Jairo Diaz is still wearing his sweat-soaked goalkeeper’s jersey as he enters Double Dogs, a short drive down Hardin Valley Road from D1 Knoxville, where his team has just won a third consecutive Friday night co-ed indoor-soccer league championship.
Many of the players on the Berzerkers team have already changed into their prizes for the night—orange T-shirts proclaiming their championship. The group is ordering 22-ounce mugs of beer, hot wings, and burgers to celebrate. During the night out, the eclectic mix of thirtysomethings, who have been playing together for the last year, take turns saying those things people always do after winning championships: “What a hard-fought match,” and “I’m so proud of this team.” Although it’s only a recreational league, the Berzerkers are visibly happy with their achievement, and Diaz feels no different.
“It’s funny, because when I was moving to Knoxville, I didn’t think I’d be able to find any soccer here,” says Diaz, enunciating sharply, yet leaving the hint of a Honduran accent. “Now I play four nights a week and got some free shirts out of it.”
Diaz is a lot like the hundreds of players who exit Knoxville’s indoor soccer facilities nightly, paying $50 for an eight-game session and a chance at a champion’s T-shirt. Like his teammates, who are nuclear physicists, real-estate agents, and construction workers by day, Diaz rushes home from work on Friday nights to grab his cleats and shin guards and then drives out west for a night of soccer.
On the surface, it makes little sense that the indoor version of the world’s most popular sport has found a home in Knoxville. From 1992 to 1996, the city had a semiprofessional indoor team, the Knoxville Impact. Aside from the semipro Knoxville Force, which plays traditional outdoor soccer in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League, and the team’s amateur equivalent, the Knoxville Lady Force, the city has not had a notable men’s or women’s soccer team to be credited with sparking the current surge in indoor soccer participation. Compared to the Knoxville Metro Soccer League, which organizes seven outdoor leagues from Campbell Station Road in Farragut to Holston Hills, and independently organized Mexican and Guatemalan leagues that play on Sundays in warmer weather, Knoxville’s five active indoor soccer complexes—D1, Fuse Sportsplex, Cool Sports, Johnny Long’s Training Academy, and the Zone—collectively organize up to 15 leagues with hundreds of players like Diaz hitting the turf year-round.
The growth in the city’s immigrant and overall population could partly explain the gravitation toward indoor soccer. According to the last U.S. census, Knoxville experienced a Tennessee state record 33 percent increase in its urban population from 2000-2010. During the same 10-year period, Tennessee saw a 134 percent growth in Hispanic residents like Diaz—the third-highest rate among all U.S. states.
Diaz and other international players more accustomed to the outdoor game have made a smooth transition into indoor soccer in Knoxville. Their presence is felt almost every night. While teams with mostly American players choose names like Get Off My Lawn and the Unknowns, there are those with names like Real Internationals, Gallos Blancos (“white roosters” in Spanish), Special Olympiakos, Pathetico Madrid, the Foreign Stars, Los Chicos, and Mexico, many of which are puns based on established international club and national teams from Latin America and Europe.
On the Berzerkers, Diaz plays with teammates from France, Nigeria, and El Salvador. On his Tuesday night team at Cool Sports, he plays with a Greek, German, and South Korean in addition to domestic transplants from Arizona and Ohio.
“It’s funny to have all these accents when you’re playing, and hearing everybody speaking their native language when things get heated,” he says.
When he first arrived in Knoxville three years ago, Diaz says he felt like an outsider.
“But once you get on the field, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it just matters whether you have skill or not,” he says. “That’s the great thing about indoor soccer, especially here in Knoxville. No one looks at your origin or what language you speak, they just look at what you bring to the team.”
Knoxville’s Indoor History
Diaz was born in the Altos de San Isidro neighborhood of Tegucigalpa and was kicking a soccer ball as soon as he could walk. During World Cup qualifying cycles, he flies back home to watch matches between his beloved Los Catrachos and Mexico. “If we beat El Tri, the celebration doesn’t end for days,” he says. “How can I miss it?” Every three months, he tells his wife and teammates that he’s going to quit one of his four indoor leagues to spend more time at home. He never keeps his promise.
