“Can I play with you guys?” I ask.
A group of latino men look up momentarily, ignore me, and then go back to speaking Spanish and juggling a soccer ball together. Their words dance back and forth as they knock the ball around in a circle.
On this field, there are no referees, no timed games, and no official teams. Instead, the guys play by a set of unspoken rules: games are 7v7 and the first team to score wins. If you lose, you’re off and the next team of seven comes on. The field is packed every night with the same group of neighborhood latinos, most of whom have played here for decades.
I know it will be tough getting onto a team tonight. The fact that I don’t know anyone — I’m white, and the only girl — all but guarantees that no one will let me on the field.
“Why don’t you try jumping in the circle and proving you can keep up?” a man nearby sympathetically suggests.
I move towards the circle as the ball takes a bad bounce and comes towards me. I settle it, juggle a few times — left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot — and pass the ball back into the circle. I look up just in time to catch a quick nod of approval from the guy next to me before the ball is played back to me, this time with more pace. I control it off my chest and let the ball drop to my foot where I balance it, do an “around-the-world” trick, and lay it off to the next person. I don’t need to speak Spanish to know I’ve passed the test.
Marcello is a local celebrity. His signature curly, black fro and quick feet make him easy to spot. I’m often mesmerized by his technical foot skills and powerful, acrobatic shots on goal. On this field, I’ve quickly learned that talent equals respect and respect equals power, making Marcello the most powerful player on the field.
Unfortunately, my team is playing against him in this first game. At midfield, the ball is punted high into the air and sticks like glue to Marcello’s foot as he brings it down and under control. He runs quickly at our defense, faking right while sweeping the ball across his body and past the player in front of him. He takes a long shot that bounces off the crossbar and out of bounds.
The game is quickly restarted, and my team goes on the attack. Our outside back dribbles up the field and plays a square ball to our center midfielder who takes a bad touch. The ball bounces towards me, and I run to win the 50/50 tackle. I win the challenge and dribble full speed towards goal. Marcello slides over and I go up against him 1v1. Instinct takes over as I try a quick step-over move. He doesn’t bite. I keep dribbling at him, this time borrowing his signature move: I fake right and push the ball left across my body. I make him hesitate for a split-second which gives me just enough time to take a left-footed shot on goal before falling to the ground. As I look up, Marcello extends his hand to help me to my feet. He nods, symbolically acknowledging my talent, and the spectators on the sideline cheer for me.
It’s a few nights later and I show up at the field with two of my guy friends and my brother-in-law. As expected, our white skin tones are met with skepticism and lots of Spanish chatter. I feel awkward and wonder if we should have gone to another field. Perhaps the progress I made with this group the other night has already been forgotten. As we make our way to the far corner of the field, Marcello reaches over the fence to give me a high-five, letting me know we’re welcome to play again tonight.
I spot the team of guys I played with earlier in the week and make my way over to them. They greet me with smiles and invite me to warm up with them. After winning our first game and losing our second, my team is knocked off the field and forced to wait for our next turn. We begin juggling on the sideline to keep warm when suddenly I hear Marcello call my name from the field. He motions for me to join his team, and I sprint over to my position on the field, feeling excited about my promotion.
Ten minutes into the game, our team earns a corner kick. A young high schooler crosses the ball into the box. I’m in the perfect position and strike a powerful, acrobatic volley out of the air and into the back of the net.
My teammates rush towards me and the whole field screams my name, “Samantha! Samantha!”
I excitedly look over at Marcello — it’s the first goal I’ve scored and I can tell he’s proud. My heart feels full as I smile to myself knowing that this is a night I will never forget.