Shouts in different languages bounced around the top floor of a former torpedo factory along the industrial waterfront of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
“Dispara!” “Back to D!” “Vas-y, passe!”
These were the cheers of supporters who’d come to see their friends and relatives play at Socceroof, a 75,000-square-foot indoor soccer facility with 10 fields, an in-house bar and pretty good views of the Statue of Liberty.
Inside that day, there was a Japanese club from Westchester County playing a team representing the Brooklyn Italians Soccer Club in a children’s tournament. The Ecua Boys and Cobras were going at it in an adult competition organized by the Liga Mexicana Infantil de Brooklyn. There were also a few casual pickup games.
Soccer has exploded in New York over the last two decades, creating a high demand for space. Hundreds of teams find themselves competing for permits to play on the city’s public soccer fields; there are only 259 of them, all maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Winter complicates matters, as the Department stops issuing permits for its grass fields. Plus it’s cold and dark in the evenings, which is not ideal for youth play. Most soccer clubs rent indoor spaces in public schools or private gyms. But repurposing basketball courts and tiptoeing around a school’s schedule isn’t ideal. And for casual players who aren’t part of any club, it becomes a real challenge.
Take, for example, Charles Lagayette and Jean-Damien Ladeuil, two Frenchmen who met in business school in Paris, where they bonded over playing soccer. In 2008, during an internship in New York, Mr. Lagayette had trouble finding places in the city to play. Six years later, the two friends returned to the city together to confirm what they sensed was a market opportunity.
“We thought: ‘If it’s hard for us, it’s hard for everyone,’” Mr. Ladeuil said.
Armed with their business degrees and a love of the sport, they decided to fill the void. Little did they know that other entrepreneurs, including another pair of Frenchmen, were pursuing the same thing. Now there are three indoor facilities dedicated to soccer in New York: Socceroof, Sofive Brooklyn and Upper 90 Soccer Center, in Astoria. And they are all thriving.
Mr. Lagayette and Mr. Ladeuil introduced their first facility in New Jersey in 2015. They now own five centers, including Sofive Brooklyn, which opened in late 2018. Located in what used to be a warehouse, Sofive spans an entire block in Brownsville. Its owners are expecting 200,000 players to walk through its doors this year.
When the duo first developed the idea more than 10 years ago, indoor soccer, in particular its five-on-five version that is played in a walled area, was already booming in France, where the game (“le foot à cinq”) attracted mainly young, male professionals who would play after work. Mr. Lagayette and Mr. Ladeuil adapted this model to the American market, which includes more children and women and is structured around leagues and tournaments.
The 10 artificial turf fields at their Brooklyn location are all named after iconic soccer stadiums — including, of course, Paris’s Parc des Princes. Cameras around the facility record games so that customers can watch video highlights on their smartphones. And like Socceroof, there is also a bar.
Jean-David Tartour, one of the two French founders of Socceroof, had already created a successful indoor soccer company in France. But by the mid-2010s, European demand for the sport was maxing out, Mr. Tartour said. So he decided, much like the Sofive founders, to tackle the untapped American market. He partnered with Jérôme Meary, a French agent who represents international Major League Soccer athletes. They opened Socceroof in the industrial waterfront of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in 2018.
Unlike in France, Mr. Tartour explained, New York soccer clubs often don’t have dedicated venues for play, which can cause planning challenges, especially during the colder months.
This was the case for Sporting Club Gjoa, a club of 27 children’s teams based in Brooklyn. Its assistant director, Anthony Brockbank, said his teams used to practice in various high school gyms between early November and mid-March. But it wasn’t ideal.
“You’d have to wait for after-school activities to finish to start practice, which was too late for most families,” Mr. Brockbank said.
Now the club’s teams practice most afternoons at Socceroof. Even though playing there is more expensive than renting school gyms, Mr. Brockbank said the club has been able to balance its budget in other ways, and the earlier practice hours make a difference in children’s participation.
Karim E. Valdés-Habib, 11, who lives in Kensington and whose favorite position is midfielder, practices at Socceroof. He loves the fact that it has a PlayStation 4 and snacks, he said. He also very much prefers Socceroof’s synthetic fields to basketball gyms, which are rougher on the knees when you fall, he explained.
It’s a nice place. But it doesn’t make playing soccer in New York any more affordable. Between Karim and his two brothers, who all play for S.C. Gjoa teams, the family spends around $6,000 a year on soccer.
Many people, of course, can’t afford such prices. But some organizations that work with lower-income players have figured out workarounds.
Brooklyn RISE Charter School, for example, located above a Rite Aid in Sunset Park, doesn’t have a gym.
To make up for it, Cary Finnegan, the school’s head and founder, partnered with Socceroof so that her students could get a class there every Friday. The school, whose students mostly come from low-income families, pays for the program through its own budget.
“It’s been a really good partnership,” Ms. Finnegan said. But she worries about increased costs as the brand-new school’s population grows, she said. “Time will tell if we’ll be able to afford it long term.”
A similar uncertainty agitated a team of teenagers from Brighton Beach who recently played in a league tournament at Socceroof. On top of paying $100 to join the league, which the coach, Juan Carlos Rojas, took care of himself, Mr. Rojas said that the team was charged an additional $60 for referees the day it played at Socceroof. There was also an entrance fee of $4 per player, but Mr. Rojas said he negotiated with the league not to pay it, as his players are all students who don’t work.
According to Mr. Rojas, who works at a hospital cafeteria, teenagers shouldn’t have to shell out that much money to play and have fun. “They do it for business,” he said. Asked if he was referring to his team’s league or Socceroof, he added, “Everyone, it’s all the same.”
Earlier this month at Socceroof, a group of teenage girls from Brooklyn were getting ready to compete in a tournament. One of them, Avery Sachs, said she loved playing there, especially because of the pizza.
“It’s a win-win,” said Avery, 12, whose mother was chatting nearby. “The kids get to play soccer, and the parents get to go to the bar.”