Monday, May 30, 2011

Soccer in the City of Angels, Part I: Usage Agreements

One of Pico Union's many murals (intersection of 7th and Westlake)
A couple years ago, I helped establish an adult men's soccer league in a neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. Our league was affiliated with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) and only lasted two years. It has taken me a little time to gain some distance on what was both an incredible and depressing experience.

Soccer (like most sports) is a bit of a red-light district. For all its beauty, it also draws a lot of shady characters - hucksters, geniuses, crazy people. It attracts people looking to run their game and, more often than is reasonable, that game is not football.

Before getting into this story, let me just put this on the record: The American Youth Soccer Organization is a fantastic model for community-run sports. Founded in Los Angeles in 1964, its core principles are egalitarian and anti-corporate. It is close to a 100% volunteer organization. A small staff runs a huge system. According to its website, AYSO has over 600,000 registered players and a quarter of a million volunteers (yes, you read that right).  Parents volunteer their time as coaches and referees, as treasurers, registrars, and league managers. Kids can referee age groups below theirs, they get involved with coaching, and learn how the organization of the game works on the daily level: it is not only an important access point for athletes, it is often the first place Americans get experience with the work of management.

The cost of participation is very low, and it is organized to maximize exposure. "Everybody plays." Everybody also contributes to the game's infrastructure - to its housekeeping. This aspect of AYSO fights against the gravitational pull of the consumer-mentality of commercialized sports. It is an important contrast to the prohibitively expensive and overly regimented club soccer system that is, sadly, the foundation of the development system for US soccer.

If there is an organization which demonstrates that the world can support a sports culture without requiring that the sport be capitalized for economic gain, it is AYSO. Rhizomic, fluid, anti-commercial and egalitarian, AYSO is, at its best, the absolute opposite of FIFA.

A system this open can be non-elitist, welcoming of difference, and flexible. It's what makes for a good scene. But it is also open to exploitation - it can be colonized by all sorts (the ambitious, the controlling, the crazy, Herbalife).

AYSO's openness is how I found myself spending Sunday afternoons on the field at the corner of 7th Street and Union Ave.

At the end of 2008, a couple friends asked if I wanted to help them start up a men's league on a fantastic new field a few minute's walk from MacArthur Park. I had been playing pick-up in the neighborhood, and had also played in a 6 aside league. There are not many full size fields in that area, but there is a lot of game.

The neighborhood is one of the densest in the city; it is also one of the most policed - this aspect of the Ramparts district figures often in this blog as the fútbol scene here has given me some of my happiest experiences in Los Angeles, as well as direct contact with the dramatic inequity of the city's distribution of its resources.

2010 street protest following LAPD shooting of Manuel Jamines. He was killed a block from our field.
AYSO has a relatively new program designed to create play for the adults in its community. Our idea was to use that platform to give guys aging out of the youth leagues in the neighborhood a place to play 11 on 11, on this extraordinary (turf) field at Leichty Middle School.

Many (if not most) of the best fields in Los Angeles are owned by the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is no accessible, transparent system at LAUSD administering use of its fields by the city's diverse communities.

The field at this particular location was built via a partnership between LAUSD and AYSO. In the words of a 2007 memo regarding construction projects in the school district:
A joint use partnership...established the first AYSO program in the Pico-Union community. As part of their contribution, AYSO agreed to offer youth soccer programming to the students of John H. Leichty MS and the surrounding feeder schools for five years. LAUSD matched AYSO’s programmatic contribution with funding to install artificial turf on the school’s main field to facilitate year-round community programming. (See this 2007 memo from LAUSD on new construction.)
If I understand the nature of this agreement correctly (and I may not), AYSO did not contribute money to the construction of the field (it is not a rich organization), but instead promised volunteers. LAUSD built the field; AYSO members administer the field and run leagues when it is not being used by the school itself. As the above statement indicates, this resulted in the first AYSO program in that part of Los Angeles.

In learning about this usage agreement, I began to have my first questions.

The above language from the LAUSD sidesteps the following: There are leagues in that neighborhood, and they have been there for years. Thousands of people play in those leagues. Many are low-cost (if not free), some work with the LA 84 foundation (funded by the last Olympics to actually bring money into a host city), and some work through community centers and with local businesses. Some work entirely outside of grant structures; many have relationships with larger and national youth soccer organizations (like Cal South or the California Youth Soccer Association).

