The Other Pro Soccer
By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
"The Scorpion," as the kid is known on the soccer field, was a
hot commodity all season long. Coaches from rival Latino amateur
teams around Washington, eager to snare the marquee goalkeeper,
cornered him and waved cash. A lot was at stake, and money was
moving. "You want to play with us?" they whispered to Melvin Barrera,
tall, quick, built to keep the ball out of the net. "We'll pay you much more!"
Tempting, but Barrera declined, again and again. He is loyal to a team
took him in when he was only 13, taught him the game and paved his way
to a professional soccer contract in El Salvador, an enormous leap for an
immigrant who landed in Mount Pleasant with little in 1984 and now plays
his dream game for a living. The boy who grew up with the vibrant Latino
soccer leagues in the Washington area is now a 22-year-old man who in
his off-season has the luxury of paying an old debt to old coaches by not
charging for his valuable services.
There are more than 450 Latino soccer teams in the metropolitan area,
and on any weekend day from spring to fall, more than 7,000 players take
the field, Barrera not the only star in this galaxy of athletes but perhaps the
brightest local product. The soccer spectacle has become the most visible
manifestation of the Latino community at play, a sporting pageant staged
every weekend on all the green space local governments can provide.
Behind the colorful production is a growing, cash-only business with few
rules, a handful of impresarios, many bitter rivalries, no oversight and lots
of talent, raw as well as accomplished. As Barrera's popularity attests, the
competition has become so acute that some of the top teams now recruit
and pay current and former professional players from Central America to
boost their chances.
The most successful coaches and league presidents earned their soccer
credentials in the cutthroat leagues in Central America and have imported
some of the practices to suburbia, including establishing soccer clubs that
rely on the financial support of a loyal fan base, most often immigrants
from the same town or region. The result is that small soccer empires are
being built a crumpled dollar at a time. Word of the lucrative game here
has spread to those professional ranks, and Central American players
now supplement their relatively modest incomes by becoming journeymen
in the Washington area.
The result is an unusually competitive and unregulated enterprise, in many
ways the only home-grown industry for Latinos that directly affects most
members of the community. Whether anyone is making money from this
iconoclastic brand of soccer is unclear, but what is undisputed is that these
leagues, like Barrera himself, are now amateur in name only.
"I was always opposed to paying anyone, but I am aware, I know and
have seen, that some people do it as a business," said Gloria Granillo, the
respected director of the Washington office for Grupo Taca, the Central
American airline that sponsors the region's most successful tournament,
the Taca Cup. "Is it semiprofessional?" Granillo asked, echoing the
question most often asked about the Latino soccer leagues. "I don't
That the question is even raised is important. Leagues have existed for
decades and in many ways mirror the growth of the Latino community,
expanding from modest beginnings in Northwest Washington and
following the migration into the suburbs, where most of the more than 30
leagues are now based. The soccer boom of the last few years is
described as unprecedented by longtime participants, fueled by the
community's maturity and its relative affluence, particularly in the Latino
business sector that sponsors leagues and teams.
One result is that the Latino soccer scene is attracting interest from
outsiders. For the first time, D.C. United, the most successful franchise in
professional soccer in the United States, this year sent representatives to
games. The most prominent backer is Budweiser, which this summer gave
$10,000 to the organizers of the Taca Cup, an enormous donation to a
tournament that only two years ago held its celebration on the second
floor of the airline's downtown office.
The six-day event in July and August drew several thousand fans to the
auxiliary soccer field at RFK Memorial Stadium and sold more than
$16,000 in tickets, by far the best showing since it was launched in
Northern Virginia in the early 1990s. Kappa, the sportswear company,
this year for the first time requested a written contract from Granillo,
fearing rival Adidas would muscle its way into the event.
The potential payoff for sponsors is exposing their products to fans who
are loyal to teams. And for fans, the draw is a chance to see the game
they grew up with played well, by people just like themselves.
"People don't mind paying five dollars to come to see what they like most,
which is soccer," said Josè Armando Chèvez, a fan from Arlington.
Knowledgeable fans like Chevez relish the chance to see top talent up
close, recognizing that some of these players, obscure athletes playing in
obscure leagues, have what it takes. "You can see that they handle the ball
well. If a trainer came here and chose the best players in each team,"
Chevez said, echoing the assessment of others who follow the Latino
leagues, "you could have a team that could beat any team" in professional
The Price of Playing
All of those factors, particularly the underwriting by Budweiser, have
made the leagues fiercely competitive, both on and off the field, as club
presidents recognize the game's potential. Leagues are set up to benefit
organizers, or presidents, who charge teams enrollment fees that range
from $500 to $1,500. The presidents pay for referees, medical insurance
and, in some cases, field rentals.
