News & Politics

Democrats and Republicans Pass Balls, Not Bills, at Congressional Soccer Game

The GOP won the ninth iteration of the charity game Wednesday night.

Photograph by Arya Hodjat.

Jose Mercado, DoorDash’s head of congressional affairs, had finally secured a one-on-one meeting with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA). Mercado paused for a moment, then lofted a ball past the onetime presidential candidate’s fingertips into the back of the net at Audi Field.

Mercado’s team, the Republicans, had just gone up 4-2 in the Congressional Soccer Game. The charity event, held by the US Soccer Foundation, lets legislators (and a few lobbyists and congressional staffers) play alongside former MLS stars, with proceeds going toward youth soccer programs in underserved communities.

Wednesday’s fixture—which the GOP would win, 4-3—marked the ninth iteration of the game, played annually since 2013 (except for 2020 and 2021 games, which were cancelled due to the pandemic).

Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL), co-chair of the Congressional Soccer Caucus and a center-back in the GOP’s starting eleven, told reporters pre-game the match represented “a great opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to come together.”

“We’re raising money for youth soccer, and not talking about politics,” LaHood said.

Of course, nothing in DC is truly apolitical. The moment the last notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” rang through Audi Field, a group of viewers in the front row, bearing Palestinian flags, broke into chants of “blood is on your hands” and “genocide is not a game.”

The members of Congress, for their part, did not interact with the demonstrators, who left 10 minutes into the game.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators at the Congressional Soccer Game.
Photograph by Arya Hodjat.

Most attendees, however, were there to support a specific member of Congress. Rep. Greg Casar (D-TX) had his own subsection of supporters in the stands, wearing shirts with “Team Casar.” As did Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), with one sign reading “SCORE A HAT TRICK, RICK!”

Larsen—also a co-chair of the Congressional Soccer Caucus—was kept scoreless after spraining his instep during the match.  He’d managed to play through it, icing his foot on the sidelines during a break in play.

For Larsen, a lifelong soccer fan, this game (his sixth), had added importance. With the World Cup coming to the United States in 2026, Larsen said he views it as a recruiting tool for his caucus.

“If a member doesn’t like soccer, that’s fine, but there are gonna be a lot of people coming to their city spending money, and we want them to recognize that,” Larsen said.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) with fans. Photograph by Arya Hodjat.

This was Rep. Don Bacon’s (R-NE)  eighth time playing the event, which he said gets more competitive each year: “The first time.. we were just jamming and having fun.”

Indeed, there were moments of physicality. Reps. Morgan McGarvey (D-KY) and David Valadao (R-CA) jockeyed for the ball as it headed to the sidelines. Valadao tried to muscle the Louisville Democrat out of possession, and was rewarded for his efforts with a foul. After the referee’s whistle, the two hugged it out.

Rep. David Valadao reacts to getting called for a foul. Photograph by Arya Hodjat.

The congressional tilt was preceded by a mini-tournament amongst embassy staffers, won by Chile, and a game between Congressional staffers and lobbyists (the lobbyists won on penalties).

During the main event, both sides—Republicans kitted in red, Democrats in blue— were bolstered by a veteran MLS presence. Longtime DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid platooned with Swalwell in the net, making several key saves, while Dwayne De Rosario, the Canadian forward who won MLS MVP with DC United in 2011, netted a hat trick for the blue team.

On the other side of the aisle—or, soccer pitch—ex-US men’s national team legend Alexi Lalas prowled the sidelines as the Republican coach.

Lalas, who represented the United States in the 1994 World Cup, the last time it was held on American soil, said the Congressional locker room wasn’t too different from those he saw as a player, with plenty of egos to manage. But, it “warmed the cockles of his American heart” to see both parties exhibit good sportsmanship on the field.

“Yes, there were moments of competition, moments that you’d maybe like to take back,” Lalas said. “But the moments of beauty, moments of romance, moments of togetherness… that’s what gratified me today.”

Arya Hodjat
Editorial Fellow