is the best I can personally do in that regard. (So if anyone’s ever interested in contributing writing on the grass roots soccer scene in Philly, we could use someone! OK, no more plugs for writers. 😉 )

  7. FXA is a little more chill. Especially the casual league. Of course, that comes with lower talent level

  8. Pingback: Soccer culture shock: From D.C. to Philly

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