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As the Hispanic population rises here, so too does interest in Sunday soccer leagues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - It's a muggy Sunday morning in Cahokia, and the Joses are right where they want to be -- watching soccer.

Jose Andrade, president of the Cahokia Latin American Soccer Association, is reclining in a fold-up chair that's planted in the middle of an 18-acre field he recently purchased. Andrade whistles to get the attention of Jose Luis Gonzalez, a longtime friend and fellow soccer aficionado. With a wide grin, Gonzalez hustles toward the midfield sideline but stops first to speak with his son, who's preparing for a game.

"Sunday is a holy day of soccer for us," said Andrade, smiling himself as he looks out across his vast, grass-covered property.

Two decades ago, Gonzalez and members of his family started playing in what then was a new league called Liga Latino Americana de Futbol, which plays its games in St. Louis. There were four teams. The following year, there were eight teams, one of which featured Andrade.

The league has since split into several offshoots, with a total of nearly 60 teams of about 20 players apiece. Andrade estimates that 90 percent of players in the Cahokia league are Hispanic. They come from all over St. Louis and as far away as Columbia. Many players live in Metro East cities.

While the exact size of the Hispanic community in the St. Louis region is unknown, the gradual growth of Sunday soccer leagues is "pretty good anecdotal evidence" that the Spanish-speaking population in St. Louis has increased in recent decades, particularly on the Illinois side of the river, said Jorge Riopedre, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Adrade agrees that measuring soccer participation is one way to gauge the Hispanic population in the region. Soccer is, after all, the favorite recreational sport of many Latin American natives who have moved here.

Interest spreads far and wide

In the early 1990s, Andrade took 10 teams and moved the competition to Overland, closer to where some of the players lived. As interest continued to grow and new teams sprouted up across the region, other branches of the league opened in Fairmont City and O'Fallon.

"The Latino population here is in little enclaves, and they are coming to us from those areas," Andrade said. "The interest keeps getting bigger and bigger."

There is competition not only on the field but among the people who run these weekend amateur soccer leagues to attract teams and their fee-paying players.

Liga Latino remains the largest league, with more than 25 teams that play at five fields across St. Louis. Last Sunday, dozens of people watched two games going on simultaneously at DeSoto Park, in the shadow of the Edward Jones Dome. The smells of manicured grass and recently cooked meat being served under a tent mixed together on a sticky early afternoon.

Alberto Gutierrez, president of the league, surveyed the scene as he does every Sunday. He spreads his time among the fields, on this day focusing his attention on a battle between two of the league's top teams -- one Bosnian and the other mixed. While the league was once nearly all Hispanic immigrants, Gutierrez estimates that it's now about 60 percent Hispanic. Other immigrant groups are well represented, as are St. Louis natives who met in high school or college.

Running the soccer leagues is a time-consuming job. During the week, Gutierrez refreshes the Liga Latino website, which has game results, statistics and field information. He also handles scheduling and player registration. On Sundays, he's shuttling from location to location from 9 a.m. until dusk. Games run from April to November, which is also the case for Cahokia.

Andrade used to visit fields across the region when teams in his league played at high schools or city parks. But players often didn't feel welcomed by neighbors, he said, and games would sometimes be interrupted when other groups attempted to kick off the soccer players, even though they had a field permit.

This spring, Andrade, Gonzalez and another partner bought a former baseball complex in Cahokia and turned it into several soccer fields. Cahokia, which has 14 teams, began playing games there this spring. Andrade hopes to eventually have five fields and at least 40 teams competing there.

"We hope that our complex is the next step of evolution for our soccer leagues and becomes a new center for soccer for the Latin community," Andrade said.

He visits the site daily to do upkeep. On Sundays, he is there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to watch games, mingle with spectators, coach his team and monitor the referees.

Andrade has tried to get players to come out for practices or informal games during the week -- but it's a hard sell.

"A lot of them work in jobs like landscaping and construction that are physically demanding," Andrade said. "They work every day other than Sunday from early until late. Sunday is their day away."

A family affair

In the early days of Liga Latino, several soccer players within a family would start up a team and fill the roster with relatives -- and maybe a few friends. As Hispanic immigration increased and extended families moved here, family teams commonly split off into two or more teams. Once a son reaches adulthood, Gonzalez said, he often starts his own team with friends and relatives his age.

Andrade said teams in his league still tend to represent their country of origin, with players on a given roster being almost entirely from Mexico (the most represented country), El Salvador or Honduras, for instance.

Teams often buy the jerseys of their favorite professional team from their home country and wear them as their uniform.

It's common to see families spread out over blankets and sitting in lawn chairs cheering relatives and friends on Sundays. "Kids see parents playing, and it's a dream of theirs to be playing here," Gutierrez said.

But as the Sunday leagues have become increasingly competitive, captains don't always look to family and friends to fill open slots. They recruit talent from across the region.

Liga Latino is known as the most competitive of the leagues. Many players are in their 20s and early 30s, and some are former college and professional standouts. The Cahokia league also has its share of accomplished soccer players. Andrade, a former high school and college all-American and Major League Soccer referee, said he'd like to attract even more former college and semipro players and divide the league based on skill level.

Come to these Sunday league games and you'll quickly notice that the competition is more intense than in your typical amateur league. Teammates yell at each other on the sidelines. Coaches bark orders. Fans complain to referees.

Andrade said it all comes back to the family dynamic.

"Within the family there's a drive to win; it's defending the family blood," Andrade said. "There are rivals and some games get heated. There's more at stake than just the outcome."