Diaz is only one of millions of soccer fans around the world. More than a billion people watched the World Cup final in 2014. But the sport’s popularity in the United States has waxed and waned over the last few decades, only recently establishing itself as a mainstream spectator sport. A particular American invention of the mid 20th century was indoor soccer, replacing grass with artificial turf, reducing the size of the pitch, and cutting the number of players.
In 1978, the first professional indoor soccer league in the U.S., the Major Indoor Soccer League, debuted. Professional indoor soccer, however, never really caught on. The MISL folded in 1992, and two other reincarnations have met the same fate. The most notable league currently is the Major Arena Soccer League, founded in 2008.
More like arena football than the NFL, the sport has found popularity regionally and on semipro and amateur circuits. Relatively cheap to produce, indoor soccer requires only six players and can be played year-round. It is fast-paced, with an emphasis on quick movements, ball skill, and a smart use of the walls that encircle fields, similar to hockey rinks.
Indoor soccer arrived in Knoxville in the early 1990s, housed inside what is now the parts department of a Honda dealership on Kingston Pike. Known as the Soccer House, the complex served as home to the semipro Knoxville Impact and recreational leagues. A few years later, Filip Leander and Preston Dixon opened a larger, multipurpose facility to host indoor soccer, dodgeball, inline hockey, flag football, and lacrosse leagues.
“We opened Thunderplex in November and booked out the youth league within 72 hours,” Leander says. “We didn’t know how to even handle that influx of money. In the first year, during the cold season, we’d have to start on weekends at 7:30 a.m. and play through midnight to accommodate everybody.”
Those early efforts laid the foundation for the current indoor boom in Knoxville. But just as indoor soccer has exploded in popularity here, it’s also being played more in countries with stronger outdoor traditions. The World Minifootball Federation, formed in 2013, is the international governing body for the sport, and counts 23 countries among its members. MASL, the world’s foremost professional indoor league, has two teams based in Mexico and another in Canada.
“When this indoor soccer craze started in Knoxville it was a lot of American guys, but now look,” says Marco Browning, a 37-year-old former semipro player who coordinates the leagues at Fuse Sportsplex off Papermill Road. “We’ve got all-Mexican teams, Israeli teams, Greek teams. Now you see these guys you would have never met before in Market Square and you’re all friends, even if you try to knock each others’ heads off the night before.”
On Wednesday nights at Fuse, the players from Mexico, dressed in their national team’s jersey, bring their wives, who cheer on their husbands from the sidelines and lay into opposing teams with shouts of “No tienen nada” (“Your team is weak”) and other expletive-filled rants. The husbands swing elbows on the field and celebrate goals like the professionals on TV, holding imaginary matador curtains for imaginary bulls to run through.
Before arriving in Knoxville in 2012, Diaz had only left Honduras once, on the study-abroad exchange to France where he met his wife, Jean, an American who grew up in Kingston. Diaz arrived in East Tennessee without a single local contact and one month later took a job at a regional bank—with no soccer fields in sight.
“Fortunately, I just started meeting people and asking around everywhere,” Diaz says. “Every new league that I played in I made a new connection, and I’m never lacking for soccer now.”
On most weeks, Diaz’s soccer calendar looks like a part-time work schedule: Monday, Fairmont FC (Fuse); Tuesday, Green Dinosaurs (Cool Sports); Friday, Berzerkers (D1); Sunday, Rosario Central (Fuse). On Tuesdays, Diaz might finish a game at 11 p.m. at Cool Sports, drive 30 minutes home, fall asleep, and get up by 6 a.m. to help his wife with their daughter. But it’s a passion that makes him feel at home in a foreign city. Diaz’s friend and occasional teammate Vighter Iberi understands that feeling.
“If it wasn’t for soccer, I wouldn’t even be in the U.S.,” he says.
