Has Ball, Needs Field: A Parking Lot Becomes a Fútbol Field for an Afternoon

Young men play soccer in a parking lot at the Coliseum. photo: Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

RIDING BACK FROM an interview at a school garden off King Blvd., I came across a dozen guys engaged in a serious game of fútbol in a Coliseum parking lot. Curious, I plopped myself down next to Oscar Villatoro, a sweet guy in glasses who was sitting out the game because of a bum knee.

Why play here? I wanted to know. Asphalt is flat and fast, sure, but pretty unforgiving on the body.

There was nowhere nearby to go, he told me.

“There are fields over there,” he pointed behind the swim stadium, “but since they don’t play on a team, they can’t use the fields.”

They’ve tried playing on grass around Exposition Park, but security usually shows up pretty quickly to shoo them away, he said. So they just meet here. And they’ve been meeting here for a while — Oscar started joining them here last August, but they had been playing here well before then.

“In August?” I asked, surprised.

It was one thing to play there on a warm spring afternoon, but another entirely to play on sun-baked, shoe-melting asphalt in the dead of summer.

“Yeah,” he laughed. “Some of the guys get holes in their shoes and all that. But they like it.”

Apparently they do. They didn’t mind it, they told me. They had a lot of space in the parking lot and no one bothered them.

“There’s really nowhere else for you to go?” I asked.

“There are a lot of parks,” said one. “But you can’t play soccer there — it’s not allowed.”

Most parks prohibit soccer. In fact, parks do not only prohibit soccer, but many appear designed specifically to make it difficult for people to try to play soccer, should they feel inclined to try. Some of the South L.A. pocket parks sport strategically placed play areas, boulders, exercise equipment, or trees that chop up open space and make it impossible to play.

The desire to limit soccer playing is understandable. It tears up the grass and can turn a green location into a dustbowl. The space needed for games leaves less park for everyone else and scares away picnickers and people looking to relax or let small children run around. In park-poor areas like South Los Angeles where green space is at a premium, it’s not hard to understand why soccer usually gets the boot.

But the debate over the need for soccer fields is one that the city has been having for at least two decades now. You would think we would have come up with a better solution in that time.

For the parking lot soccer players, the inability of the city to act on the demand for soccer facilities means that the closest areas where they might have been able to play were almost two miles away.

“These guys all live around here,” said Oscar. “It’s too far.”

Since it is unlikely that new soccer fields are going to be built in numbers that can meet neighborhood demand, what if parking lots were looked at as potential fields? What made this place semi-perfect was the fact that it was fenced in on most sides, flat, and there were no signposts or other obstacles to the space. What if lots were just to be paved differently? Perhaps covered with a slightly softer or rubberized surface layer (more like a running track) so that they could be dual use? We certainly have enough parking lots around town, and most sit empty for large blocks of time. Could something like that be a solution? Perhaps you have a better one? Let us know in the comments.

  • Kevin Pena

    Great article. My smaller brother and I both had the same complaint against the city. It’s a shame space is constricted to only typical American sports,because the city is booming with talented footballers. One of the solutions I found was approachable was field-rental. When I first visited Guatemala I was surprised to witness my uncles paying a small fee for the rental of a beautiful field similar to Exposition’s football field. But I suppose we’ll have to wait a few years before the rest of America catches up on the great sport. football (soccer) is the world’s game, so wherever there is space; we shall play. – Kevin/ guy with mullet/ one of the footballing dudes in the parking lot.

  • Davistrain

    This article points up one reason why soccer/futbol seems to be confined to “niche” sport status in the US.  It doesn’t require a lot of equipment or special clothing, so there’s less interest from the sporting-goods industry.  Then there’s the “American exceptionalism” argument–our culture tends to be “chauvinistic, after all, the US is the only major country in the world where the Metric System is still considered to be something invented by “dadburn furriners”–something “Real Americans” wouldn’t touch with a three-meter pole.  Trying to sell soccer as “the world’s game” doesn’t help in this country.

  • good points – it reminds me of the way one of the Danish architects described things at a  MyFigueroa meeting – he said that parking lots in South L.A. are way more activated (with stuff like futbol and vending) than many spaces in Downtown L.A. that are designed for pedestrians.

  • Lostangelino

    they really ought to consider converting underused tennis courts or handal courts in parks into futsal courts. these same courts could also be placed in the city by buying lots that are not being used.

    Futsal courts don’t need turf or much maintenance.

    they are what basketball courts in inner cities are to  the US around the world.

    I’m a fan of the sport  niche or not its on a major upswing

    its also popular with hipsters

    I’ve seen turf field setup in the silver lake area but we need a lot more spaces. south LA has many empty lots that could be converted

  • calwatch

    The rubberized asphalt or the permeable pavement could work but would be expensive. I disagree that soccer is a niche sport in the US… maybe for watching but soccer is probably the biggest participatory sport in the country, when you think about all of the kids doing youth soccer and the various adult soccer leagues. But as the author noted most of them are on organized teams and there are few spots for pick-up soccer games the same way that pick-up basketball and volleyball games happen all the time. In that sense it is like baseball/softball which is very organized – no one just rounds up nine people to play a game because of how much equipment and space is used.

  • sahra

    true, but unlike baseball, it is much more likely that kids will round up a group of their friends to play a pick-up game of soccer. there’s a lot of kids, particularly in heavily latino neighborhoods, who play pick up games in parking lots all the time. most don’t play with teams because of the cost and time commitment. but they still want to play. modified lots would get used like crazy…

  • There is definitely a need for more green space – both active and passive. Parking lots that are also playfields would be great.

    I wonder why they didn’t know about the Soboroff sports fields on the corner of King and Vermont. They spent $6 million to turn a massive parking lot into a lighted soccer oasis with two pitches – and that is probably a block from where this pick up game was taking place.

    http://www.laparks.org/expo/soboroff.htm

    http://www.la84foundation.org/10ap/NewsRelease10202009_frmst.htm

  • sahra

    they can’t play there–it is apparently only for registered teams.

  • Galen

    theres a wonderful space right across from the downtown burbank rail station. they just held cavalia there. i would be open to writing a proposal.