Albany Empire Soccer Club Celebrates 10 Years
While the coronavirus pandemic continues to limit recreational sports, the Capital Region’s only LGBT soccer club is celebrating 10 years strong. WAMC’s Jesse King spoke with members of the Albany Empire Soccer Club.
Not to be confused with Albany’s newly-revived arena football team of the same name, the Albany Empire Soccer Club has been battling it out on Capital Region fields for a decade. Like many clubs, Chairman Rob Upton says, it all started with a small group of friends looking to pass the time.
“There was just a couple of us that started collecting names of individuals that we knew were interested in soccer, and were part of the LGBT community. And it's gone from there," Upton explains. "We weren’t even initially called Albany Empire. I remember having discussions about ‘What is that name gonna be?’, and how do we pick a name that’s gonna be welcoming to everybody — genders, etc.”
Upton says the club fluctuates between two and three teams and 20 to 50 total members now, but they’re still bouncing around Afrim’s sports centers in Albany County. They play throughout the year, in eight-week sessions that include both weekly games with local teams, and tournaments with LGBT clubs like the Boston Strikers, the Philadelphia Falcons, and the New York Ramblers. Upton says they host their own tournament, the Blizzard Cup, each winter.
"Playing soccer feels like an addiction to me. I love playing soccer."
“If you’re asking how good we are, we have mixed results," Upton admits. "But at the same time, that’s when you’re learning the most. Some of the more boring games are where you’re playing the easiest competitors, and it’s no fun when you’re winning a game 5-0. The games that are most rewarding are the ones where you’re winning 3-2, or you’re tied at the end of the game 1-1.”
Of course, this year has been quieter than most. While Upton says the group got through most of its indoor sessions last winter, COVID-19 changed everything come spring. For the past few weeks, they’ve stretched the fall season as long as they can, taking advantage of a few mild nights to scrimmage outside under Afrim’s floodlights in Colonie.
Club clerk Jay Zhang says the year has been more about reminiscing and keeping people engaged.
"We were able to do some sort of ball-passing training while maintaining social distance to kind of keep people's skills fresh," he adds. "Oh my God, it felt almost unfamiliar because we hadn't really played in a very long time. But it felt great — there's something about getting back on the field and playing that just gave us endorphins. Playing soccer feels [like] an addiction to me, I love playing soccer."
Zhang has been part of the league for seven years, and is usually the first point of contact for new players. Albany Empire accepts all members of the LGBT community, as well as straight allies, who typically find the club via word of mouth, social media, dating apps, or by jumping ship from other teams. And if you don’t know the difference between a corner kick and a caution, Zhang says don’t worry — they’ll help teach you.
Others, like Kate Pauly, live for the game. She's been in the Albany Empire on and off since 2013.
"You know, I've played on women's teams here too, and throughout the years some of my high school teammates had made teams and I played with them — but joining Albany Empire, it's just a lot of great people to be friends with," Pauly says. "You're never lacking in playing the game — there's always a team to join or someone that needs you to sub...Jay had actually seen on social media that I lived back in the area again, and he messaged me before I messaged the club. He just pulled me right back into it."
Indeed, if you ask members for their favorite moment over the past 10 years, you’ll hear a fair share about soccer — but for many, it’s just as much about community. As an official non-profit, Zhang says the group fundraises and volunteers for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and Albany’s Damien Center for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Annual bonding events, like Albany Pride or the league’s tongue-in-cheek "Tops vs. Bottoms" match tend to make the most memories. Upton says it’s about providing a supportive environment for the local LGBT community.
“It’s a really good group of people — not just dedicated to playing soccer, but to each other," he adds. "And it’s an environment where, if you are LGBTQ, it’s a safe environment, something that a lot of people didn’t have growing up. Certainly for me, growing up in a conservative household in Pennsylvania — I didn’t have opportunities to play on LGBTQ teams. I didn’t even know that LGBTQ sports existed.”
In addition to its men’s and co-ed groups, Upton says the team is working on its first all-women’s team. Until then, the Albany Empire Soccer Club is transitioning to indoor matches — COVID-19 permitting — for the winter.