It started more than 20 years ago. Tim Graham came to Moab in the mid-1980s and missed playing soccer like he had done in college and graduate school, so he put an advertisement in a local publication to see if anyone else was interested in playing. Today, the pickup soccer league is still going strong with a variety of participants who are long-term residents, seasonal workers and short-term visitors.
Two decades ago, only two people responded to Graham’s ad, he said, but that was enough to get things started. “The three of us slowly added a few more people and [one of the people] had some connections down in Monticello with some of the farm workers down there, so we started playing games with them, and now some of those guys are up here and are still playing with us. So that’s been fun.”
A recent evening featured 14 participants, Graham said. Sometimes the group sees as many as 24. “We try to play pretty much all year. We play out at the arena in the wintertime and still sometimes outdoors if there’s not snow on the ground. This last year they played in the city gym–a game called futsal–which is played with a low-bounce ball. It’s a much faster game. They play five-on-five or four-on-four.”
Graham has been dealing with an injury recently, so local Zachary Lowe stepped in as lead organizer. The group plays at the ball field at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and sometimes plays “futsal” on the basketball court. “We used to rent out the arena, which was interesting because you played on dirt and had horse manure, so that was very Moab,” Lowe said.
The pickup soccer game is also ‘very Moab’ and brings in a wide selection of the town’s residents and visitors, “Moab being a tourist destination and then we get a lot of the J-1 workers, Latinos, Russians, anyone that say...the hoteliers would bring in. We’ve had Turks, we’ve had Thais come in, Russians, Chinese, anyone passing through. There’s that soccer camp that’s hosted by some Brits and they’ve come and played with us before. We get people passing by. It used to just be word of mouth until Facebook came along and now we use social media. We play anywhere from three-on-three to some nights when no one shows up, but then some nights, [it's] really large,” Lowe said.
“Everyone has things that makes them happy,” he added. “Some people, it’s mountain biking, some people it’s gardening. Soccer, when you get into it, it is known as the beautiful game and when it’s played well and you’re with a bunch of people who also love the game... you can lose yourself in the sport. Whatever’s going on in the world, politics, anything, just disappears while you’re playing the game. It’s kind of nice because it’s the one truly global sport. When you have the World Cup, it’s the entire world playing soccer, whereas when you have the World Series in baseball, it’s maybe 10 nations playing. It’s nice to share a bond with anyone who comes through.”
One participant, Nolan Ramirez, explained why he comes out. “I’ve been playing soccer with my dad says since I could walk, but I just come out here to kick the ball,” said Ramirez, who also plays on the boys’ high school soccer team. “It’s not really in season for the boys in high school right now. I used to play in Junction but … boys’ soccer doesn’t start until the spring so this is the most soccer I can get right now. I try to get as much as I can so I can try to go to college for it.”
Eric Lopez said that playing the pickup games is a stress-reliever. He plays “because it distracts you and you’re doing something different. There aren’t many days when we get to play soccer.”
Lowe said that the game is open to all levels. “What we do is we charge a dollar or more to play out here. It used to be we paid the city for the lights, but they have now donated time, so that’s really cool. So we just collect the money because myself or one of my friends will take the jerseys home and wash them so they’re not stinky every time. So it helps pay for that, and then we buy new balls,” Lowe said.
“It’s the beautiful game,” said Matthew Driskell. “So much fun. Know what it does? You don’t think about anything else. You only think about playing soccer so you forget about all the things that might be bothering you or whatever, so you just get out and run around and it’s good camaraderie.”