Queensboro FC: the team aiming to represent an area with 130 languages

Queensboro FC: the team aiming to represent an area with 130 languages

In most of the world, from the favelas of Brazil to the working-class streets of London and Lagos, soccer is seen as the people’s game. A sport where all you need to play is a ball and a flat piece of ground.

In the US however, it is often seen as the pastime for the kids of well-heeled suburbanites, who can afford expensive coaching and the hefty fees required to join junior teams. Thus, we see soccer in the United States as it is today: serving mostly the white, wealthy and well-connected. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic said during his brief time with LA Galaxy, “…not everyone has the money needed and the sport should be something for everyone, because it unites races and people.”

But there always remains a possibility for change, and Queensboro FC is hoping to reclaim the communal nature of soccer. The club was founded in 2019 and will join the USL Championship, effectively the second tier of the US soccer pyramid, in 2022. Based in the New York City borough of Queens, it is already representative of a more diverse model of soccer in America. It is based in one of the most diverse urban areas in the world – more than 130 languages are spoken in the borough – and its stadium is currently being constructed on the campus of a public college. Such early developments suggest the team will encapsulate Queens’ multicultural identity.

Queensboro’s ownership, which includes soccer legends David Villa and Aly Wagner, only raises expectations. But big-name backers don’t mean the club is disconnected from its roots. Players like Piero Elias, of Peruvian heritage, and Jose Lopez, a recent addition to the Puerto Rican senior national team, reflect the Latinx communities that make Queens a bastion for soccer fanatics.

Club president Adam Schneider is dedicated to creating a place that soccer fans in Queens can call home. “It’s about creating an environment, a physical space, in a community for people of diverse backgrounds to come together and support a local institution,” he tells the Guardian. “Sports brings people together and that is the guiding principle.”

Even in its early stages, Queensboro FC is working to materially connect with the people it represents. The club launched an initiative that raised money for hospitals across Queens, helping the community in the “ground zero” of the Covid-19 pandemic within the US.

Queensboro FC is also creating the first soccer-specific stadium in New York City, and its place on CUNY York College’s campus is more than just symbolic. “We have complementary objectives with CUNY,” Schneider says. “Our goal is to yield sustainable, multigenerational benefits for the community. For example, the stadium is going to be the home for the university’s commencements, athletic activities, and community events. We’re going to be developing in-class seminars, clinics for underprivileged kids in the neighborhood … We’re a facility for use by the students and community generally.”

When asked about Queensboro FC’s dedication to increasing equity in American soccer, Schneider is emphatic: “If a person can’t pay $30 for tryouts, that’s no deterrent to us. Our mission is to get the best soccer players,” he says. “Our focus is to build a strong academy, a strong team that plays well, that Queens can be proud of. Queens is a gateway to the world.”

This is far from the wealth and whiteness typically associated with American soccer. The players credit Queensboro staff with pushing the club forward, attuned to a goal of inclusivity.

“Everyone is international. We speak a lot of Spanish in the team, everyone really gets on well with everyone. It’s been like a family,” says Lopez, who was spotted at a tryout for the team in Puerto Rico and was soon the team’s striker. “Queensboro FC is mirroring the basis of Queens. Every player is from everywhere. Everyone is treating each other like family … The coaching staff support you in every way.”

Elias, meanwhile, is a native of Queens. The midfielder trained with Peru’s Under-20 team a year prior to joining Queensboro. He heard of tryouts for Queensboro FC through a pamphlet, and he was called up to the team shortly afterwards.

“It’s like family. I’m from here, it’s the first team to ever exist in Queens, and I was one of the first players to sign. It’s very special to me,” he says. “It also helps on the field, all the different styles of play from different countries … When we play teams that are just from here, they see something they haven’t really seen before. It gives us a little advantage.”

In accordance with the club’s philosophy of developing players for careers outside the US, players are connected with professional clubs abroad. Elias has been in contact with clubs in Europe already. “Instead of winning games, they care about us developing first,” he says. “Queens has a lot of talent. The talent is just going to keep coming.”

Queensboro’s coach, Josep Gombau, is no stranger to soccer’s international reach. He worked with Barcelona’s youth team before spells in Australia and India. He also emphasizes the club’s focus on uplifting players.

“I work a lot with youth players. I came from FC Barcelona, I work with the youth – I always try to improve my players.” Gombau says. “It’s not just winning games. We try to be focused on the development of the players.”

Gombau and his team began work a year ago, in early 2020, scouting young players from Queens to form the first-team roster. “We want to try to have as much players from Queens as possible,” he says.

And Gombau knows that in a place like Queens that means a diverse roster. “In this club, there will be people from around the world, and I already worked with a lot of people from around the world,” he says.

The club engages in outreach outside New York, with tryouts also taking place in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. And it also wants to make sure that money is no barrier to entry.

“There are many, many academies that charge a lot of money to play soccer,” says Gombau. “Our club is different. This means that our programs are fully funded. In Queensboro II [the club’s academy team], for example … Everything is fully funded. We pay for everything – for the facilities, clothes, trips.”

There will be opportunities for female players too. Queensboro FC was recently named as a member of the USL W League, which is scheduled to kick-off in May. “Men’s and women’s [teams] have the same treatment. In less than a year’s time, we will have our first team, the women’s team, Queensboro II. And I hope by September 2022, we will have Under-15, Under-17 – we will have the facilities on both sides, in women’s and men’s,” says Gombau.

Of course building a club takes time, something Gombau is aware of. “We are ambitious. We would like to be one of the biggest clubs. But we need to go slowly – things don’t happen in one day,” Gombau says. “We are in a place, Queens, where the people love our game, and we are in a place where the people have passion.”

Passion is a central building block for a successful soccer club, and Queensboro FC has already made steps towards capturing fans in its community by building a team that looks like the borough. Queensboro FC looks forward to enriching North American soccer with passionate and diverse talent.