The day before NYCFC beat Montreal for the second time, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jenny Lando, who's a Third Rail SC Executive Board member and head of Light Rail, the goup's youth division. You can reach the Light Rail at lightrailnycfc (at) gmail (dot) com and on Twitter and Facebook as well. Jenny is also a Blue Lady of NYCFC.
Hudson River Blue: How did you first become interested in soccer?
Jenny Lando: I’m a native New Yorker. I grew up in Manhattan. My mom was a single mom, and she’d often have to try to find activities for us. My brother was going to join a soccer clinic, and I have to go along. I’m sitting in the bleachers, and all of the little kids are running around playing soccer, and I find this fascinating. One of the coaches came over and said, "Get off the bench."
My mom, in her 1950s way, thought sports was for boys, but the coach realized there were other kids who could be playing. I was about 8 or 9, and I joined the Manhattan Kickers. I still have the jacket. I played mostly midfield. The field was at the Con Ed station on East 14th Street, at the river. Not very well maintained. We had to play very carefully.
There was one day I recall scoring a goal from the midline, and that was the day I decided to play soccer for the rest of my life. In high school, because of my background, I joined at the varsity level as a Freshman. First game of Junior year, they put me in as left striker, and the field was sloped. I felt my foot come down at a funny angle, and I walked away with a torn ACL and medial meniscus.
That was the end of me playing soccer, three surgeries later. I always felt a love of soccer, but I felt like I had been kicked out of it. I stopped watching it and playing it, and a year later, I went to college. Soccer, for a long time, became something I didn’t want to have an affiliation with, because I couldn’t.
HRB: How did you get back into it as an adult?
JL: I didn’t follow soccer again until I had kids. I met parents who said, "let’s get the four year-olds together and run them around." I had immediate flashbacks to my mom doing that for my brother and me. My older daughter, when she was four, joined a league we have here in Astoria, called Soc Roc. It was just teaching them not to use their hands, which is hard. It’s not really teaching them the sport yet, but it was an activity.
The following year, my daughter didn’t want to go back. She wanted to stay in her dance class. She’s ten now, and completing her eighth year in dance school. My second kid, we didn’t push her to do it. Around that time, the 2010 Men’s World Cup happened, and we would watch some of the games at lunch, and a local restaurant would match the meals to the teams that were playing. Astoria is one of the most diverse places in the world, so it makes sense for a business to reach out to a variety of cultures. So, my daughter Nora started to equate eating really fun food with soccer.
This most recent Men’s World Cup, both girls watched almost every game they could. They had the official sticker book. They were talking about plays, based on what the announcers were saying. Up until then, they didn’t know why Mama had those scars on her legs, or what that jacket hanging in the closet was all about.
HRB: How did you first find out about NYCFC?
JL: It was during that time. I would be online checking soccer scores, and Facebook would start putting more soccer-related stuff in my feed. A whole thing came up about NYCFC.
I didn’t follow MLS. I had never once considered going to a Red Bulls game. I immediately loved the concept of NYCFC. If my girls are into soccer, I decided we’re going to start watching it locally. It isn’t all just the World Cup. They said they just wanted to be fans, and not play on a team, but at the same time, their soccer ball was going back out onto the playground more often, and they were relating their plays back to things they had seen.
HRB: How did you get involved with the Third Rail?
JL: In an article I read about NYCFC, there was a mention of a supporters group forming, and there was a link to a Facebook page. The very beginnings of Third Rail were happening, and they were thinking about how to be a fan group. I bought a membership in 2014, so I’m a charter member. On their initial site, there was an indication there would be a special supporters group for children, which is why I was there in the first place.
In December, the Third Rail held a charity event to collect soccer balls to be donated to local schools. Chance Michaels was there, and I asked what was going on with the kids section. I told him I’m a teacher, and that I’m good with managing kids. He said they didn’t have someone heading up the Light Rail, that they were waiting until the season started to figure it out. Chance asked me to get a feel for how many people in the Family Section, where I sit, would want to get involved. There were a couple of other families, but they didn’t know about the Third Rail yet. Then Zach Lewis messaged me, saying that he had been put in charge of the kids. The idea was to plan a barbecue, but then the season got off to a rocky start for the team.
HRB: How did you become head of the Light Rail?
JL: I got a call from Zach, and he said that he needed to step down, because he had a baby on the way, and his work schedule was keeping him out of town more often. He asked if I was interested in running for the position. Four or five other people threw themselves into the ring, and I won, thanks in large part to many Blue Ladies also being Third Rail members. They rocked the vote.
HRB: How did you get involved with the Blue Ladies?
JL: I don’t even remember how the Blue Ladies came to my attention, but I loved this idea that there were a whole bunch of soccer women, and I knew that if they were interested in soccer, they’d be good people to have a watch party with the kids.
