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The belly is round… the game… somewhat looks like soccer

Photo by Daniel Gajdamowicz
One of the great things about soccer is that it is a lifelong sport. Once you learn the basics…“have the ball, will kick” you can have a game of footy at any time throughout your life. Whether it be at a state-of-the-art turf facility under the lights, during the tailgate at Ms. Brenda’s underneath the Commodore Barry, or in a school hallway with a wad of tape for a ball, two backpacks on the ground for a goal, you can have a proper tilt with your friends and family anytime and anywhere.
Soccer has been an ever-present outlet in my life. From growing up playing rec ball and traveling for Atlantic United to a high school career met with decent accolades, to a mediocre college career, to playing every Wednesday with complete strangers in Spain when I studied abroad, to picking up men’s leagues throughout the Jerso-Penn corridor, soccer is something that I cannot and will not quit playing.

The reason is that soccer, in its accessibility, also tempts an unattainable mastery that spurns the chase. It’s one thing to groan as you watch Mikael Uhre miss a sitter from three yards out; it’s another thing to watch the ball come to your feet, do the same, and hear everyone around you groan. On the reverse, when you get it right, you replay that POV in your mind for the next three weeks, saying to yourself, “I had the perfect technique to finish that slow roller while the goalkeeper was 15 yards out of position. It just rolled to me and BAM – what a finish.”

A noble and righteous effort

In this last year of my 30s, my pursuit of soccer mastery landed me on my latest team in the South Jersey Masters League. Our team manager assembled the players to bring together different parents and coaches from our broader club, in which I coach my son’s team. A noble and righteous effort. The gaffer knew that I still played and was excited to get me on the team, and then immediately tried to temper my expectations, “Ya know Kyle, a lot of these guys haven’t played before.”

We had our first game this past weekend. Skipper had said that we would be playing on the turf field at a local high school, and as my various teammates, many I had never met before, all looked on at the field in awe with comments like, “Man, this is a nice field. It’s big. Really big. But it’s a nice field.” There was an excited nervousness amongst the mates about what to expect. One of my newfound teammates sheepishly asked as she put on her cleats, fresh from a shoebox with the receipt from Dick’s hanging out of it, “So, you all have actually played before?”

Only when a girl’s travel team showed up to the same turf field and started warming up did we realize that the skipper got our field location wrong, and we trudged over with crestfallen shoulders to the “field” where we were to play. A formerly grass field with 75% of it under an inch of water, along with a drainage ravine running alongside it, so any ball kicked off the fan sideline put the ball into an actively flowing drainage stream to be exuberantly retrieved by the offspring of some of my teammates, much to the horror of their mothers.

We loosely introduce each other and get ourselves organized. The introductions range from barely audible grunts to loquacious life stories, and the playing experiences all portend of a misty-eyed remembrance of previous high school glory.  The manager asks, “So, who’s in shape and wants to run up top?” Nobody volunteers – but come on – it was a two part question. Who in their late 30s and 40s is both in shape AND wants to run up top?  Having an inkling of what we were in for, I opted to play my standard center back and act as a bulwark against the likely onslaught we were soon to face.

Let the game begin!

The game begins. The field is like running through literal shite; it is a pudding-like substance that has me more concerned for my ACLs, PCLs, and just all of my CLs than any clearance of our zone.

Possession? What’s that? We hack wildly at the ball as the other team, this being their 10th season together, navigates the gullies and links play together. Positioning? Hogwash! At one point during the game, I shouted, although without the usual color I would have used if we were within city limits, “Why do we have three left mids?” The middle of our field, ironically the driest part, was devoid of any friendly colors.

Our goalkeeper, again, who hasn’t played since high school, receives his early and first of many tests. He demonstrates surprising agility for a man with his body frame to reach a low shot to his side. He then tried for a fast break distribution to the flank, which our flank, despite three left mids, was unable to control, and our opponents rampage yet again into our box. I can clear the ball, but I get slow-mo steamrolled from behind by the lovechild of the Pillsbury doughboy and the Michelin man. I feel the cool wetness of the swashy mud against my face as Otis does his best impression of a rolling pin over my body. He apologizes. I grunt and use my fingers to comb the mud out of my beard. The game goes on.

