On a brisk October night, two cultures collided on a football field in Petworth.
Jose Cazun sat in the cold, silver stands of Roosevelt High School and watched his classmates run up and down half the field in a game of pickup soccer. The players were Latino and African immigrants in their 20s, playing on the public-use field in their street clothes.
“Rapido!” the players shouted as a man in nylon shorts set up a shot on goal. The man kicked. But as Cazun and his friends watched the ball soar, two staff members lifted the goal post away. The ball fell to the ground, and the players began a familiar march to the stadium’s stands.
Where were the staffers taking the goal post? To the other half of the field, where another group of players was warming up. They, too, were in their 20s. They, too, were playing the world’s most popular game, but as a formalized soccer league with a permit to use the field. They were college-educated, color-coordinated and almost all white.
“Every day, at 7:30, the same thing,” Cazun said with the cadence of his native El Salvador. “We get to play until the white people kick us out.”’
The pickup players could also get permits. But for them, that isn’t soccer. They come from places where the game is spontaneous and messy, with teams formed from whomever shows up and games going until it got too dark. Nobody, Cazun said, should have to pay.
So each night, the Beautiful Game gets awkward. And the playing field becomes neighborhood parable: black and brown immigrants on one side, upwardly mobile whites on the other.
Though both sides share the same field, they don’t see the same game.
“It’s great to go there and see people of various races all together,’’ said Ben Paul, 29, a league player who lives in the U Street corridor. “I guess we don’t talk to them very much, but it adds a wonderful feeling to the stadium to have them there.”
It is a subtly tense coexistence until the league takes over the entire field for its games.
“They don’t like us very much,’’ said Cazun, 24, of Petworth. “When they leave, they don’t even say anything to us. The only thing they’ll say is, ‘Hey, time to go.’ Or, ‘You have five minutes left.’ ”
In the District, at least, even the vagaries of park use are political. Just who has a right to public space, and when?
The nonprofit league outgrew his expectations. In three years, the number of registered teams jumped from 75 to 250. To meet the interest, play spread from a park in Adams Morgan to the high school football stadiums in Anacostia, Columbia Heights and, in 2010, Petworth.
Bearman drafted a use plan and filled out a two-page application and an insurance waiver, all of which were approved by the school system and the District’s Department of General Services. The league pays $95 per hour for the field.
“It required a lot of hustle, a lot of phone calls and a lot of effort on our part,’’ said Bearman, 32.
The glow of Roosevelt’s floodlights attracts more than 50 players nightly to the field.
As night descended, two black teenagers were in a corner of the field, shadow-boxing. Middle-aged whites, blacks and Latinos jogged around the track. The pickup players continued playing.
At 6:45 p.m., the parking lot filled with Priuses and sport-utility vehicles with license plates from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Paul, who plays for the Lions, stepped onto the field in his team’s orange uniform. His teammates work with him at a start-up Internet company in Landover. They play the game in the same way they’ve played it since they were kids: in a league with dues-paying members and schedules and fixed teams and time limits.
“We all work together, but we get to know each other through playing here,” Paul said. “And we tend to be pretty competitive.”
Cazun works in construction during the day. He envisions attending the University of the District of Columbia and becoming a mortician. For now, he takes GED classes at Roosevelt, as do several players, before the pickup games.
“We come here to chill, my friend,” he said as his fellow players caught their breath on the stands.
Six months ago, Cazun said, he searched D.C. Web sites to learn how permitting works. His friends showed little interest. Waivers? Phone calls? They just wanted to kick a ball around.
“They are more organized than we are,’’ said Kevin Rives, at 17 one of the youngest players on the field. “But why is that a problem?”
The pickup players tried going somewhere else. They once used a small spit of sand at Upshur and 14th Streets NW, a few blocks way. But it was dangerous — too little light, too many stones. Players sprained ankles, broke hands.
“Other fields nearby have the same problem,’’ Rives said.
John Stokes, a spokesman for the District’s parks department, understands their concern. He said his agency, much like the Department of General Services that oversees school property, tries to reserve time for general community use, but the task gets harder each year. This year, the parks department received 5,300 applications to reserve space at the city’s parks and fields. They reject about half of them.
“It’s extremely difficult” to accommodate everyone, Stokes said. “There are just so many leagues now.’’
No one is doing anything wrong. No one is outwardly cruel to others. Yet the differences often come to the surface: in the interpretation of a smile or stare, or in the willingness of one half of the field to wait for the other side’s winning goal.
“I’m as passionate about soccer as they are, and it troubles me a little bit that some people don’t get access to playing,” said Bearman, who said he’d be more than happy if any pickup players joined the league, which costs about $85 per season. “Everyone should play.”
“I don’t have much to say to them,’’ Cazun said. “We just want to play. We only wish there was more time.”
At 8 p.m., Paul and the Lions were still running up and down the field. Later, his co-workers would head to a local bar for cheap beer and fried pickles.
Cazun looked at his watch, slung his backpack around his shoulder and left the stadium. The pickup players were walking home, alone.
“See you tomorrow,’’ Cazun told a man in the stands. “For how long, I don’t know.”
If you have a story idea about the Washington area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels at firstname.lastname@example.org.