It’s the middle of the day on a Wednesday in the city of Asheville. Traffic downtown begins to build up and crowds form in the street, most people starting their lunch breaks. Perhaps work clouds the minds of many, but soccer is on the minds of some.
As it nears 1 p.m., a crowd begins to gather on the soccer field at Memorial Stadium. The cool mountain air of late summer fills the air as people talk about their days as they stretch. One by one they finish stretching and begin their game of pick-up soccer.
This is a typical Wednesday for members of Asheville’s pick-up soccer group.
Daily pick-up soccer takes a big part in Asheville’s soccer community. Memorial Stadium hosts pickup every day at 1 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends, all year round. Trent Thomas, an Asheville native, was part of the original founding members of pick-up.
“I was part of the founding group, it was a small group of us. I had my hip replaced so I couldn’t play league anymore, I didn’t want to anyway, so we went to play a little more calm, get back to work afterward kind of game,” Thomas said. “We first started with just Sundays and Tuesdays, it was pretty much our week for years, and then we added Thursdays. We did that for about five years and a little over five years ago the crowds got so big we said ‘Let’s go every day,’ and so now we go every day.”
According to Thomas, an average day includes good numbers for pick-up in Asheville.
“The numbers are static now, it grew a lot early on that’s why we kept expanding the number of days but in the last two or three years it’s pretty static, we haven’t had much more increase. We lose people because of travel and jobs and things like that, and there’s a few hard-core as we have been here a long, long time,” Thomas said. “Different times of the year it varies, you know, when kids are home from school, the holidays are really busy and the summers are really busy.”
There is something positive and unique about the pickup soccer played by Thomas and many others here in Asheville.
“I think the community likes us. A lot of people come into town and find this game, we’ve had a lot of people show up and play one day and stuff. I think it’s positive for the community and positive for the city, it’s pretty well-known. Hayden, over there, he moved to Oregon for a few years thinking he would be able to find a pick-up game, and he said he never found one there near as nice as ours,” Thomas said.
According to Thomas, the soccer scene has been growing in Asheville in part by local soccer organizations.
“The pro leagues have made the community bond a little more and that’s also something we offer to it. HFC and all the programs here are really strong, but I think the new pro team has also helped bring the soccer community together even more,” Thomas said.
Asheville City Soccer Club, founded in 2016, is Asheville’s professional soccer team, comprising of both a men’s and women’s team.
UNC Asheville student Manny Lopez also takes part in Ascheville’s pick-up soccer. Lopez first found out about the scene three years ago.
“It was already a solid group when I joined. Someone told me about it and the first time I went out there were about 20 people there. The numbers have definitely grown but it also depends on the time of year. There’s a lot of people in the summer,” the 21-year-old said.
According to Lopez, the group is great and joining pick-up is easy.
“The pick-up organization is great. There’s a Facebook group. When I first started out I was always nervous I would show up and no one would be there, but people would always post every day and say that they were coming out to play so that was very comforting. People there are just super nice like I didn’t really know anyone but no one really cared that I was new,” Lopez said. “I’ve heard things from other pick-up groups that it could be very exclusive, like a bigger cities, but here I just came right in and they let me right in and I loved it.”
For Lopez, playing soccer helps to serve as an escape.
“For me, soccer is just something to get my mind off of anything that is stressing me out. When I’m playing I really don’t have to think too much, I just go, and I love that. So when I’m playing it’s almost like a sort of meditation for me,” Lopez said.
UNCA alumni Harrision Johnston also plays pick-up whenever he can since he first started seven years ago.
“As a soccer player in the community, it’s very important to have a place to know there will always be other people to play and a good fun game to enjoy at any time. There seems to be many people out there all the time,” Johnston said.
Johnston, like Lopez, said the pick-up community can be welcoming to newcomers.
“People post in the Facebook group when they are new to town and they are always welcomed by existing members. The community aspect of it is really awesome. You get to know a lot of new people,” the Asheville native said.