Not halftime

Their best player hits a wonderfully driven ball from outside the 18 into the far post for their first goal, and soon, the first quarter whistle blows. Yes, this league is four 20-minute quarters. As we walk back to the sideline, our keeper asks me, “That’s halftime right?” I inform him of the league rules and his jaw agapes. “That was only 20 minutes? That took forever.” Everyone is generally positive on the sideline. “1 – nil… not bad. Let’s keep it up,” the gaffer says positively. On to the next quarter…

At the whistle, our opponents try some route 1 ball with various balls over the top to onrushing attackers. The latest in my rotating cavalcade of guys playing center back for the first time in 20 years displays surprising speed as he races to win one of these balls and proceeds to try and play the ball back to our keeper eight yards from goal with an onrushing attacker. Instinctively, I shout, “NO!” and our keeper scrambles the ball out of bounds. I jog up to my counterpart and activate my coach voice as if I were coaching a member of my son’s eight-year-old team, “Hey buddy. Next time you’re facing the goal like that, and you feel that pressure. Boot the ball over the sideline.”

He responds, “I was trying to play it back to the keeper.”

“I know… Please don’t do that again.”

Another late goal off a breakaway sends us into halftime down 2 – nil. “Hey, these guys have been playing together for years, and 2 – nil ain’t bad. Just no more goals,” the manager encourages.

I pipe up. “Guys. I don’t know if you noticed, but we aren’t – what you would call – good. And believe it or not, they aren’t either. Stop trying to challenge for the ball like Puyol and just keep them in front of you. They’ll mess up I promise.”

How much longer?

The third frame begins, and no one heeded my advice. Our striker loses the ball at midfield and gives chase. I can see the look on his face and the angle he’s taking, and I know this is the typical “men’s league revenge tackle.” The first tackle doesn’t take down the opponent, and I yell, “EASY!” The second challenge still fails to achieve the objective. “EEEASY!” The third one finally clips the ankle and takes the player down. The commensurate pushing and shoving occur, and I shout “OVER 40 MEN’S SOCCER! NOT WORTH IT!” This clarity succeeds in tamping down the feisty display, and play continues.

Our opponents take a shot on our keeper to his side, and he swats the ball down similar to a father swatting a eight-year-old hand reaching for a vase in an antique store. They try another tack and chip our keeper. He gets a fingertip save, but the ball lands behind him and rolls toward goal. The ball’s progress stopped only for the small lake in the goal mouth.

Soon after, in what feels like the 150th minute of the match, we surrender a corner kick, and the ball comes into the box right at the six, and we have a player perfectly positioned to head the ball out. I then recognized it was our sheepish player with the fresh Nikes, who had seemingly wandered to that spot, unaware of what one does in this situation. She ducks and dodges from the ball, which lands on the foot of the attacker I was supposed to be marking on the back post. I lunge. I miss. They score. I see my front leg start to slide through the pasty brown substance that was once this soccer field and feel the deep split I am going into. Our opponents celebrate, and I am frozen in place, eyes closed, taking inventory of what I just did to my body.

The keeper comes up behind me and asks, “You okay?”

“Yeah, just checking my bits… Seems like everything is still in order; just give me a minute.”

Finally, we begin to click

Heading into the game’s final stanza, the manager joined me at center back as our inability to distribute neutralized his ability to be involved in the game from the midfield. He is hard-nosed, from Mayfair, and is playing that way. We’re able to stimy most attacks coming our way, but it may have been due to a lack of interest from the opposing side instead of our actual competence. A penalty kick goal from a chicken wing handball by our right back sees us at  4 – nil.

Another flare up occurs when the oldest player, well at least the one with a full head of gray hair, receives a clumsy tackle. Some fervent pushing ensues. I try my “Over 40” mantra, but only the referee’s yellow card intervention simmers things down.

Now our veteran is pissed. He takes a five-minute breather on the sideline and re-enters the game. He collects the ball on the left sideline and charges upfield. He streaks past his first defender. While standing in place, the team watches as our elder statesman drives the end line. He shoots, and it goes out for a corner. Our first offensive opportunity of the game has been won.

