“I Found My Family Out Here”: Why New York’s Bowery FC Is More Than A Soccer Team
A familiar scene unfolds in Chinatown on an unseasonably cool Saturday morning in August. Produce sellers and fishmongers set up their stands. Delivery trucks drenched in graffiti unload and cart cellophane-wrapped pallets through crowded sidewalks. Hypnotic sounds of tai chi drift down Sara D Roosevelt Park as a neatly organised group of elders get their exercise.
Though the world has experienced seismic shifts in the months and even days leading up to this particular moment, the longstanding routine of this emblematic Lower Manhattan neighborhood is a comforting sight and proof that even a city defined by constant change can offer a steadfast reprieve from the grind of everyday life.
Part of that routine is taking shape at Lion’s Gate Field, where Bowery FC has played since 2001. Players trickle in and wade through piles of dead leaves as though autumn snuck in undetected. A groundskeeper clearing the pitch claims the towering trees that line the park are all dead, belated victims of Hurricane Sandy. Saltwater got to their roots, back in 2012, yet they still stand tall along the sidelines.
Like those London Planetrees, the pitch itself has seen better days. But the members of Bowery FC have shown up bright and early, glad to be back at their home base.
Mr Carlos Franco
“The cool thing about this field, it’s like the West 4th Street ‘Cage’ of soccer,” says Mr Carlos Franco, referencing the legendary basketball court in Greenwich Village where spectators, hecklers and beguiled passersby cling to the surrounding chain link fence for some of the most up-close and intense games of streetball one can witness. “Everybody knows about this field. Everybody comes to play here. Everybody wants to check it out and be a part of it. It’s the epicenter of soccer in downtown Manhattan. And we kind of started that.”
Franco would know. He’s one of the founders of Bowery FC, an OG celebrating the club’s 20th anniversary. They often refer to the original members with the same sort of respect paid to an elder statesman – or an older brother you’re taking the piss out of.
Before Bowery FC was a proper football club, it was a simple open pick-up game among university teammates, locals, regulars around the various city leagues, just friends, really. When a core group of those players realised they had a pretty good thing going, something that they could grow and nurture beyond a rollicking round of football, they decided to make things official, and so Bowery FC was born.
The club has, indeed, evolved into a force beyond the pitch, a lifestyle brand of sorts that regularly produces highly sought-after jersey collabs with brands like OnlyNY, Rowing Blazers and Umbro, while also hosting World Cup viewing parties and pop-up shops with Classic Football Shirts.
But the weekly game remains at the heart of Bowery FC, which has been played with an almost religious devotion at Lion’s Gate Field for an uninterrupted two decades (save for most of 2020, while the world was in lockdown). That level of consistency is all the more impressive given the mercurial fervour of most teams in the city, not to mention the grail-worthy line of merch the club produces in its spare time.
They meet every Saturday at 8.00am for a seven-a-side club run on the beat-up pitch. The AstroTurf is a bit ragged and pockmarked, with lumps and divots from end to end. Games are intense, quick and of a decent calibre, despite the rough terrain and occasional hangover. The style of play is occasionally scrappy and always honest – the result of strong fundamentals and commitment meeting an unforgiving environment week after week.
Mr Cameron Smalls
“It’s fun watching people come out that haven’t played on the field before. There’s definitely a learning curve,” says Mr Quinn Murray, an advertising strategy director who has played with Bowery for the past six years and has a mane that Mr Andrea Pirlo would envy.
“You try not to play super hard, so you can hit the brakes easily,” Franco adds.
“I’m giving it all I’ve got,” says Murray, with an incredulous laugh after two hours of enthusiastic gameplay.
“Yeah, I’ve pulled about everything out there. Hammies, you name it,” says Mr Duane Brown, another OG and nonprofit programme manager who, at 42, could easily pass for someone half his age on or off the pitch. “Every season, I get at least one injury.”
“Every time I get injured out there, it’s a sign to lose another 10 pounds,” says Franco.
