Still Kicking

A man kicking a soccer ball with rugged blue, yellow and black design elements, the title "still kicking, over-40 soccer club is now over 40.
Mark Houghton is on the over-40 team, which plays Saturdays in the spring and fall.

“I think a lot of people who live in Mt. Lebanon don’t even know this exists.”

Dell Avenue resident Adam Marks is referring to the Mt. Lebanon Adult Soccer Club, and he is probably right—even though the club celebrated its 40th anniversary last year.

The club—known as the Buffalo Chips—comprises over-40 and over-50 teams. They play in the PA West Soccer Association, the same governing body that oversees the competitive youth teams. The 40s team plays every Saturday, April through June in the spring, then picks up again in the fall. The 50s team plays the same schedule on Sundays.

Marks, 47, has been on the team for seven years, after learning about it through his brother, who was already playing.  Currently both teams have about 20 players, but “We need more people, and our goal is to raise awareness,” Marks said.

Marks and Mike Leahy are co-managers of the club. Leahy is 49 and he sometimes switches between the over-40 and over-50 teams, depending on the number of players available. He joined the club when he was 40 and playing on another team, and someone approached a teammate and asked if he would like to join Mt.  Lebanon. The teammate did not, but suggested Leahy might be interested. “He gave him my number, and sure enough, I started playing; but I didn’t know the team existed, and I live here.”

Leahy, Hazel Drive, explained one of their responsibilities as managers is to “ensure that we have enough players on the team—and that’s no easy task.”

two men standing with their arms crossed, smiling wearing Mt. Lebanon FC shirts.
Adam Marks, left, and Mike Leahy are co-managers of the Buffalo Chips, Mt. Lebanon’s entry in the over-40 and over-50 divisions of the PA West Soccer Association.

The club has two requirements for joining: interested parties must be “half decent” at soccer, to quote Leahy, and must also be residents of Mt. Lebanon, although the latter is sometimes difficult to enforce. Leahy recalled a man who was a Mt. Lebanon graduate who is living in Shadyside but wanted to join the team. “He’s looking for a house in Mt. Lebanon, and I said, ‘Call us when you buy one.’ He’s really good, but it’s a conversation that had to be had. We’ve got to be fair.”

There’s a reason for the Mt. Lebanon exclusivity. “The Mt. Lebanon-only thing is important because I’ve played on different teams that are a hodgepodge of people around Pittsburgh, and when things don’t go well those teams just fold,” Marks said. “But there’s something about the Mt. Lebanon camaraderie that’s so much more than just getting together to play soccer.”

a man running and kicking a soccer ball, people in the background.
The club holds pickup games Sunday mornings at 10 at the high school. Prospective club members are encouraged to play as a preview of what to expect. Pictured: Matt Stuart, with Mark Houghton in the background.

The players form a diverse group. “There’s a heart surgeon, a U.S. district attorney, teachers, veterinarians, a nuclear engineer, multiple Ph.D.s, small business owners,” said Marks, who works at CMU as a training manager.” Leahy, a real estate appraiser for CBRE,  added, “It forms a nice network. You can send out an email, ‘I need a babysitter or I need a plumber.’ It’s like Angie’s List.”

The club is looking for new players, but Leahy admitted, “It is a struggle for us to recruit and retain quality players who are from Mt. Lebanon.” The quality angle is important for more than just winning games. “The general stigma is that as you go down in quality, there’s a greater opportunity to get hurt by somebody who’s not a finesse player, he added. “At our age, quality players know how to tackle and not get hurt.”

Pick-up games—open to anybody—are played Sundays at 10 a.m. at the Rockpile, the upper field at the high school. According to Marks, if you’re interested in joining the Chips, this is where you’ll figure out if this is for you. “Unless a new player is strongly vouched for, we want to meet them and get to know them. If they come Sunday morning, they will recognize the level we’re playing. It’s competitive, it’s high, at (age) 40-level. If you want to be a part of the team, you have to fit in, have the right culture.” Leahy added, “You can’t be somebody who’s going to be divisive, because that’s going to take the fun out of it.”

Chips’ players must be registered with PA West and have a photo ID to play, but Leahy said, “We can get you your card right away.”

Leahy emphasized that competitiveness is definitely a major point. He said if the team gets relegated, there are people “who take a hard look at whether they want to continue, because they want to play at the highest level.” Relegation occurs in the English Premier League when the three teams with the fewest number of points drop down to a lower division for the next season.

“We have (relegation) in the league we play in,” Leahy said. “But there’s a certain segment of people who want to play at the highest level, whatever age they are. And when they get relegated, the conversation becomes, ‘Are you going to stick with us?'”

A man jumping in the air hitting a soccer ball with his head, another man has his back to him bumping into him.
The club is considering starting an over-30 team as a way to ensure a stream of players for the existing teams. Pictured: Keith Hamilton.

Leahy compared the interest in the Mt. Lebanon club to the growth of soccer in general in the United States. “In that 40-year span, soccer has changed dramatically in this country,” he said. “It was very fledgling in the minds of people, and now the United States is going to be hosting the World Cup in four years. It’s come a long way.” He said just like in the nation, the Mt. Lebanon adult league “has gone from a casual thing to something that is very competitive. It has evolved, and the people who are playing with us now have played at a high level.”

The Chips are also considering a 30s team if there’s enough interest. “Having a 30s team is what feeds the 40s team, and the 40s feed the 50s,” Leahy said. “It’s all about maintaining the club for the next 40 years. The opportunity is there because we know a lot of people who show up at our pick-up games who are just not old enough yet. We’re trying to get the word out, that if people in their 30s have an interest in soccer and want to play at a competitive level, they can get in touch with us. We need that person in their 30s who’s passionate enough to step up and say yeah, I want to do that.”

Photo credit: Marilee Kline