It’s a smorgasbord out there, all those local soccer leagues.
Some cater to men, some to women, some to men and women. Some to young, some to old, some to beginners, some to the highly-skilled.
Yet if there’s one league which sets itself apart, one which you’ might recognize with your eyes closed, it’s Liga Hispana del Noroeste (Hispanic League of the Northwest).
On any given Sunday, riding on the air is the scent of food on the grill and the sweet sound of mariachis.
Liga Hispana is one of a half-dozen Hispanic leagues in the Seattle area. Now over 10 years old, it has grown from eight to 72 adult teams, making it possibly the largest in the state. Four years ago, it formed a youth club in the Seattle Youth Soccer Association.
If anything, the standard has risen above the other fare. There are playoffs involving the top eight teams, awards and a level of play in the premier division that is sufficient to attract both former and current Sounders.
It obviously is overwhelmingly populated with players of Hispanic origins. Yet Liga Hispana president Exequiel Soltero says all are welcome, and noted that a Somali team recently joined.
“In soccer, you don’t need to speak the language,” says Soltero. “Soccer is soccer. Everybody speaks the language of soccer.”
Rich in Diversity
The Puget Sound region is rich in cultural diversity, and that fact is evidenced by the proliferation of other ethnic leagues and tournaments.
Jessica Breznau, founder of the All Nations Cup, says another fast-growing soccer community is comprised of immigrants from Southeast Asia.
“Korea has a huge fan base, and you also see growing numbers from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,” noted Breznau. “There’s a lot happening, but under the radar of organized soccer.”
In Liga Hispana alone, there are several ethnic varieties and some teams are truly an international mix, such as Soltero’s which features players of Irish, Brazilian, Lebanese as well as Mexican heritage.
It’s definitely skilled soccer, but also a celebration of life. Particularly in the summertime, games no sooner end and the family grills are fired up and the partying begins.
We Are Family
“We are like a family,” Soltero emphasizes. “Players bring their families, their kids, and afterwards, everybody forgets about the heat of the game and gets together to have a drink or get something to eat.”
Businesses, including many Mexican eateries, have become sponsors of the league and the youth club, where 80 percent of kids receive scholarships toward their player fees. Soltero owns Mayas Restaurants and Catering in Seattle.
Born in Mexico, Soltero arrived in Seattle at age 14. At the time, the local leagues were ethnic, although with a mostly European influence.
Over time, those leagues became less and less ethnic in orientation. However, during the Nineties a growing Hispanic population spawned it own leagues, most notably Liga Hispana in 1990. Chon Garcia, owner of Jalisco, was a driving force, along with other local restaurateurs.
Soltero got involved four years ago, intent upon raising the standard by establishing principles he used in his own business. Each Sunday features a game of the week broadcast on radio (AM 1680) and video streamed on the internet (www.fhen.tv), live from the various game sites.
Players are attracted to both the competition offered and the attractive, attack minded play.
“It’s more like the Hispanic style,” he says. “Not just long ball and running like crazy. There are a lot of touches. That’s the style of soccer we play in our league. A lot of people want to play in that type of environment.”
Soltero predicts that the local Hispanic community will bring their own style to Qwest Field in 2009. Naturally, people are already anxious to see the likes of Chicago’s Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco, but he says there’s also interest in others, be it David Beckham, Chivas USA or the two-time champion Houston Dynamo.
“It will be like a party, with lots of noise, cheering, guys playing trumpets and people wearing colorful shirts,” he says. “It’s good, it’s lively, not boring.”
Having an MLS team in Seattle will be great, great for families and great for kids to see a good game.” And, adds Soltero, “If Seattle wants to bring in a player or two from Mexico or any Latin country, that would just be icing on the cake.”