How great would it be to have my girls and these soccer women, who know everything there is to know, in the same room? It’s an informal thing. There’s no membership fee or dues. There’s no hierarchy. They’re getting a lot of things done that other groups are not. Emma Leslie, who’s one of the main Blue Ladies, let me know she heard about activities involving kids and wanted to get involved. Cailey Golden was also very excited to be able to work with kids.
HRB: What are your plans for the Light Rail, and how can people help?
JL: My plan is to get kids who already have an interest in soccer loving it at a different level – specifically as supporters of a particular team, which is different than someone who just likes to kick the ball around the playground, though both are equally valid.
We want to work with kids who never touch a soccer ball all the way up to kids who miss NYCFC matches because they have their own tournaments. Since I’ve come on board, we’ve been updating our roster of kids, and now we have age groups. We have kids born a few months ago, all the way up to almost 21 year olds (Light Rail consists of kids from birth to 14, but the Director of Light Rail is also overseeing the U21 group, which is the 15 to almost 21 year olds). To be on the Light Rail list, at least one parent needs to be a paying member of the Third Rail.
We do have a few amazing Third Rail members who are 15, 17, 18 years old, who are paying members all on their own. It’s fascinating for me to wonder whether my kids, when they’re that age, are going to be as involved. We have an amazing range of kids. We just sent out another email to Third Rail members: "Please fill out the form if you have children." I’d like the kids to escort the players and be the flag people on the field. The front office said that’s going to happen. We’re waiting until back-to-school time, so we’re looking at fall games. The front office told me they’ll get back to me with a date. 14 to 18 year-olds are chosen as ball kids.
So, we have an opportunity for older Light Railers to get on the field during the game. The process is still being determined. All the other escorts or ball people, there’s some more commercial method of getting them out there. The front office knows the Third Rail is, at the moment, the only officially-recognized supporters group, and this is a very easy way to say thank you to them.
I would love to do a Light Rail takeover of the Supporters Section. The players are excellent at coming over and thanking the fans in the Supporters Section. Wouldn’t it be great if all the kids were in one place, for one game, to get that response? We’re going to try to have scrimmages set up at a barbecue. I’ve requested from the front office that there be at least one player liaison, if not two or three, to come to the barbecue and other events throughout each season (and perhaps even in the off season).
HRB: Have you been pleased with the front office so far?
JL: I was surprised to learn there had never been a face-to-face meeting with the front office until last month, and I was at that meeting. They were very responsive. They have a big job to do, and they’re part of a larger structure. They’re part of MLS. They have larger issues. There’s sometimes a whole lot of pushback on issues they have no control over.
They’re thrilled about the support they’re receiving, ride or die. They’re thrilled with how many seats are getting filled, who’s filling those seats, and what’s being said in the seats. But it's hard to take the Supporters Section and have everyone be their authentic selves within the limits set by MLS. This issue about smoke in the stands is a serious one for a variety of reasons. Partially because of Yankee Stadium, and partially because smoke is viewed in a variety of ways, between supporters and front offices.
NYCFC President Tom Glick was in our meeting. He was taking notes. Glick recognizes that smoke is an authentic part of soccer culture, but we have to recognize that NYCFC is borrowing this space from Yankee Stadium for now. We’re not even home yet. House rules apply. Getting that message to a Supporters Section made of a variety of groups is sometimes difficult.
HRB: Any thoughts about the stadium situation?
JL: I know there was a big push for Flushing Meadows, and I think that could be revisited. Creating a sports complex in a larger park, near tennis, might return to the table. I loved the concept of Columbia’s Baker Field. There could be parking by the Target over the bridge in the Bronx. New Yorkers can walk two blocks. It’s a beautiful stadium on a river. What more could anyone want? NYCFC could not ever build their own stadium outside of the five boroughs. NYCFC has to be in NYC or they’ve lost credibility.
HRB: Why do you think soccer is such a good thing for young people?
JL: I think soccer is a universal idea. From birth, if they can’t pick something up with their hands, kids will try to move it with their feet. We’re bipeds, and our feet touch things before the rest of us does. Kids kick snow, rocks, cans, whatever. The mechanism of soccer is already in their little bodies.
Balls of any size, if there’s one on the ground, the kid will kick it. When it comes to accessibility to kids of all ages, the rules of soccer already apply. Soccer balls are an easy thing to purchase. Soccer is for everyone, already. It crosses gender roles. In terms of pricing, you can find a cheap ball that functions for $5 or $10. It’s an affordable piece of equipment to get for anyone. There’s no reason any child in America shouldn’t have a soccer ball.
Kids don’t need to speak a certain language to play. A group of kids who can’t communicate with each other in words, if you give them a ball, they know what to do with it. It’s a global sport with a universal message: let’s play.