It’s banter you’d expect from a crew proud of its home turf, despite the wear, tear and warts that only a New York City public park can possess. And if you were to mistake the conversation for the jovial ribbing exchanged between brothers, you wouldn’t be that far off. While nobody on the roster is related by blood, the members of Bowery FC have forged an unbreakable bond with each other, one that goes beyond being teammates.
It’s a community, a tribe, a family from all walks of life and corners of the globe – artists, tech entrepreneurs, creative directors, DJs, bankers, bar owners, former pros – who are bound by their love of the game and dedication to the club. In fact, the word “family” came up quite often over the course of the day.
“After two or three years, I still hadn’t settled in the city until I found the club,” says Murray, a West Coast transplant. “I found my family out here. I think a lot of people don’t last in New York because they don’t find their thing. You’re forced to go find it, otherwise, it just chews you up and you head home.”
Mr Jake Snowden, a fragrance consultant who’s been with the club for four years, shares a similar sentiment, though his Bowery origin story is slightly less conventional.
“I found out about Bowery FC through the OnlyNY collab,” he says. “I just moved to the city and happened to be looking for somewhere to play soccer because I played in college. One night, I was drunk, DMed Bowery FC, and it was Quinn. Now Quinn and Carlos are like my older brothers in New York. It gave me such a great foundation when I moved out here.”
Mr Nicholas Meyer
Mr Marc Ricca
“And like family, you can’t get rid of them,” Murray adds, referring to the more intense players who sometimes take things a little too seriously.
When I ask one of the newest members about the club rule that membership is for life, (“No exceptions,” as their website states), the 23-year-old Mr Nicholas Meyer isn’t the least bit phased by the ceaseless commitment. “That’s one of my favorite things about soccer,” he says. “You have a permanent family. I've never been a part of something that’s for life, so if I decide to move in a few years, and then 10 years later come back to New York, I still have Bowery FC.”
All of this is said without the slightest hint of ride-or-die hyperbole or sense of doe-eyed sentimentality one might expect from somebody gushing about their bros. It’s genuine. It has withstood the test of time and, moreover, the unforgiving demands of the city.
In the fast-paced, career-driven gauntlet that is New York, a town fueled by professional aspirations and relentless hustle, where relationships of any kind face a bleak lifespan under this type of immense pressure, it’s astounding that such a tight-knit community of guys has shown up every Saturday morning for the last 20 years.
“I’m very fortunate to have this group of guys in my life,” says Mr Marc Ricca, yet another OG who’s been showing up week after week since the club’s inception (save for a brief two-year stint in Ohio for work). “I tell people about it, and they’re like, wait, you’ve been on the same pick-up team for 21 years? It’s kind of crazy.”
Mr Duane Brown
What some might consider crazy is, actually, incredibly healthy on so many levels. In fact, several members liken the weekly games to therapy, a way to improve one’s mental and physical health by simply doing what they love with people they respect and admire.
“We’re just friends who like to come out to have fun,” says Brown. “This is therapy. This is exercise. This is everything for us. With all that’s going on in the city, it’s important to let loose. When we’re away from this, away from football, we miss it, and that really brings your energy down.”
Mr Jake Snowden
“It’s therapeutic, for sure,” Snowden says. “There’ll be guys with some outbursts and you probably just think, he probably had a tough week, that was bottled up.”
“The game is what brings us together,” Franco adds. “At one point we had the lead singer of a metal band playing alongside a finance guy. They would never cross paths. But here, we’re all good friends because of the sport. It’s what ties us together.”
Mr Quinn Murray
While the immediate future looks uncertain as ever with each morning’s headlines, you can bet that Bowery FC will remain an enduring constant thanks to a whole made greater by the sum of its players.
“It’s consistently good quality, consistently good guys. Everyone shows up every Saturday and you know exactly what you’re going to get,” says Mr Cameron Smalls, a newer member who joined after spending the past 15 years with another team. “I hope I’m around for the next 20 years. There’s nothing like this in the city.”