On the cover North Coast Journal

July 28, 2005



On the cover: Photo by Luke T. Johnson

North Coast Soccer League Game Schedule


[players and goal cage on soccer field]IT'S A SUNNY SUNDAY AFTERNOON AT Fortuna's Newberg Park, and the parking lot is packed. Mariachi music seeps out of open truck windows. Schoolboys sporting their fathers' uniforms chase each other around the field on scooters, laughing as they scamper up trees in their little cleats. Players take shots on goal or practice crosses and diving headers while the referees check the teams' equipment. The goalkeeper straps on his gloves and pours some water on his palms to give them that extra stick. The captain corrals his teammates to deliver some last-minute instructions before kickoff.

The first match up of the day is between Hidalgo, in blue, and La Costa, in red. Within two minutes of the opening whistle, La Costa has jumped out to a two-goal lead, both hustle plays that barely squeak by the keeper. It looks like it's going to be a blowout. But Hidalgo responds almost immediately with a couple goals of its own, one a chip over the keeper and the other an expertly placed blast into the side netting. After 15 minutes, the score is tied 3-3, much to the elation of the growing crowd of spectators.

[soccer players tumbling over ball]This flurry of goals is not representative of a typical soccer game, but this is not a typical soccer league. On the surface, the North Coast Soccer League may seem like just another recreational community league. While it is far from "recreational," it is very much a community league. Eleven teams play three games on Sunday afternoons (and one on Saturday) and always draw a crowd. Many in the largely Hispanic crowd are members of the players' families: wives, children, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. But many of the fans are just soccer lovers, out to enjoy an afternoon of high-quality fútbol.

The demographic makeup of the fans mimics the makeup of the NCSL. The local soccer crowd affectionately refers to the league as the "Mexican League," and aptly so. League commissioner Arnulfo Aguirre estimates that around 90 percent of the players are Hispanic.

It is no coincidence that Fortuna produces such a rabid fan base. According to the 2000 census, 11 percent of Fortuna residents are Hispanic, the largest concentration of Hispanics in Humboldt County. A love of soccer, it seems, is embedded within the culture.

* * *

[legs of soccer player with ball]A player hits the ground hard and rolls around after a questionable slide tackle.

"Tarjeta!" screams one enlivened fan, begging the referee to caution the offending player with a yellow card.

"Rápido! Rápido!" another fan yells, trying to get his team to take advantage of a quick scoring opportunity.

Three pretty women stand near one of the corner flags. One is pushing a stroller holding her 3-year-old daughter. They are lifelong residents of Fortuna and come out here every week. They have been coming since they were teenagers.

"This is how we met our husbands," Josefina Aguirre laughs, referring to their younger days when they would come to the park to watch games.

[spectator families watching game]"Soccer is like the center of our lives," says Becky Sánchez. "Our husbands are always playing, practicing, watching ... "

She stops and turns to her friend, Lourdes Miranda.

"Did you see Mexico play Guatemala this morning? Mexico won 4-0," she reports happily. "I felt kinda bad for Guatemala, though."

When one thinks of American sports and sports fans, soccer is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind. Some are willfully ignorant of the game; others vociferously loathe it. Sports pundits, such as "shock jock" Jim Rome, never miss a chance to express their contempt for the game. Soccer is boring; soccer is slow; there's not enough scoring -- all common arguments against the sport. During the United States' bid for the World Cup in 1986, former vice-presidential candidate (and Buffalo Bills quarterback) Jack Kemp went so far as to call soccer a "European socialist sport."

But this disdainful attitude toward soccer seems fairly unique to American culture. To call the world's view of soccer a bit more accepting is a considerable understatement. As Franklin Foer writes in the prologue of his book, How Soccer Explains the World, "[Soccer] is often more deeply felt than religion, and is just as much a part of the community's fabric, a repository of traditions." While Americans are inarguably warming up to the world's most popular sport, the country is generations behind.

[two soccer players following ball]  [soccer players running]  

* * *

Humboldt County used to be just as uninterested in soccer as the rest of the country. When Floyd Da Massa moved to Humboldt from the town of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy, in 1955, there were no games to be found.

"I grew up playing for fun on the streets all the time," he said. "When I got here, there was nothing."

As he settled in to his adopted homeland, he found groups of other immigrants who liked to kick the ball around. Portuguese, Hungarians, Germans and Brazilians all found camaraderie playing soccer together. In the late 1960s they formed what came to be known as the Arcata Soccer Club. They would practice and scrimmage with each other. Once a year, they would travel to San Jose, where the Portuguese community held a tournament. Otherwise, the Arcata Soccer Club was pretty self-contained.

[Alan Exley with soccer ball]Alan Exley [photo at right], who coached soccer at Humboldt State for 20 years until he retired in 2003, came to Humboldt from England around the time the Arcata Soccer Club was getting started. He recalls the days when foreign freight ships, coming to Humboldt Bay to pick up lumber exports, would dock for a few days. A member of the club would contact the harbor pilot to see if the crew wanted to form a team and have a match. They were often more than eager.

