By Lindsay Toler
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Gutierrez insists that DeSoto, as well as Marquette Park, just off of Grand Boulevard in south St. Louis and Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, are really the only soccer fields available year-round in the area. He says he's asked the city to work on leveling and restriping, but to no avail.
"We had to do our own repairs on the side on Saturday," Gutierrez says. "St. Louis is a baseball town; you look at those fields, and they're flat and perfectly lined. Soccer — they don't care."
The style of play within the ranks of La Liga Latino Americana de Fútbol alternates between fluid, efficient performances and clunky, lumbering ones. For every man who's in peak shape, there's the guy with an ample beer belly. Many players boast college or semiprofessional soccer experience, while many others have never advanced beyond pickup games.
"They have an amazing first touch. It's a quick tap-tap-tap. You very seldom see a wild kick," recounts Lutkar. "They have phenomenal ball control and a passion for the game. The level of play depends on which team, but sometimes their skill level is as good as any area college."
The potential of La Liga's untapped talent is what first lured Fernando Rodriguez, head coach of the men's and women's soccer teams at Florissant Valley Community College, to referee at DeSoto. A native of Madrid who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, Rodriguez wanted to recruit the league's most gifted young players to his program.
"I saw some kids that were very, very good, that were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old," says Rodriguez, who has lost all but a trace of his Madrileño accent. "They have the talent to play in college, but they're either in this country illegally or have been out of school for years."
Case in point: Darwen Albarada. At seventeen, Albarada is one of the league's youngest players. He starts on the front line of Catrachos Boys, a team of Hondurans that is currently in sixth place. Baby-faced and no more than five-feet,-six-inches tall even with his spiked black hair, Albarada easily holds his own with men twice his age. Asked how he does it, he says in Spanish, "It's simple, they pass me the ball."
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Albarada is Jose Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez is 61 and by far the league's oldest player. With a red bandana hiding his gray hair, he says modestly, "I can still run a little bit."
Gonzalez, who plays for the bottom-tier team Zamora, also has one of the most impressive soccer résumés in the league, even if it's somewhat dated. He has a background in professional soccer, having played two seasons for the Mexican club Pachuca in 1965 and 1966. After immigrating to the United States, he signed on to play for the St. Louis Stars in the now-defunct North American Soccer League. Gonzalez scored a goal in the only game he appeared in during the 1971 season.
Now living in Cahokia, where he operates a machine at a copper refining plant, Gonzalez plays recreational soccer not only in La Liga Latino, but also in a 60-and-older league based in St. Charles. "I'll keep playing as long as I don't have injuries, as long as I stay healthy," Gonzalez says. "I love the game. I don't know when I'll quit. Every now and then I pull a muscle, but that's normal. I did that when I was young."
There is no shortage of colorful clubs and players in La Liga. Cobras, currently second in league standings, wears the same uniforms as the elite Champions League team FC Barcelona. Their starting lineup features Hispanic and African players from six different countries. One team member, like their squad's European counterpart, is a Brazilian with a curly ponytail. Naturally, his teammates call him "Dinho," after Barcelona's Brazilian star Ronaldinho.
With players from so many different countries on the field, communication would seem to pose a problem. But the players say it works — as long as they're wearing the same colors.
"It's not hard; it's just the language of soccer," says Barry Meneh, a Nigerian who is one of five African-born players on the club Olimpico. "We don't have to be able to talk to each other for them to give me the ball."
"It does cause problems sometimes," counters Rafael Lopez, a former player for team Alianza who now maintains the league's website, www.futbolstl.com. "If you say a word in a match, the other team's player thinks it's against them."
What is now La Liga Latino was founded in the early 1990s when a small group of friends and family, almost all from the small town of El Llano in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán, would gather to play soccer in Tower Grove Park.
The dramatic changes in the area's Hispanic population over the years help explain the expansion. Census statistics show that from 1990 to 2006, St. Louis' Latin-American population doubled from 15,000 to 28,000.