The cost of fielding a team is conservatively estimated at $3,000 by the
Bolivian league, one of the most financially stable, which means that the
Latino soccer scene is a $1.4 million-a-year enterprise if only the known
leagues are counted. The sum does not include other revenue enhancers,
which are impossible to quantify and which range from exclusive food
concessions to cash fines levied on players for game penalties.
Hispanic-owned restaurants often sponsor teams and benefit directly
because teams host fund-raisers on the premises and celebrate victories
late into the evening. The Taca Cup spent $23,000 on, among other
things, renting the field, hiring security guards, advertising the event in the
Latino media and paying for an internationally sanctioned referee from
Guatemala to officiate the championship match Aug. 1.
The Talent Search
People stare at Herbert Mayorga, discreetly but with good reason. In a
parking lot at RFK Stadium crammed with beat-up imports – the dented
and faded fleet of new immigrants – Mayorga parks one of those buffed
four-wheel-drive vehicles so coveted south of the border. As he struts
toward his stable of elite players, the envy from the men left standing on
the sidelines is palpable.
Mayorga has made it big in two worlds that matter: business and soccer.
His company, M.&R; Partnership Contractors of Silver Spring, has
helped put up hundreds of houses, and on any given day, this immigrant
from El Salvador can be spotted scaling some subdivision-in-progress.
For years, Mayorga's team, El Salvador of Maryland, has been the
powerhouse in Latino soccer. Over lunch at a suburban Chinese
restaurant, he explains how. For the first time, a prominent mover in the
soccer scene says publicly what soccer impresarios throughout the region
only whisper: The good teams are good because they pay salaries. And
Mayorga pays a lot. In 1997, he spent $40,000 – he jokes that he could
have bought a new BMW – in direct salaries to all of his players.
Where team presidents used to provide a good player with "incentives" –
paying for car repairs was a favorite – the best athletes are now
demanding written contracts. Mayorga refused to take that step this year,
and seven players jumped to other teams. That cost him. A team that had
won the Taca Cup two years in a row did not make it to the finals.
"The good players, all the good players," Mayorga said bluntly, "have to
For team owners such as Mayorga, who underwrite teams out of love for
the sport and have no stake in leagues, the aim is not to lose too much
money. Unfortunately, the better his team does, the more he spends. Last
year, winning the cup cost him an additional $8,000 because he had to
pick up expenses for his team's victory lap to El Salvador and Guatemala,
where it played professional teams. For Mayorga, the payoff is a different
kind of currency – a soccer reputation – which goes a long way here.
At this year's cup, three of the four finalists had paid athletes on their
roster. The most interesting of those was Mogotillo, Barrera's team, a
two-time runner-up in the cup and a very successful franchise. Its support
comes from about 4,000 Salvadorans, avid followers who, like Barrera,
hail from the town that gives the team its name and who contribute at each
match. A club official goes through the crowd, collecting money and
jotting down the amount of contributions.
This year, the team's board of directors decided to boost the roster with
pros from El Salvador. They called Barrera, who moved to Mount
Pleasant from El Salvador when he was 8.
Barrera was tutored by two coaches on Mogotillo, Victor "The Gun"
Coreas and Amadeo "The Tractor" Machado, who persuaded a
professional team in El Salvador to take a look at the young prospect. He
was invited for a month-long tryout and not only made the team but also
was selected for the country's national squad, fulfilling a dream.
"I always wanted to play in a team, back in my country, to see how I
was," Barrera said.
With Barrera in El Salvador, recruiting for Mogotillo's efforts here was
easy. Felipe Martinez, the president of the team, called him. " 'We need
two players,' " Martinez recalled saying, "and he said, 'I'll find them for
you.' " It was that easy. The two recruits earned about $70 per game plus
airfare and expenses and played in the cup along with Barrera. The result
is a very talented squad. "Our team," Martinez boasted, "has the ability to
play any professional team in Central America."
The cup finals Aug. 1 pitted Mogotillo against an upstart team made up
players from Honduras: Alianza, which won on penalty kicks. Most of the
members of that team played organized soccer in their native country – 14
of the 20 players began in what is known as the "mosquito league," the
little-league equivalent. "They know each other's soccer potential, and that
has been an enormous help," said Porfirio Benavides, one of the
The entire team has now migrated to Washington, including four who
came this year. Alianza, which takes its name from a municipality in
Honduras, holds picnics and other events to raise money, like Mogotillo
drawing from immigrants. The team does not pay salaries. Players,
however, have all their soccer needs taken care of. Benavides recently
spent $2,400 on cleats alone.
The Latino leagues all describe themselves as nonprofit. Assessing how
much money most teams or leagues produce – or how much a
championship playoff generates, for that matter – is difficult because, with
a few notable exceptions, this is an underground economy without ledgers,
cash only and tax free. The Bolivian soccer league, one of the few that
makes its finances public and uses a professional accountant, had gross
revenue of $28,588 in 1997 and a net profit of $6,795 – evidence that
money can be made.