"We played teams from all over the place," said Exley. "Norwegians, Vietnamese ... they usually jumped at the opportunity to get off the freighter and run around for a while. After the games we would invite them to dine with us at the Portuguese Community Center."

"That's the beauty of soccer," he added. "It brings all cultures together."

Da Massa, who served as the president of the Arcata Soccer Club for years, said that after a while the club split into two teams: a predominately Mexican team and a "library team," a group that had read a lot about soccer but hadn't played much. As more people became interested through the 1970s, the club morphed into the Humboldt Soccer League [see photo below left], consisting of about 10 teams. The Portuguese broke off into their own team and there were two Laotian teams. Da Massa and friends formed Redwood United, a team made up of many different people, including Exley and a number of other former HSU players.

"We would go to tournaments all over Northern California, even Southern Oregon," he said. "It was a lot of fun."

[newspaper clipping of photo of soccer team]The North Coast Soccer League got its start in Fortuna in the 1980s when it was called the Redwood Soccer League (the name was changed eight years ago). The league has always featured mostly Hispanic players and has steadily come to be known as the most competitive league in the county.

This year is the first year the league has been sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, an umbrella organization for all competitive and recreational soccer in the country. The USSF creates a standard to which all affiliated leagues and referees adhere. Affiliation also provides players and officials with insurance in the case of injury.

Now that the league is sanctioned by the USSF, the two best teams will be invited to the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to play in a tournament featuring teams from all over Northern California in September. Some of those games will be broadcast on Comcast, the country's biggest cable television corporation.

"It's a good way to get our younger players some more exposure," said league commissioner Aguirre.

* * *

[Team photo of DVO Union]
Four-time league champions, DVO Union. Back row L-R: DVO Union's No. 1 fan, Elfrego Maldonado,
name unknown, Juan Patino (asst. coach), Antonio Cordoro (goalie), Filiberto Muñoz, Atenojenes Zamora,
Carlos Dias, Rosendo Villabraso. Front row: Martin Maciel, Juan Muñoz, Rafael Hoyos (team captain), Alfredo Muñoz.

The 4 o'clock game has just wrapped up. DVO Union continued its unbeaten streak with a 3-0 shutout over El Buen Gusto. (The DVO stands for "deportivo," the Spanish word for "Sports Club.")

[Francisco Martinez]Francisco Martínez of The Panthers [photo at right] is strapping on his shin guards getting ready for the final game of the afternoon. His team will match up against DVO Alexander.

Martínez has just graduated from Eureka High, where he played on the varsity team for two years. He has been playing soccer since before he can remember.

"It was part of our family heritage," he said. "We were all raised to love soccer."

Martínez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to Humboldt when he was 4. At 18, he is the youngest of three brothers, all of whom play soccer as well. This is Francisco's second year in the NCSL.

He recalls the first game of the season when the coach put him at the striker position. He normally anchors his team's defense at sweeper, but down 2-1 in the second half, his team needed an extra spark on offense. Toward the end of the game, a teammate crossed him the ball in front of the goal. He tapped the ball over one defender with his head, chipped it over another with his right foot, and blasted it past the keeper with his left foot off a volley to tie the game at two.

"It was my favorite all-time goal," he beamed.

[Gabriel Herrera]Gabriel Herrera [photo at left] watches Francisco intently. When DVO Aztecas matches up against the Panthers, Herrera at striker will go head to head with Martínez at sweeper. Whoever wins the battle between those two will likely be on the winning team.

Herrera and Martínez were teammates on the Eureka High varsity team, and like his former teammate, Gabriel graduated this year. This is the 17-year-old's third year in the NCSL.

Herrera is a speedy forward with an uncanny ability to finish. Leading the league with 10 goals already this year, he is making a serious push at winning the scoring title, which is given to the league's most prolific goal scorer at season's end.

"I am starting to understand more how to play against these players," he said modestly.

Herrera's mother and father come from Guadalajara and Zacatecas, respectively, but he has lived in Eureka since he was born. He has a younger sister who also plays soccer and both his parents play in the coed Humboldt Soccer League. He says that he has played soccer his whole life.

"It was ingrained in us," he said.

Herrera generally plays year round -- in the spring he plays for Humboldt Steelhead, a Class 1 team that travels around Northern California. But next near he will be attending UC Davis to study political science on his way to law school. He plans to take this year off of soccer, one of the first years of his life he won't be playing.

"It will be hard," he said. "But I'll continue training and play intramurals and try out next year."

Martínez, who has been contacted by the coach at CSU Stanislaus to play down there, laments the fact that soccer is not as big or as competitive in Humboldt as it is in places like the Bay Area and Sacramento. But he admits that the fervency shown in the Fortuna community for soccer is a step in the right direction.

"We're getting there," he said.

"Soccer in Humboldt is starting to pick up," Herrera agreed. "We're starting to get a lot more level with players down south."

* * *

[soccer player kicking ball]Immigrants in Humboldt County have clearly played a crucial role in bringing the world's most popular game to one of the state's most remote areas. The players themselves are obviously a significant factor, but the burgeoning soccer culture would not be nearly as rich without the community's support.

"It's pretty incredible to have this level of community involvement with soccer in a county as isolated as Humboldt," said Arron Apperson, referee coordinator for the NCSL.

