FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Claudio Reyna vividly remembers the moments that helped shape him as a future soccer star: the games in his backyard against his brother and father and playing against men at Meisel Field in Springfield, N.J.
They’d lay down shirts for goals in a small-sided games. Teams were picked. If the game got lopsided, the squads were mixed up again.
“I remember I was running around and the older guys were nice to me until I was really good,” Reyna said. “I remember one day they were like OK, we’re going to take him serious and start tackling him and taking the ball away.”
New York City FC’s sporting director’s favorite memories, though, were at Farcher’s Grove in Union, N.J.
“It was just a dirt field and there were no blades of grass on it, there were rocks everywhere and I didn’t care at all,” Reyna said. “For me it was my favorite stadium and the best memories I had growing up.”
Reyna can’t share that experience, visually at least, with his children because Farcher’s Grove is no more. But on Thursday in the middle of soccer-crazed Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, New York City FC unveiled the latest mini pitch, the 30th of its kind that has sprouted up in all five of New York City’s boroughs.
This is a memory today’s children will get to share for a lifetime.
“I can only imagine if I lived around here and I was their age, I’d want to be here every day and playing,” Reyna said. “Soccer, when you first play, you fall in love with it for just the fun of the ball and scoring goals and that’s what it is here. It’s just planting a seed.”
Partnering with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, U.S. Soccer Foundation, Adidas and Etihad Airways, the New York City Soccer Initiative was launched in 2016. The $3 million public-private partnership plans to build and maintain 50 mini-pitches across the city over five years.
“When we invest in recreational spaces for our children, it is more than designating a play space,” New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray said. “We energize entire communities and bring neighbors together for positive and healthy social experiences.”
NYCFC chief executive officer Brad Sims said Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was a location the club targeted for a mini-pitch since the initiative started.
“As everyone knows, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park has an amazing soccer culture, a diverse community and huge soccer fans,” he said.
It’s a park Queens City Councilman Francisco Moya said he learned to play soccer as a kid growing up in Corona.
“When we say ‘welcome to Queens,’ we welcome you to the world’s borough, where you have 170 languages spoken, 200 nationalities all residing right here,” he said. “But the one language that we all speak is soccer. We know how important this means to our community.”
Justin Haak, NYCFC’s first homegrown player from the five boroughs, grew up in Brooklyn and played soccer in his formative years at the Metropolitan Oval in Queens and at East River Park in Manhattan.
“Every time you play, it’s just a little bit more experience. And you learn from it. So I think the kids that get to use this field, they’re going to learn a lot from it,” Haak said. “It’s really special because I think you’re going to see a lot more kids now wanting to play soccer and being a lot more interested in the sport. And it’s really good. It’s what we need.”
Haak said although he didn’t grow up with the blue mini pitch like the kids in the pickup game at the unveiling. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still enjoy them.
“Maybe I’ll get a group of guys and come play on one of these fields,” he said.
As part of the ceremony Thursday, a photo exhibit featuring submissions from young New Yorkers documenting the soccer culture in their communities through photography was on display. NYCFC captain Alex Ring announced the winner of the photo contest, Kweku Brew, whose photos featured a mini-pitch in the Bronx where “everyone practices, comes to play, and learns about each other and the about the game.”
The mini-pitch at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was one of 10 to open by the end of 2019 — two in Queens, three in Brooklyn, three in Manhattan, one in the Bronx and one on Staten Island.