Cultivating a Community Through Soccer

“I’d suddenly met an incredibly diverse range of people united by this simple, powerful passion.”

Illustration of three men holding beers at a bar; a soccer bar sits on their table

Illustration: Frank Stockton

When I first moved to Madison a few years ago, after more than two decades in Brooklyn, I set about trying to replicate all the little rituals that had gotten me through my days. Most of these seemed to involve food; in the strip malls of Parsippany I was pleased to find a smaller approximation of the global food center that is Queens.

There was one staple missing, however, and with a pang, I wondered if it was destined to be a ghost of my Brooklyn days. I am talking here about soccer. In some form or another, whether competitive league or casual pickup, I’d been playing the “beautiful game” since I was in my 20s. 

In Madison, there was soccer everywhere, but it always seemed to involve kids, with parents shouting on the sidelines. When I met a neighbor, Andrea, a native of Bologna, he confided in me the same wish. But he didn’t know of any games. Then, a few months later, I got a text: He’d found one on Thursday nights at the local recreation complex. I wrangled an invite to the WhatsApp list—the glue that binds all kinds of modern social arrangements. The group was called Madison Soccer and Beers. As you might expect, it involved playing soccer and then, afterwards, drinking a few beers (local pub 54 Main has a standing order for two plates of nachos).

It quickly became the highlight of my week. Sure, there was the game itself, competitive but jovial, played semi-officially in the final hour the lights were kept on at the field, after the teenage lacrosse teams had packed up for the night. But what I was really missing, I realized, was the social aspect. When it comes to making new friends, middle-aged men (I’m in my mid-50s) are essentially a high-risk group. But here, I’d suddenly met an incredibly diverse range of people—nearly a dozen nationalities among several dozen members—united by this simple, powerful passion. And it wasn’t confined to the pub or the field. We would gather for a home-cooked meal at the home of Andrea, later indulging in a sing-along around the fire pit led by James, a Liverpudlian, on guitar. During the last World Cup, Alberto, a Mexico City native, had us over for tacos and mezcal. We’re already making plans for the 2026 World Cup—happily, a number of games, maybe even the final, will be held at MetLife Stadium.

I have opted out of any number of Thursday-night invitations, vaguely citing some preexisting event. My dedication pales, however, compared to Phillip, who was among the group’s founding members. He moved to San Diego, where he found, to his dismay, that he couldn’t recreate what he’d had in New Jersey. But his work often brings him to New York. After a day’s meetings, he begs off drinks with colleagues and finds his way to the field, then the pub. The late-night foray to Madison doesn’t make his intercoastal commute any easier, but it’s worth it, he says, to play the old game with old friends. 

Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of “Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.”

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