WARRENTON - The Liga Hispana way of life is one in which you play for fun, not profit. You play hard, but fair. You play because you simply love what Pele calls "the beautiful game."
Liga Hispana, a men's soccer league whose core is made up of players whose roots are in Mexico, kicks off Wednesday evenings in the spring, with four matches that feature some of the region's best male players. Most are adults, although this season has seen more high-school aged players.
Gustavo Velazquez could be considered one of the pioneers of the largely Latino-based adventure that started 12 years ago with just three teams on a mini soccer field in Cannon Beach.
In many ways, Velazquez' story mirrors that of many futbolistas past and present, who have fed the growth of soccer on the North Coast with their passion and persistence.
After completing his military service in Mexico, Velazquez couldn't find a decent job. So, when a brother living in the U.S. offered him a place to stay, he couldn't refuse.
"Most of the Latino people come here for a new opportunity," said Velazquez, who came to Seaside in the early 1990s from Michoacan and is now player-coach for Wolf Pack, as well as coach of Astoria High School's junior varsity boys' team.
Velazquez has worked his way up from humble beginnings to support a family and a new life in Seaside, but those early days are still fresh in his memory. "A lot of people were down because there was no place to go and play," he said.
Thanks to the efforts of the volunteers at the Lower Columbia Youth Soccer Association, today the eight teams that make up the league kick it around at one of the best grass facilities in the state. The Warrenton Soccer Complex has grown from a former landfill to three of the greenest, most level, and best-maintained fields around.
What it all adds up to is a colorful atmosphere of exciting sport and Latin-infused flavor. On any given Wednesday, the aroma of fresh tacos at the concession stand fills the air, wives cluster with baby boys and girls on the sidelines. Kids kick soccer balls and delight in the open air amid family-friendly fun as their dads play on the field behind them.
More competitiveAs the league has grown in popularity and size, the level of competition has increased. Many players are current or former high-school standouts. Some have college experience; others simply ruled the streets of the village or town where they learned the game.
"It's getting there. It's building up. More teams and more people are showing up," said Velazquez.
And what was once a purely Latino phenomenon is increasingly attracting more non-Latino players to its ranks - a trend that Velazquez and others think could bolster the strength of the play.
"The Americans bring a lot of speed to the game," said Velazquez. "The Latinos play a little more brutal."
Those raised stateside sometimes reveal a more practiced game and a higher level of fitness - the result of structured soccer programs. The Latinos play a style that's direct and intuitive. It can include uncanny dribbling skills and acrobatic kicks, but sometimes is unpolished and tactically less cohesive.
Ben Dueber, 21, and his sister Sajru, (pronounced Sara), 26, grew up playing soccer in Cannon Beach almost as soon as they learned to walk and were stars on the Seaside High School teams. Now they both play for River Plate, named for one of the most successful club teams in soccer-mad Argentina.
The Duebers both have premier club-level experience with Portland-area teams, and Sajru played at Western Oregon State University.
As more American players show up, she said, the contrasting playing styles become increasingly evident.
"You can see there's almost like two games going on," she explained, those that have been coached set one agenda, while those with a more informal background create one that's altogether different.
But the observation isn't something that keeps her away. Just like the guys, Sajru simply loves the game.
Getting betterLeo Luna, 16, a midfielder for River Plate, caught his breath on a recent night after a feverish match against Wolf Pack that ended in a 2 to 2 tie. Luna began playing in the league when he was 13 and has already noticed a change in the pace and pressure on the field.
"It's getting much better. It's getting tougher and tougher every year," he said.
In many ways Luna blurs the line between a foreign-born and an American player. Though most of his teammates are from Michoacan, Luna was born in Seaside and plays for the high school's varsity team.
He says the level of play in the league is close to the varsity match-ups.
But in his opinion, at least one Liga Hispana team would mop up any teams.
That team is Atlas.
"They touch the ball real well. They communicate, and they don't get upset if someone makes a mistake or a bad pass," said Luna.
Atlas, based in Ocean Park, Wash., is a tight-knit group. Its players originate almost exclusively from Guadalajara. They play a smooth, selfless brand of soccer. The ball seems to move up the field effortlessly, touched just once or twice by each player, in a beguiling attack that finishes with blistering shots at goal.
The red-and-black striped team leads the league in points, goals, and quite possibly technical ability. Because there is no playoff this year and league points determine the winner, Atlas is well poised to secure the championship in a couple of weeks.
A new generationBut winning and losing isn't all this league is about. Velazquez is more than happy with a growing league that has developed from nothing more than a yearning to compete in the game of his childhood and native land.
In fact, Velazquez has even coached and mentored some of the best opponents he sets out each week to beat. He also realizes that even though some can try, it's pretty hard to play on forever.
"It's not even for us anymore," said Velazquez. "We're doing it for the new generation to come and play."
David Plechl is an Astoria-area writer who plays soccer in Liga Hispana. Log on to his blog to read comments and more photos at (northcoastsoccer.blogspot.com)