A postdoctoral research associate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Iberi moved from Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2005 after securing a soccer scholarship at Campbellsville University in Kentucky.
“In Nigeria, our fields were made up of sand, concrete, and grass, and we’d play barefoot,” Iberi says. “But as long as it was bright enough, people were playing outside. Someone would come out at 8 a.m., especially during summer holidays, and wait for people to join, and we’d play five-a-side all day.”
Iberi experienced indoor soccer for the first time in Kentucky, playing at Campbellsville’s facility with teammates from as close as Louisville and Elizabethtown and as far away as England, Argentina, and Costa Rica. He loved how the ball slid perfectly across the turf, unperturbed by the bumps he’d find on grass fields.
After moving to Knoxville in 2009 to start work on his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Tennessee, Iberi played occasionally at the campus intramural fields and picked up at the Zone. One evening, he phoned Mark Ponce, league coordinator for D1, and asked if there were any free-agent spots open for teams in one of his leagues.
“Mark was like, ‘Yeah, you can play on my team,’ and, of course, the first day I was terrible,” Iberi says. “I spent most of the game trying to catch my breath.”
Iberi played on Ponce’s team for four seasons. After winning three championships, he now has a colorful collection of wrinkled T-shirts in his closet.
Angelo Signoracci, another postdoctoral researcher at ORNL, plays on three teams with Diaz and Iberi. Signoracci is from Columbus, Ohio, but worked for two years in Paris after earning his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Michigan State. He and his French girlfriend, Sophie Blondel, met abroad and moved to Knoxville at different points in 2013.
Blondel also plays on the Green Dinosaurs, Berzerkers, and Fairmont FC, although for different reasons. She played pick-up occasionally in France. But, unlike Diaz, Iberi, and Signoracci, who love the competition and the sense of home that soccer brings, Blondel most appreciates the social element of being part of a community—post-game meals at Double Dogs, end-of-season celebrations at players’ houses or Central Flats and Taps, and regular Tuesday night trivia games at Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern.
“Coming here, you don’t know anybody and you expect at work you’ll make the same kind of friendships as at home, but you don’t always have that,” Blondel says. “So when I started to play on Fridays and Mondays, it was like, ‘I’m finally starting to make real friends in Knoxville,’ because it was not happening before.”
A Diverse Community
Soccer is now the second-most popular televised sport in the U.S. for 12- to 24-year-olds. And more Americans bought tickets to the 2014 World Cup than fans from anywhere else in the world, except host Brazil.
What is beautiful about Knoxville’s indoor soccer scene, if it is to be an indication of soccer’s increasing spread throughout the U.S., is the diversity. Players wear Seattle Sounders and Manchester United jerseys, come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and shout commands in a wide range of accents, from East Tennessean to Honduran.
Often the statistics about soccer’s growth in the U.S. are contested, or misunderstood, based on stereotypes of what it means to be American. In the 21st century, being American is increasingly less about skin color, ethnicity, or even language. Diaz’s 2-year-old daughter, Ana Carolina, will almost certainly speak English with the same East Tennessee accent as neighbors who can trace their ancestry to before the Civil War. She may not look “American,” or even support the U.S. national soccer team as an adult, but when she straps on her cleats she’ll be contributing to the sport’s growth as much as anyone else born in the U.S.
Hemant Sharma, a political science lecturer at the University of Tennessee, goalkeeping director for the youth club FC Alliance, and a former pro indoor soccer player, is one of only a few former top-level Indian-American goalkeepers.
“I took a lot of crap from people being the Indian guy,” he says.
Born and raised in Short Hills, N.J., Sharma sounds like he could’ve been a character in Goodfellas and believes soccer can be a powerful tool for blending and creating community. Sharma doesn’t come directly from a soccer culture like Diaz’s, but his parents took him to local pro games as a kid. In college, Sharma was a starter for the nationally ranked Cornell men’s soccer team; in 1996, his senior year, Cornell lost to Rutgers in double overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“With a sport like soccer, you need to make it accessible to people,” Sharma says. “The club system in the U.S. often makes it difficult because it prices out kids of a lower socioeconomic status, so you have to find other ways.”