I jog into the box, but stay on the far side near the top of the box. After receiving a headbutt  from my a fellow teammate on a corner kick eight years ago and the ensuing 10 stitches to my forehead on the eve of a huge job interview, I don’t care to “mix it up” that much on aerial balls anymore. The corner comes in, bounces once at the penalty spot, and it is coming clean to me. I have no defenders near me. I chest the ball, take the shot out of the air with my left foot, and send it back across the goal. It skips once on the pond in the six yard box and nestles into the far corner. I give an enthusiastic but understated fist pump celebration, and out-of-breath men jog over to give me assorted high fives and fist bumps. Soon after, the ref blows the game mercifully to its close.

The team is proud of themselves, as they should be. We got out there and did a thing on a Sunday morning. We all have plenty to forget from that game, but we also all got back to chasing the effervescent mastery of the sport we all loved at one point in our lives. Almost all of them said that they had a takeaway to bring back to their team, or child about what to do during the game, and that is the genius of the gaffer’s plan.

And me, I can still replay in my mind the perfect body shape I had on my goal: knee over the ball, ideal balance of pace, and perfect placement on the ball. Although, in real life, it probably looked like a slightly chubby guy getting lucky and flailing his leg at a ball; that’s why I still play.


  1. Well written. Almost makes me want to try dragging my over 55 body out onto a field.

    • me, I am a football dad, the ball is not oval, its a shame its called soccer

      • Kyle Custer says:

        I know you’ve had this linguistic crusade for some time now, and your steadfast dedication will not be affected by any presentation of context or fact. But I will indulge myself anyway. “Soccer” comes from England. It was what the students at Oxford used to distinguish between Rugger (for Rugby Football) and Assocer (for association football), later shortened to just soccer. Oxford, having the reputation for being a premier academic institution, yielding some of the most intelligent people in the world, means that “soccer” is derived from highly intelligent people that were simply just using a portmanteau to create a slang term for the sport they loved. Soccer, in essence, is the same as calling baseball “stickball” … basketball “hoops” … Football “Commercials interrupted by occasional concussions.” Sure, when I talk to my colleagues in England, I call it football, because that is their language. Same as I wouldn’t greet someone in Germany by saying “hola.” It is fine if you feel your family’s culture dictates that you call it Football, but it is not an indication of superiority, nor a signifier of shame for those that use the language of their culture. The irony that you incessantly post this on a site called “The Philly Soccer Page” is not lost on me.

        Here is thelink to the brittanica site that explains the origins of the name –,quickly%20spread%20beyond%20the%20campus.

    • Kyle Custer says:

      Get out there! I’ve seen older on the pitch.

      Just make sure you stretch!

      • nice explanation for the evolution of the name soccer…as a purist of the game it is what it is…… footy as in football, you cannot derive something that is something else and then call it another name. abolish the word soccer and call it football and join the world,,,,,,,,soccer is a (stretch) of confused people between rugby and football.

      • Good morning Santo. I’d like to point out the fact that on THIS forum you are among friends! People who intersperse the terms field, pitch, boots, cleats, coach, manager, soccer, football, footy. Most have played or coached, many still do! I believe you have grasped the articles intent by perusing your passion for correcting those who don’t use the same words as yourself. But have missed the underlying context that you can’t “fix” other people. Please feel free to start your own page for the purposes of fixing us silly un-pure folk who use the wrong words. Have a great 2 days that end the normal work week or as some say…weekend!

  2. Great piece, Kyle.
    I love the game where I know we’ll be pinned back and the best players play CB and think, okay, let’s get ready for the storm.

  3. Great read Kyle! I tried to play again some 12/15 years ago! Found out that the once trick knee had learned a few new tricks! So after missing a couple weeks of work I hung up the cleats for good! Still love seeing the game. And a great respect for those who are still playing! Keep up the great work and Doop on!!

  4. Was the pitch worse than Palumbo? Hope to see you on the pitch this fall.

    • Kyle Custer says:

      Yo Ben. Hope all is well – It made Palumbo look Professional, but then again, I don’t think it has ever rained on Palumbo, hence its Mars-like dusty surface. And yeah all healed up from the broken collarbone suffered at Penn, and will be back in the fall for sure!

  5. I’m tired of chasing kids half my age. Where is the 50+ league?

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