The Bolivian league and a handful of others are managed by boards of
directors, but most operate like little fiefdoms. "In our league, no one is an
owner," said Carlos Claros, who stepped down as president of the
Bolivian league this year. "That is not the case in most others."
The King of the Cup
Elías Polió is assessing his critics from his perch at a restaurant on
Columbia Pike – La Columbia, as the community calls this east-west
thoroughfare that cuts through Northern Virginia. Polió is 40, portly and
invariably polite. He fits into a particular immigrant mold – the savvy
organizer who for years has seen the untapped business potential in the
booming Latino community. Now, 22 years after he landed in
Washington, Polió is comfortably sitting in what amounts to the owner's
box of local soccer as the president of the area's dominant league and of
the Taca Cup.
Over the last months, as word spread that someone was reporting on the
soccer scene, Polió's critics have come forth. Rumors that Latinos lost
$500,000 when Polió's "informal" business of shipping money and
packages to El Salvador folded in 1990 are not true. The sum was closer
to $200,000, Polió volunteered, noting that the lamentable episode was
investigated by the U.S. attorney's office in the District and that no charges
were filed. (A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said no record of
an investigation shows up.)
"He is the owner, and he determines everything," said Conrado Aguilar,
the president of the Alexandria league and one of the many foes who
question Polió's domination of the Taca Cup and, by extension, the soccer
scene. Aguilar is a founding pillar of the soccer community, among the first
to move the game to the suburbs, but his league has lately lost teams, and
prestige, to Polió and his star-laden International League of Virginia.
"Everything that goes in and out, he controls," Aguilar said. "The question
is, how does Elías spend the money?"
Fausto Fonseca, who founded the Taca Cup in 1992 only to lose it in a
dispute with the airline, doesn't attack Polió directly but makes the same
point. "In the last few years," said Fonseca, now president of the
resurrected Arlington league, the Taca Cup has "been changed and turned
into personal gain."
Polió's primary foe these days is Antonio Gonzales, the president
Prince George's Soccer League and of the rival, and foundering, Pilsner
Cup. Gonzales is convinced Polió undermined his tournament last year
and eventually doomed it – a charge Polió denies. Worse yet, Mayorga
and his high-paying El Salvador of Maryland fled Gonzales's league two
years ago and signed up with Polió's.
To all of this Polió shakes his head, pleads poverty and says his
consumed by envy. He notes that Fonseca, Aguilar, Gonzales and others
have tried over the years to create a soccer federation and a regional
tournament, but their efforts failed, doomed by internal squabbles and
vicious recriminations. "We have a habit of eating one another," is how
Polió describes the mutual antagonism.
Nothing, apparently, whets this appetite as much as money. Even critics
grant that Polió has a good point. "He has been able to do something that
sparks jealousy: He is making money from soccer," said Luís del Aguila, a
veteran of the Latino soccer leagues and the treasurer of Metropolitan
D.C.-Virginia Soccer Association, an umbrella group for the region's
soccer leagues. "The Taca Cup is good, and it has the potential to be
more. And I agree with Elías that you will never satisfy all the Latino teams
that exist in the area. That is impossible."
Polió says the cup over the last two years has done better than
though he maintains it still doesn't make any money. The tournament,
which is free to participating teams, is run by three people: Granillo, who
represents the Taca Group, and Polió and his partner, Oscar Burgos, the
sports director for Radio America, which also sponsors the cup. This
year, in response to questions over the cup's finances, organizers said any
future profits would go to a home for the elderly in El Salvador.
Polió, by virtue of being president of the cup, owns the popular
concession and does not allow competitors. It's unclear how much the
concession generates – Polió's own estimates varied widely, ranging from
a daily take of several hundred dollars to about $2,000. He concedes that
the only profit he makes comes from the food, but he points out that other
league presidents have similar arrangements, either as owners of
concessions or by taking a cut from food sales.
Polió said the arrangement is fair because he is not paid for organizing
event and both he and his family work a long day every Saturday during
the cup. "If I spend all my time there, why can't I do that?" he asked.
The work is hard, and the days are long. Well before the teams showed
one game day, Polió and company set up. Smoke curled up from the
grills, which were protected from the elements by a blue awning anchored
to one of Polió's old, dented vans. Well past sunset, Polió and crew
cleaned up after the crowd, knowing that a messy field would cost them a
fine from the stadium authority.
Polió is a nervous host. There is a lot to do, too many things can
wrong, too many people are watching, too many are waiting to make
money on the field. "As you can see," Polió said, echoing the lament of the
immigrant laborer, "we sweat for our money."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company