"One of the first teams was from an area around Carondelet Park that was predominantly Spanish. They had the Spanish Society, which fielded some pretty good teams," Lyons says. "The church is where soccer started. Most of the parishes were made up of immigrants: Irish, German, Italian, English. They gathered socially to play soccer."

Lyons explains that the early amateur leagues set the foundation for St. Louis' place in soccer history. The American team that upset England in the 1950 World Cup consisted largely of Italians from the Hill neighborhood. The Cinderella story, widely regarded as the greatest upset in soccer history — England was a 3-1 favorite to win the Cup; the United States, a 500-1 underdog — was the subject of the Hollywood film The Miracle Match. The movie was filmed partially in Marquette Park, one of the secondary fields where La Liga plays each week.

"Play was a little bit rougher back then than it is now," David Litterer, coauthor of The Encyclopedia of American Soccer History and an expert on St. Louis soccer history, says when reached by phone. "Some people liked to have a good fight. The referees weren't cracking down on fighting as much, and it was something the fans could get into."

From fruit carts to taco stands, all types of food vendors encircle the soccer fields at DeSoto Park.
Jennifer Silverberg
From fruit carts to taco stands, all types of food vendors encircle the soccer fields at DeSoto Park.
Alberto Gutierrez has been the president and organizer of La Liga Latino for the past seven years.
Jennifer Silverberg
Alberto Gutierrez has been the president and organizer of La Liga Latino for the past seven years.

While everyone agrees Gutierrez has helped curb fighting in La Liga by issuing fines and suspensions, hard tackles and scuffles are still common occurrences. In many cases, however, there's a reason for the fiery physical play that goes beyond competitive spirit.

"The original four teams are all from that one town," says Lippert, the former Chivas goalkeeper. "For them it's a family rivalry. They've got cousins on the other team. They don't want to lose that game."

"The thing I've learned from working these games is that Mexico is not homogenous," adds Roger Morley, a referee in the league. "There tends to be regional affiliations and teams don't always like each other because of that."

Morley and other officials say that at times the criticism of the referees by the players and crowd has gotten out of hand.

"If they want to swear at me they have to do it in English," says Morley. "And I've had that happen. There were 22 players out there and I was the only one who didn't speak Spanish. I made a call and one guy looked me in the eye and said, 'Fuck you, Ref' in perfect English."

A message to the teams recently posted on the league's website by Gutierrez addresses the officials' concerns. "The referees told us that there are too many complaints and insults toward them," the notice reads. "They advise us that if we do not take care of controlling the situation they are not going to help us anymore."

Following the plea is a list written in Spanish that describes several incidents that prompted the intervention, highlighted by a May 18 game in which, following an ejection, "The expelled tried to attack the referee with their shoes."

Even with such confrontations Lutkar, a referee himself, says he admires the players' competitive zeal and La Liga's generally family-friendly environment. "During the playoffs you get people lined up, cheering. You can't even get up next to the field; it's almost a festival atmosphere," he says. "You can see how much passion they have when they get a chance to play organized."

Meanwhile, Gutierrez says he hopes the league will continue to grow, perhaps with future generations of players who aren't quite so rough.

"A lot of kids go with parents and they've been watching and they want to start in the league. We have a player that's thirteen, and he already wants to join," he says. He pauses and adds, "I like to see the little kids playing soccer. The big ones are too much trouble."

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