On a patchy North Carolina knoll ringed by pine trees and bracketed by rusty goal posts, the Chicos Malos are favorites to win the championship of the Liga de Hispana del Selma, a sandlot league that is turning Johnston County sports on its ear.
While neighbors strain to listen to Sunday football on TV, shouts of "Vamos!" echo through the trees, as 100 noisy fans eat tacos and watch from the hoods of Camaros and Oldsmobiles. The Chicos Malos - the Bad Boys - and Juventos play passionately to a 1-1 tie, a spectacular late goal saving the day for the Chicos.
In a rural county with no fields of its own, this private lawn is bringing unprecedented competition as nimble Hispanic immigrants don bright jerseys and take on their opponents with all the vigor - if not quite the finesse - of a World Cup final.
But as national youth and adult soccer organizations desperately try to tap into these so-called beer leagues, the fútbol-crazed crowds are bringing their own set of problems. Johnston County came close to shutting the field down altogether for a zoning violation. Now, though, the county may build a few community fields to formalize the liga.
Experts say the Selma showdown is a flash point that speaks volumes about the possibilities - and pitfalls - of folding Hispanics into the heartland.
These soccer forays show that "the Mexican-American immigrants are doing the frontline work of bringing diversity to a lot of places in the country that hadn't experienced it before," says New York City writer Ed Morales, author of "Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America."
Underground soccer leagues have proliferated in the past decade, especially in areas like North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. But their fight for respect on the field and off has so far brought little success in assimilating with established US rec leagues - partly because of cultural differences, but also because of a financial gap: Fees for Hispanic leagues cost, on average, almost two-thirds less.
Exact numbers of players are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests strong totals. For example, the Copa Chicago, a youth tournament played in October, is a big event, and in Charlotte, N.C., about 3,000 players show up at Ramblewood Park every Sunday.
"They're brick masons and roofers, and this is their life to get away from all that," says Israel Figueroa, a tough-looking teen with a quick smile who has just put together the Momaguillos - the Altar Boys - in the Selma league.
While Washington officials wrangle over immigration policy, this flood of new talent is a welcome boost to an American brand of soccer that rewards fair play over competitiveness. "The word you have to get at is 'passion,' " says Harvey Kaye, a history professor who studies sports in society at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In fact, comparing Latin and US soccer is "like the difference between American baseball, which is all about winning, and Japanese baseball, which is all about playing well and with honor."
But overtures to create an official league in Johnston County and elsewhere may face challenges. Take Buncombe County, in and around Asheville, N.C., where the Henderson Beer League failed this summer to merge with the Buncombe County Parks and Recreation leagues. It came down to cost: The Henderson league charges $400 per team, versus $1,200 for each county team. "The competition is good, and the fees are not as high," says Rigo Lozano, who plays in the Henderson league. "Everybody works for a living, and you're sometimes not willing to spend a lot of money on just one day a week in that game."
To be sure, Latin Americans have long dazzled US soccer players, from Pele to Carlos Valderrama, one of the founders of Major League Soccer. But what's happening today is much different. With large numbers of first- and second- generation Hispanic players on US soil, the potential for finding new Maradonas - and hard-core Hispanic fans who watch soccer three nights a week - is only growing more likely. "When I first came here in 1983, I was the only [Hispanic]," says Tito Montezuma, a construction worker watching the Bad Boys play on Sunday. "Now all the guys are here!"
Last Saturday, the first-ever Hispanic national champions were crowned in Carson, Calif., as part of an experimental 4-on-4 Hispanic league sponsored by MLS, called Futbolito. The winning team was the Santos from Columbus, Ohio.
The American Youth Soccer Organization, the largest youth league in the country, says that about 15 percent of its 630,000 players have Hispanic surnames. And it's not stopping there. The AYSO has just created a new league called Progressive Play, in part to draw talent from Hispanic leagues.
Yet the backlot leagues are only getting stronger. Some critics, however, question whether the formation of separate Hispanic leagues contributes to a new layer of segregation in American society.
Not according to Marisabel Munoz, a spokeswoman for MLS Futbolito: "It's that variety that really adds to what soccer is here in the United States," she says. "Passion is demonstrated in different ways, but, little by little, the interest keeps growing."