Summer soccer on Martha’s Vineyard reaches adulthood

The Vineyard adult All-Star team that took on Nantucket in 1990. Back row, from left, Bob Hammond, Owen Lander, David Slade, Mike Sibley, Dan Silver, Barry Brown, Alli Ladha, Neal Sullivan, David Scott, manager Gilbert Lorenzoni. Front, Steve Lapierrre, Travis Rundlet, Kevan Nichols, Charley Greene, Gerry McGill, Phil Dewhurst, Hanif Moledina, and Frank Spring. — Photo courtesy of Gilbert Lorenzoni

Next Tuesday, July 26, marks the midpoint of the 20th season of the Vineyard Football Association’s adult coed summer soccer league.

Much more organized these days, the league now includes six evenly matched teams that play between 13 and 16 games, depending on their success in the playoffs, over an eight-week season under the certified eyes of paid referees, instead of the volunteers of years past. At the end of the season, the winning team receives the Gilbert-Hammond Cup, named for two founding fathers of organized soccer on the Island.

While the league has matured, it has retained two essential ingredients — a sense of fun and cross-cultural camaraderie. Stop by Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven on any Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday evening between late June and mid-August, and you’ll see a bunch of sweaty, sometimes muddy soccer players between 16 and 60 giving it a go, as they say in England, the birthplace of the sport — accentuated by hollering in several languages. And these days, the players know what they are doing on the pitch, or at least what they are supposed to be doing.

It wasn’t always this way. The fun and camaraderie have been constant, largely, but there was a time when adult soccer on the Vineyard was so informal it was almost accidental.

By most accounts it started in the mid-1970s when employees of three French restaurants on the Island got together on Sunday mornings for a bit of exercise after croissants and café au lait. Gilbert Lorenzoni of Oak Bluffs recalls the gatherings fondly. “There were men, women, and children as young as eight to ten years old, all playing together,” he recalled in a recent conversation. “We would bring sandwiches and drinks.”

Monsieur Lorenzoni first came to the Island in the mid-1970s to work at Chez Pierre in Edgartown; later he managed Café du Port in Vineyard Haven. Far removed from his home town, Nice, in the south of France, he never lost his love of the game that many European children start playing before they can read. For the first several years he spent on the Island, there weren’t enough players at his level to field whole teams.

Things started to change in the spring of 1976. “One day, Bob Hammond came by and asked if he could join us,” M. Lorenzoni said.

“They had the foot skills that come naturally when you grow up playing the game,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the Europeans on the Island. Mr. Hammond had played college soccer at Syracuse, and he knew talent when he saw it. He went on to coach the boys’ soccer team at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for many years, and he still plays with the Island’s over-40 travel team. When he talks soccer, he uses the term “passion for the game” frequently, both to describe himself and other devotees.

“It was very informal at first, but after a couple of years 50 people might show up,” Mr. Hammond recalled recently, and it was time for some organization. Growth was inevitable, according to Mr. Hammond, who called the process organic.

“Little by little,” Mr. Lorenzoni said, describing the evolution of the world’s most popular game on the Island. There were more players on the Island in the summer, but then the restaurant workers were often too busy to play.

The first efforts at organization came in the off-season. When former college players surfaced from the growing ranks of young tradespeople on the Island and joined forces with the group of transplanted foreigners, some fairly competitive soccer emerged, although it was still largely of the pickup variety. Sometimes there were full teams of 11 on a side, sometimes they’d play three-on-three, depending on the weather and the season.

One constant was Bob Hammond. “Sometimes, I’d just be there by myself,” he said. They played Tuesdays and Thursdays after work and also on Sundays. Play started in mid-March if the pitch was playable and continued until Christmas. The true fanatics kept at it all winter, once they realized that school gyms were available at night.

“I started playing in the pickup games in 1987,” Neal Sullivan, current president of the VFA, said. “And each year, it was cool up until July 4 when we got inundated by all these people who were here for the summer. During this time we developed relationships with soccer players over on Nantucket, where Charley Greene started doing soccer camps.”

A selection of the Vineyard’s best decided to challenge a Nantucket All-Star team and a natural rivalry was kindled. “We had games each summer, and people here liked the excitement of uniforms, and referees, and organization so much that we decided to put a structure to what we were doing.”

The new league was based on three guiding principles: to provide competitive, fair, and safe soccer for all participants; to support the development of young players; and to develop “relationships through fellowship” between diverse ethnic groups on the Island.

Prime early movers in the formation of VFA were Messrs. Lorenzoni, Hammond, and Greene. “Charley had played professionally, and he knew about FIFA and the structure of clubs,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And they came up with the idea of having a draft. On Nantucket, teams had been organized along ethnic lines and sometimes there were fights. Here, there was a sizable Brazilian community, people from the Czech Republic, and also Ireland, but we decided to be a little more democratic and put everyone’s name into a draft.”

Players sent in their dues (currently $80) and a photo with their application to the league. Team managers would assemble around a table, draw straws, and start selecting players from the pile of applications in the middle of the table. “The goal was to keep the competition as even as possible,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And it’s worked: there has never been a perennial powerhouse.”

In 2002, two new teams were added to the four founding clubs. One of them, the Atlantic Football Club (AFC), was made up of high-school aged players who would improve, the thinking went, by competing against experienced adult players and also by participating in off-Island tournaments. The experiment worked, in the eyes of most observers, and the AFC has become an institution in the local soccer world.

The level of play has improved steadily over the years, and in recent years the refereeing has become more sophisticated. Richard Bennett, an experienced referee who now lives in Chilmark, started calling VFA games four years ago, and lately he’s been helping to cultivate younger referees.

“The level of officiating has improved substantially,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Now both the center official and the assistants with the flags are paid and they are certified. It’s a lot more organized.”

Even with greater organization, the fees (currently $80) have been kept at a reasonable level — enough to elicit a commitment by most applicants, but not enough to scare many people away.

Time and organization have paid off with improved soccer. “The level of play this year is the best I’ve ever seen,” Charley Greene said while catching his breath during half-time early this week. “Word is out that it’s a pretty competitive league. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing, even if they can’t always pull it off.”

Mr. Greene also noted another element in the league’s evolution since its humble start two decades ago. “It’s nice to have seen kids I coached in youth soccer come through the system, and now I’m playing with them.”