This is a big part of LA life - in this neighborhood, which is something like 85% Latino, fútbol is woven tightly into the fabric of its social life. It's not a forth sport here, it's not an underground scene or a subculture. It's the dominant and most visible sports scene and a defining part of the neighborhood's character.

Many of the neighborhood's leagues are, like AYSO, volunteer operations - one such league offers a women's division that fields more teams (at the youth and adult level) than does the Los Angeles Municipal Soccer League. These are "Latin" or "independent" leagues - the two terms are used almost interchangeably in California to describe the loose, disconnected network of leagues across the region where Spanish is the lengua franca, and the majority of players and spectators come from the city's immigrant communities. The soccer scene in this location is strong enough that El Salvador is sending its association's scouts there on June 2, 3 and 6th for a series of open try-outs for the women's U17, U19 and U23 squads.

Having played in a league affiliated with a community center in the same neighborhood (which also offered tutoring, arts classes and academic counseling), I was surprised to see LAUSD hand administration of the field to an organization that had little to no existing relationship to the location. Why would the LAUSD do this?

On the surface, this agreement seems to serve AYSO more than the neighborhood. Their interests are not necessarily opposed, of course. But the five-year usage agreement prevents existing leagues in the neighborhood from using one of the best fields in the city. Those leagues do play on other fields - but those fields are smaller, and at least one organizer can't get enough field time to offer its program's women 90 minute games. In order to meet demand, their matches are compressed to 60 minutes. This problem has only grown more complex, as the city strikes more and more such deals with AYSO. So, at the very least, when it comes to field access, the interests of AYSO are opposed to those of the existing non-profit leagues in the neighborhood. [Youth soccer organizations in LA's under-served communities include HOLA; Anahuak; Y.E.S.S. (Youth Empowerment through Sports and Scholastics); Compton United Soccer Club.]

AYSO provides a great point of entry into the game, and kids in that neighborhood need support. So do adults. (See this LA Times profile of the neighborhood's socioeconomic profile.) But, again, there are existing local collectives with much more articulated relationships to the community - why not work with them?

The "independent" leagues are mostly Spanish-speaking (bear in mind the vast majority of kids are fully bilingual); AYSO is not - it is not totally white, but it is a lot whiter and more middle-class than are the leagues which were already there. The median household income for residents in Pico Union is just over $26,000.  The median household income for my neighborhood is just over $54,000 - about average for the city. My neighborhood has no single ethnic majority, but the largest group is Latino, at nearly 42%. AYSO has a stronger presence in Los Angeles in neighborhoods like mine, if not neighborhoods that are even better off.  But they are working hard to change that - with programs like that in Pico Union, and in Watts (South Central is also home to some amazing leagues and talented youth players).

If you have the energy and drive, you can do a lot through AYSO. Although the AYSO adult program was not imagined as a host for the kind competitive play we wanted to promote, there was nothing in the institution's structure that said it couldn't be used for this purpose. And so we decided to try and get something going at this location. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a colonial project, that my whiteness & class privilege were facilitating my access, but I also wanted access to this field.

A day in the brief life of the Union Football League

The field at 7th and Union is dreamy. The school offers benches and tables off the field where players often gathered for their pre-game meeting. Bathrooms, floodlights, covered parking - the facilities are perfect for a recreational league. That stretch of 7th Street is lined with 'Mom and Pop' stores - a panaderia, a café, a gym, a Pentecostal church, and Nikys Sports - an excellent soccer shop which fielded the strongest team in our first season. 

It's nice to play right in the heart of things. In the evenings, music radiates out of the church. Pedestrians stop to watch matches from the sidewalk and often fetch wayward balls. People bring their families to games. Street vendors sell tacos, make passes with ice cream. Kids are everywhere. A fairly typical LA fútbol scene.

Union Football League played its first matches in February 2009 . We were immediately beset with problems. Some normal, as far as soccer goes, others less so.

Next in Soccer in the City of Angels: "You Don't Belong Here."


  1. I'm really enjoying this series and looking forward to the next installment! I play in a collection of amateur futbol leagues in the Rio Grande Valley, and can already imagine some of the difficulties that arose....

  2. The story had to be told, can't wait for the bit about the cops.

  3. Oh, gosh. I can only imagine what comes next! (Of course, I'm projecting. I am also a white, middle-class woman who plays pick-up with a lot of working-class, mostly immigrant men, and in a league with mostly immigrant, spanish-speaking women in Santa Cruz, CA.)

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog. Really. You are a brilliant and critical writer on this game and culture that we love.


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