Most of the adult players in Knoxville’s indoor-soccer leagues pay $40-$60 for an eight-game season. The price averages to less than $10 a week—the same amount it costs per person to rent a turf field to play pick-up with friends.
The problem, as Sharma notes, is the expense for children and teenagers to play soccer in the city. Most kids have two options: recreational AYSO leagues or competitive clubs like FC Alliance, Knoxville Crush, and Blount United. AYSO, which prioritizes participation above competition, costs $95 a season, while fees for competitive clubs can be as high as $1,500 a year.
Derrick Long, the new general manager of the Knoxville Force, sees how these fees can intimidate parents—especially those recently arrived to the U.S. Emerald Youth Foundation, a local faith-based nonprofit that provides after-school programs for kids in the inner city, bought the Force last year and created Emerald Force Soccer Club. The club has organized recreational and travel leagues that serve up to 500 kids in Knoxville. Many of the kids involved in these leagues come from overseas backgrounds, with the larger concentrations of Mexican or Burundian origin.
“For me, the cultures are a little new,” Long says. “I was a director of a club in Missouri and it was mostly white and black Americans—I don’t think I even had one Hispanic kid. So right now I’m learning to communicate with the parents because most of them don’t speak great English. With the kids, it doesn’t matter where they come from—they just want to get the ball in the net.”
In 2014, Emerald held organized futsal—a sport similar to indoor soccer that is often played on turf, minus the walls and with one less field player—on the basketball courts inside its North Central Street headquarters. With construction on EFSC’s 14-acre Sansom Sports Complex outside of the Fort Sanders neighborhood now complete, a combination of futsal and traditional outdoor leagues will be played through the summer. The price for summer futsal, starting in June, is $40 for 10 games and two jerseys.
These leagues will help include players with backgrounds similar to Hussan al-Wadei, a Yemeni immigrant who grew up in an apartment complex three miles west of EFSC’s facility.
Al-Wadei, a recent administrator for a UT pickup soccer Facebook group, spends three or four nights a week playing on the turf at the Tennessee Recreation Center for Students, better known as TRECS, and is a regular indoor player at D1. Al-Wadei never participated in club soccer in Knoxville because it was too expensive.
“Soccer has been a really great thing for me,” al-Wadei says. “Over here, I’ll play with South Koreans, Chinese, Europeans, Africans, South Americans—and now, after the World Cup, there’s a lot more Americans, too. When I started here, I didn’t know how to speak English, but the language is soccer and that’s how I made friends.”
The Berzerkers players are at Double Dogs again in late February, after the conclusion of another league session.
In the night’s first playoff game, the team lost 2-1 to eventual champions the Unknowns. The Berzerkers’ reign was over just as it started, a normal occurrence in a soccer scene where teams regularly change players, names, and facilities. The night of their last celebration isn’t too different from the one of their dethroning; there are still beers, burgers, and hot wings.
Diaz isn’t too upset. His wife is pregnant with their second child, and he wants to take a step back
from Friday soccer, as well as some of his other leagues, to spend more time at home before the baby comes. “Anyway, it was best the Berzerkers didn’t win a fourth session,” he jokes, “or someone might accuse us of taking performance-enhancing drugs.”
Signoracci offers Diaz a departing handshake. Blondel kisses Diaz once on each cheek, a traditional French farewell, and says she’ll see him on Monday night for Fairmont FC’s game against Real Internationals.
It’s almost midnight and the hundred or so players that flooded D1 have trickled down to a dozen who are all, too, heading for their cars. The balls have long been put away and the sweat-soaked pinnies are in someone’s trunk ready to be washed for Monday night.
In one week, the process starts again. Friends, former college players, co-workers, and family members rejoin each other on Knoxville’s turf fields, fighting for bragging rights, and a wrinkled T-shirt.
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