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Not your Soccer Mom's Soccer 

Area Latinos come together on fútbol fields

The parking lot is filled with late-model sedans and pick-up trucks sporting dings and scratches -- a million miles away from the soccer-ball-stickered SUVs and minivans parked around the fields at Freedom Park. And yet the game remains the same -- fútbol, or soccer, if you will.

On the field behind the Smith Academy of International Languages on Tyvola Road, the action is fast-paced and aggressive, with a steady stream of Spanish chatter as players kick, pass, bump into each other and score. Dirt patches show through where the grass has died, but that doesn't stop the players. This is real soccer, not the soccer mom kind. There are no color-coordinated uniforms or $100 cleats from the mall. Most of the players are shirtless and wearing scruffy gym shorts.

Many of the players on the field today are practicing for the weekly Sunday morning soccer games at Ramblewood Park on Nations Ford Road, where as many as 3,000 people regularly show up. Much like time-honored Southern traditions of football and old-time family reunions, soccer -- specifically Sunday morning matches -- is an integral part of the Hispanic community. That tradition has been transplanted to the Charlotte area, thanks in part to the North Carolina International Soccer League.

Jesús Alfredo Cevallos, born and raised in Ecuador, started the NCISL in 1997, two years after he moved to Charlotte. From 12 teams in its first year, the league has grown to 56 teams consisting of about 1,200 players that make up the NCISL.

"It was not easy, but it has been worth it," says Cevallos, a dignified, avuncular man who wears glasses and sports a mustache. In addition to presiding over the NCISL, Cevallos also helps publish a weekly pamphlet called Global Sports, which updates the soccer league's scores and other events.

One of the NCISL's top-ranked teams is Vallenese, coached by Raul Rivera, who moved to Charlotte from Mexico eight years ago. Rivera played professional soccer in Mexico and joined the NCISL in 2001 to coach.

"My wife and three little boys come out every Sunday to watch," says Rivera, who works as a painter. "I'm going to start coaching them soon."

One of the Vallenese team's toughest opponents is the Real España team, coached by Guillermo Carcamo, who owns a construction and handyman business. Carcamo was born in Honduras, where he and his younger brother grew up playing soccer. Carcamo and his family moved to Charlotte from Miami in 1995, and like Rivera, Carcamo joined NCISL in 2001 as a coach.

"I'm too old and fat to play," says the 43-year-old Carcamo with a laugh. "But I love to coach. My team plays great."

The region's growing number of Hispanic and Latino immigrants has brought an increasing number of soccer leagues. In this area alone, there's now the Monroe-based Interamerican Sport Organization and the Gastonia-based Latin American Soccer league, both of which play in Charlotte parks. Mike Cozza, Mecklenburg Parks and Rec's public information coordinator, says demand for soccer fields from adult Hispanic or Latino teams has nearly tripled since 2000.

In some cases, these leagues do more than just organize soccer games. In 2003, Cevallos moved the NCISL headquarters to a concrete block building on South Boulevard, which also has an indoor soccer field. It's pretty no-frills, compared to Charlotte's other indoor soccer facilities, but Cevallos has equipped the building with several old videogame machines and a foosball table for kids, making the NCISL building a popular gathering place for friends and family members.

On Sept. 10, the NCISL plans to celebrate Central America's Independence Day with a festival, which will include the soccer league playoffs. (A location has not yet been determined; for more information, check out the web site www.ncisl.net.) NCISL marketing specialist Fatima Flores says the league is about helping connect its members to legal and medical services, and encouraging young men to make positive contributions to the community.

"A lot of our players have been victims of crime, or they get steered in the wrong direction," says Flores, who was born and raised in Honduras. "He (Cevallos) is looked at by many of the players almost like a father -- someone they can go to and ask for help and advice. NCISL is about more than just soccer. We try and help our people."

Did You Know

There is little integration among US and Hispanic sports leagues, but that could change. The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) recently created a program called Underserved Areas (USA). Its mission is to start soccer leagues in low-income communities among minority groups, including Hispanics. A model USA league was started in California earlier this year, and if it's a success, the AYSO hopes to start similar programs across the country, including North Carolina. Mecklenburg Parks and Rec sponsors a summer camp called Camp Cultural Discovery at Shamrock Garden Recreation Center, which includes several multicultural activities, including soccer. The park system also sponsors a soccer camp at Albemarle Road Recreation Center in August, in which a variety of ethnic groups are expected to participate.

Have an idea for Urban Explorer? Contact Sam Boykin at sam.boykin@cln.com, or call 704-944-3623.

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