It’s mid-morning on a weekday -- a work day -- and Buckman Field Park is a quiet oasis in Portland’s bustling inner east side. The park’s sprawling twelve acres are typically vacant, save for a few Benson High School students who, while on their off-period, are lounging together at a corner of the turf field. A retiree might speed walk the track that encircles the park. A young family might play on the swings or throw a frisbee on the grassy knoll that overlooks the south field. Otherwise, it is quiet. With the scent of bread from the Franz bakery wafting through, a visitor could enjoy a tranquil nap in the middle of the park.
However, around 11:30, people start trickling in through the trees to congregate at the edges of the sports fields. They sit for a moment to change shoes and begin stretching. They exchange pleasantries as they warm up. Eventually someone produces a soccer ball, and they start passing. A few more players trickle in. Once a quorum is met, typically around 4-5 per side, a pickup soccer game begins, bounded by whichever lines on the field seem appropriate. Hopefully someone brought three-foot Pugg nets, otherwise a pair of gym bags will have to suffice for goals.
The slow trickle of players mounts, and by noon, anywhere from thirty to ninety players are split into three pickup soccer games across Buckman’s south field. Players shout familiar soccer cues - “Man on!”, “Have a shot!”, or “Switch field!”. Friends will heckle each other from the sidelines after an errant pass or a shot that skies well above the goal. The once tranquil park is buzzing with activity.
Despite being a relatively free-flowing affair, pickup soccer does have some unwritten rules. Slide-tackling is forbidden; avoid rough contact; there are no corner-kicks or throw-ins; join the side that has fewer players; don’t keep score; call your own fouls. There are no formal kits or uniform requirements. You don’t need the newest cleat technology to fit in. Not infrequently, someone will play in full-length pants and tennis shoes and perform surprisingly well. There is, however, one shirt color that will immediately identify someone as a rookie pickup player and should be avoided: grey. The common way to divide teams is by shirt color, white shirts to one side and non-white shirts to the other. Grey - that middle ground that never clearly belongs to one side or the other - is the bane of the veteran pickup soccer player.
One wonders how upwards of ninety players can regularly assemble in the middle of a workday to play soccer. Asking around, you’ll find that these players work all hours, often using their lunch break to get in a few touches. Waiters, bartenders and other late-night workers wake up a bit early from their late night shifts to play before their they return to work in the evening.
The crowd is as diverse as any you are likely to find at a gathering in Portland. Players range from teenage and older, and many a grey-haired player will surprise an opponent with a quickness and polish that belies their age. While some have lived in Portland their whole lives, many players have recently moved for work from the east coast, or Texas, or… sigh... California. Some have relocated from abroad, most typically Central and South America, Africa, and eastern Europe.
The Buckman pickup game has not always been so well-attended. David Guadarrama Cabrera, who has played here for over a decade, remembers the early days when he would try to round up enough players for one game of four or five a side. When David started managing the pickup game, the field was a hard, lumpy patchwork of dirt and grass. He would send out group texts to the people he met who showed interest in a regular game.
The field has been improved dramatically since David and a few others began playing here. In 2011, a $2.3 million improvement project was completed, improving lighting and adding turf to the field. Nike, Portland Public Schools, Portland City United Soccer Club, and St. Mary’s Academy each committed a portion of the improvement funds.
Over the past eleven years, the game has grown to be the largest regular pickup game in Portland. David calls it “the epicenter of Portland pickup soccer,” a community that has blossomed over the past few years. David no longer has to send out group texts to hassle people to show up and play. He and a few others are admins of a public Facebook group called Portland Pick-up Soccer Club that has over 5,000 members. The group has a running list of every pickup game in the Portland area from Hillsboro to Gresham. David has also branched out into coaching, regularly making the trek from his home in east Portland to Hillsboro to coach at Glencoe High School.
Even though there are no formal prizes, and teams don’t even keep score, one gets a strange excitement about attending these pickup soccer games. Sure you have the opportunity to show off your skills and get some exercise, but there’s something else that is great about coming back time and again. You get to meet people and check your progress against them and develop camaraderie. Michael Muneyyirci says that there are many players he’s seen at Buckman for years that he considers friends, even if he doesn’t see them off the field. He couldn’t wait to get back to Buckman after being away from Portland for a year. He was excited to see that the game has become so popular and that most of the originals still attend.
Pickup soccer games have indeterminate length. They split into two if the field gets too crowded. People generally play for at least an hour. Then, a few will have to head back to work, and the game will shrink. Two games might merge back into one. Sometimes someone will notice that everyone is getting tired and propose that next goal wins. The scoring team wins nothing of course, but at least the game has a definite ending. Many other times though, numbers will have dwindled to the point where the game just sort of ends. The last players put their walking shoes back on and head out. The park is calm again… until tomorrow.