A number of teams in the NCSL are sponsored by local businesses. El Buen Gusto Market in Eureka and La Playita in Fortuna both sponsor teams. Businesses that sponsor teams generally pay for uniforms and sometimes player fees.

Sun Valley Floral Farms has sponsored teams for "six or seven years," according to Lane DeVries, president and chief executive officer of The Sun Valley Group. DeVries estimates that approximately 85 percent of Sun Valley employees are Hispanic. It was originally a group of employees who approached the company about sponsoring a team. Ultimately they agreed and have done so ever since.

"It's a great thing for the community," DeVries said. "We want to do anything we can to help support this sport, to allow it to happen."

[Jose Carrillo handing a child an ear of corn, as other children look on]The community's support for soccer in Fortuna is very much an expression of the Hispanic culture represented there. Attending the games and interacting with the spectators will certainly give one a flavor of the Hispanic culture. But to get a real (and filling) taste of the community, one need only locate José Carrillo in the parking lot behind the eastern goal. [photo at left]

Carrillo wears a bowl cut and a friendly smile. He has been coming to these games with his family for three years and sells concessions out of the back of his red Tacoma. He started selling food after he asked players if they might benefit from his services.

"After they play they are very hungry," he said.

He doesn't sell candy bars or cotton candy -- he sells authentic Mexican snack food. He has baggies packed with chicharrones, wheel-shaped pork rinds with the option of dousing them in habañero sauce. He also sells tostadas and quesadillas. His most popular product is elote, corn on the cob on a stick, lathered with mayonnaise and cheese and topped with chili powder sprinkled generously over the surface.

He comes three or four hours almost every week, but is hardly concerned with turning a profit. He is more interested in watching the games and hanging out with his friends. If he spends $200 on food, he might bring in $250 in an afternoon.

"It's about enough to pay for gas," he laughs warmly.

* * *

[spectators at soccer game]Sitting on the hillside snacking on elote, Efraín Miranda and Juan Cabrera watch the final match of the day. Now in their street clothes, the two athletes are still giddy about their thrilling 5-4 victory earlier in the day. Their team, Hidalgo, found the back of the net in the waning moments of injury time to seize their second win of the season.

"We don't usually score so many goals," said Miranda, smiling.

On game days, Miranda and Cabrera usually spend the day at Newberg Park to watch the rest of the matches with their families.

"It's fun. Lots of our friends come out," Cabrera said.

It's hardly surprising that some of the biggest soccer fans are soccer players. But the fan base is growing larger and more diverse. As new generations are getting more access and exposure to soccer, the older generations begin to take notice. As Floyd Da Massa observes, many people start getting into soccer because their kids are involved.

"They enjoy the game so much as spectators, they go and get involved in adult leagues," he said.

The North Coast Soccer League offers a small glimpse into the passion with which most of the rest of the world experiences soccer. The games are a treat for pure fans of the sport: The players play with a passionate and unmasked joy, and the fans might as well be at a World Cup final match.

As Arron Apperson says, "It's a wonderful way to experience the culture of soccer."

Luke T. Johnson is a freelance writer (and part-time soccer referee) who lives in Arcata. This fall, he will begin graduate studies in journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

North Coast Soccer League Game Schedule

Only a third of the regular season remains, but there's still plenty of opportunities to catch North Coast Soccer League action. Unless otherwise noted, matches take place at Newburg Park in Fortuna, 1201 Newburg Rd. Arcata matches take place at the fields next to the Arcata Community Center, 321 Community Park Way.


July 30-31

The Panthers vs. DVO Union, 6 p.m.
Hidalgo vs. DVO Aztecas, 2 p.m.
DVO Alexander vs. Gar.Sottum FC, 4 p.m.
Tiburones Eureka vs. La Playita, 6 p.m.
Sun Valley vs. El Buen Gusto, 6 p.m. (Arcata)

Aug. 6-7

Buen Gusto vs. Panthers, 6 p.m.
Tiburones vs. Alexander, 2 p.m.
Costa vs. Aztecas, 4 p.m.
Hidalgo vs. Playita, 6 p.m.
Sun Valley vs. Union, 6 p.m. (Arcata)

Aug. 13-14

Union vs. Panthers, 6 p.m.
Tiburones vs. Hidalgo, 2 p.m.
Costa vs. Buen Gusto, 4 p.m.
Alexander vs. Playita, 6 p.m.
Sun Valley vs. Gar.Sottum, 6 p.m. (Arcata)

Aug. 20-21

Panthers vs. Tiburones, 4 p.m.
Union vs. Alexander, 6 p.m.
Buen Gusto vs. Gar.Sottum, 2 p.m.
Costa vs. Sun Valley, 4 p.m.
Playita vs. Aztecas, 6 p.m.


The top eight teams from the regular season meet at Newburg Park (1201 Newburg Rd., Fortuna)

Saturday, Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. and
Sunday, Aug. 28 at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Sept. 4
The final four play at Newburg Park at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Sept. 11
Championship tournament at Newburg Park. Semi-finals at 4 p.m., finals at 6 p.m.




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