League of Nations: Immigrant soccer players from across the globe go balls out at a tiny park in north St. Louis

On a recent Sunday in north St. Louis' DeSoto Park, several hundred onlookers are gathered around two rocky soccer fields. On this sun-kissed afternoon they've come to see a group of weekend warriors do battle in the city's most hard-core amateur soccer league: La Liga Latino Americana de Fútbol.

Brian Bourgschulte, a forward for Real Mardel, a squad mostly composed of Saint Louis University alumni and native St. Louisans, has just scored to put his team up 2-0 over Dinamo, a predominantly Hispanic team. After his goal, the brawny Bourgschulte fights for control of the ball with a rail-thin Dinamo player who sports a ponytail.

As he blocks out his opponent, the frustrated foe responds with a kick that deliberately misses the real target — the ball — and lands squarely on Bourgschulte's groin. He crumples in agony, though a split second later he's up, throwing a wild haymaker that gets him ejected, all of which prompts both benches to berate the referee — the Mardel team in English, Dinamo in Spanish.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

From the sidelines, Bourgie, as he's known to teammates, pauses amid the jumble of multilingual cursing to discuss the afternoon's roguish play that led to his testicular troubles. "This was only the second red card I've gotten in this league, and I've played 500 games or so. But then again, I've never gotten kicked in the balls intentionally before."

A graduate of Parkway West High School and a full-time soccer bum, Bourgschulte plays in two other weekly leagues, but says La Liga is "by far the best in terms of competitiveness."

Nearly two decades old, the league has grown from a weekend assemblage of 4 teams — all hailing from the same small town in southwestern Mexico — to 28 teams, with more than 1,000 players representing nearly every corner of the map: Nigeria, Kenya, Iraq, Brazil and Hungary among them. Virtually every country in Latin America fields at least one player, while two, El Salvador and Honduras, have their own teams.

"The more competitive the soccer game is, the more heated it gets. Plus people from Europe and Mexico, or South America, they take the soccer so serious," says the league's president, Alberto Gutierrez. "Generally speaking, they want to win no matter what."

The smell of Mexican food wafts across DeSoto Park, emanating from food vendors who, on soccer Sundays, throw up tents around the fields to cater to hungry players and their families.

With a propane-powered griddle for warming tortillas and a barbecue to grill large cuts of flank steak, one family cooks authentic asada tacos: They chop the meat into small pieces on a wooden block and sprinkle it with onions and cilantro. Others sell traditional Mexican street fare including bags of fresh fruit and chicharrones — crisp-fried pork skins.

A few blocks from the boarded-up buildings along Martin Luther King Boulevard, the soccer fields in this African-American neighborhood are surrounded by mixed-income public housing. Here, in the shadows of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, is an unexpected place to find such a large congregation of the area's Hispanic population on a Sunday afternoon.

Though there's a diverse mix of players, virtually no African-Americans play in the league. Occasionally neighbors will gather on their porches across the street and half-heartedly pay attention to the action. It seems the only local to interact with the Hispanic crowd is a haggard man who rides his bicycle around and collects recyclable beer cans that have been discarded by spectators.

"It's like everybody knows they're coming on Sunday so everybody else stays out of the park," says April Ford-Griffin, the 5th Ward alderwoman who lives a few blocks from DeSoto. "I don't know what the divide is. It doesn't take a lot of equipment to play soccer, but even so, a lot of African-American children aren't exposed to soccer."

Depending on the popularity of the teams playing, crowds of several hundred people might encircle the fields, from the season's beginning in April to its October finale. Grizzled old Mexican men pace the sidelines, drinking cans of Busch beer and heckling the referees in Spanish. Money slyly changes hands in friendly wagers. Women line up in chairs to gossip and watch their children and husbands play.

"No girls on the field," Alberto Gutierrez intones in accented English. "The men don't feel comfortable playing against girls. One time a girl played for a couple games; she was good, she played in college, but the teams didn't want it."

It's a good atmosphere now," adds Gutierrez, whose broad smile reveals a gold-capped tooth. "It wasn't like that years ago. This used to be empty, ugly housing projects and the field used to be like a trash can. Little by little it's changing."

To the chagrin of many in the league, what hasn't changed is the poor quality of the playing fields. During halftime at one recent match, players were forced to excavate two chunks of concrete the size of dictionaries from midfield and carry them off the pitch.

"There's a sewer lid on that field," complains Carlos Gomez, coach of the team Real El Llano. "The only thing holding the league back is the fields."

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