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Profiles of people who uplift, maintain, or change traditions within their communities.

Pickup soccer is alive and well in Oakland’s San Antonio Park

A pickup game in San Antonio Park run by Neighborhood Sport Club.
Pat McMahon
A pickup game in San Antonio Park run by Neighborhood Sport Club.

A fundamental part of a thriving soccer scene is the culture of pickup soccer. But joining a free drop-in game is not as easy anymore — with field access increasingly becoming for profit, with pay-to-play models. We meet the people who keep these games going.

Every Thursday morning a group of friends meets to play soccer at this park in East Oakland. Max Ornstil started organizing the game in early 2023 and today, he greets the first player to arrive - a thirteen year old named Yaz.

"You don’t have school today? No?"
"They canceled it!"

While he inflates balls with an electric pump, another organizer, Dylan Autran, says the start time isn't exact.

"It’s usually a trickle in. We say 9 o'clock, but it never starts at 9 o'clock. It's always like 9:30... False nine, yep.  Just like the position."

"No foul no foul!"


By 9:30 the action starts. The sun has cleared the oak trees at the top of the park and the narrow turf field is drenched in light. Max takes it all in.

"It has a gorgeous view of Oakland and the city skyline. I mean, this is a neighborhood field."

The games move quickly, with subs rotating in and out. I catch up with players, like Mike Garrick, on the sideline.

"First to two, switch sides. And then we have a rotating keeper. I would say all the keepers are pretty trash, including myself."

"Yes sir!"

Next up, Arla Johnson, who grew up playing pickup games in San Francisco almost every day. He says the difference between the pickup scene then and now is night and day.

"Definitely in terms of like, the situation where, you can just go to the park and play. That seems harder to find. But yeah, I’m telling you, this pickup right here… lowkey, it’s just been super positive impact since I got back in the area. Like therapy."

"That’s a ball! That’s a ball! Vision!"

Max and Dylan have been playing soccer together since they were kids.

"As long as time goes back. Uh, since we were eight or nine."

The two have been best friends ever since, each eventually playing professionally with the Oakland Roots. But they love pickup culture, and wanted a casual game with high-quality players. They called themselves Neighborhood Sports Club, and networked on Instagram.

"Watch out!"

"I got you out left!"

"Foul, foul, foul…"

"What?! That’s not a foul man…"

"Are you playing?"

The field at San Antonio Park provides a view of the San Francisco skyline.
Pat McMahon
San Antonio Park provides a view, which includes the San Francisco skyline.

The game pulls in players from throughout the Bay Area, across different cultural communities. Alborz Mirzai was born in Berkeley, but his family is originally from Iran.

"I’ve definitely gotten better since I've came here, for sure. My cousin used to come and play here. School started, so he can't come no more, but he brought me a couple times, and I was like – oh, this is my new Thursday morning."

"I even come on the weeks they don't come. I don't have an Instagram. And there was, I guess, one day where it was, uh, bad air quality. I think fires in Oregon.  And, yeah, I didn't get the memo. I came here and I was by myself."

In addition to Thursday mornings, he frequently plays in a Sunday game in Walnut Creek.

"It’s like church. Sunday morning, it used to be at eight, but now it’s at seven AM. We call it the Old Persians Pickup, where you have like five to eight thirty-plus year old Persians. And the rest are young heads like us. And it’s super fun."

"Turn Mike, turn!"

Ogbe Iyoha tightens the laces on his cleats. Ogbe is originally from Benin, Nigeria and has lived in the Bay Area since 2014. He drove in this morning from Richmond.

"This is the place to come get some good workout after our hard days of work. This is the de-stressor.  This is it, man. Come to Oakland  We're here in San Antonio Park.  Every Thursday, 9 o'clock. Sharp."

"What time did you get here?" 

(Laughing) "Man, family life, I get here late sometimes.  Usually like 9:40, 10 o'clock is my time. But if I can get an hour, I’m happy."

He plays on the weekends with other African players, though he needs his teammate to remind him where.

"Prince! What's our field name? Raimondi. Raimondi Park. So Bay Area African football club. It’s been around for almost, almost two decades now."

Ogbe says he enjoys playing with people from his culture, but he's also drawn to this diverse team. It allows him to keep developing his skills.

"As a football player, you gotta stay consistent. If not you’re gonna lose it. And you gotta play until the wheels fall off man, because once you stop, that’s it. So play as long as you can, and enjoy it." 

"You know, this is a great organization that, you know, they're putting together. And it's at its infancy and I already see the growth already. It's good ballers coming here through, man. We bring the energy. This is a great, you know, location. Great brotherhood over here.  If you love soccer, you're here every Thursday."

In just a year, this pickup game has developed a rotating cast of about thirty players. Organizer Max Ornstil is proud of that.

"Hey, split… thank you!"

"Goalie, goalie!"

"Easy, keep!"

"Keep can play!"

"The fact that we have people from all over the world coming here and they each bring their culture with them and what is special about where they’re from or where they grew up. It creates such a fun atmosphere and environment where we’re just a blend of so many cultures playing together. It’s very sweet." 

As the game ends, some players scramble off to start their days. Those who have more time meet for coffees at a nearby cafe, not wanting this weekly ritual to end. Only seven more days until they get to do it again.

"Yes sir!"

"Mike come back, come back now, now!"


"What a goal!"

"Well done Mike!"

This story was made to be heard click the play button above to listen

This story aired on the January 9, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Pat McMahon is a member of the 2024 KALW Audio Academy, an audio producer, sound artist, and radio enthusiast.