Soccer with a Latin flavor

There's a small, uneven field of grass and bare dirt on the grounds of Ellicott City's Town and Country Apartments that bears little resemblance to the many level soccer fields that dot Howard County.

Yet a soccer field is just what it becomes each summer evening when a group of predominantly Hispanic players descends upon it for a nightly match.


That humble patch provides a space for regular, free-wheeling play uncharacteristic of the thousands of youth players in organized leagues and clubs that dominate the sport in this soccer-loving county.

"We're out here every night around 6 o'clock," said Juan Garcia, 23, one of the older players in a group that is diverse in age and national origin. Players from nine nations, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, were present one recent evening.


Garcia moved to the United States several years ago from El Salvador. Like all of the players, he lives in the nearby apartments, and the field offers them the quickest, most affordable access to the game they clearly love and that seems ingrained in Latin American culture.

Never mind that one corner of that field slopes abruptly down to a culvert and that attacking players on the opposite end, just to the right of the goal, cope with an extra defender, a large boulder.

"We try to do this every day, even sometimes when it rains," said Carlos Urtecho, 14, a native of Peru who says he plays soccer whenever and wherever he can. "Yesterday, I was up at the SoccerDome."

SoccerDome is a three-field, indoor arena that opened in Jessup in December and that, for several reasons, has become a mecca of sorts for area Hispanic players.

"The entire staff here is bilingual," said SoccerDome manager Jose Benitez. The arena also has television monitors that carry numerous soccer programs narrated in Spanish. And several nights each week, a late-night league accommodates the irregular work schedules of restaurant workers, many of whom are Spanish-speaking.

But playground ball is the name of the game on the Town and Country patch.

Before each evening's match, several balls are in play as players tune up and show off their skills.

Shots collected or fired off by the head abound, interspersed with an occasional ground-hugging blast designed to stay under the imaginary cross-bar that tops the elm and small rock designating one goal.


Slowly, the nightly game takes shape. Older players generally square off on opposing squads with the younger players evenly distributed between teams that, typically, have five or six players.

David Borjas, 13, from Honduras, along with his brother Sergio, 10, are fixtures. David Borjas does his best work at the field's small end, away from the culvert, where the narrow confines place a premium on footwork with less need for the speed advantage that the older players hold over their younger peers.

David Borjas said he played briefly this spring in an area youth league but missed most of his games because he had to baby-sit his brother Denilson, whose name honors a Brazilian World Cup standout now playing with a pro team in Spain.

Although Gordon Kimble, outreach program director for the 6,000-player Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County, has not seen the Town and Country matches, he has become familiar with the passion for soccer fostered among Hispanics elsewhere in the county.

"A lot of these kids grow up with soccer as the only sport that they play," he said, adding that many are exposed to the game as early as 2 or 3 years old.

Kimble works through guidance counselors at county schools to identify minority pupils that might not be able to participate in SAC/HC leagues without some financial or logistical assistance. The club provides that help.


Most, but not all of the soccer elders at Town and Country are Hispanic, though. One regular participant is Rob Curtis, 23, a Columbia-raised player who was drawn by the well-played, daily games and decided to "come out and knock it around."

"You've got to prove you should be up [field], playing forward," Curtis shouts across the field to David Borjas.

Curtis should know, having played forward and center midfield for the 1997 Class 3A state champion Wilde Lake High School team.

Moments later, Borjas is back up the right side of the field, scoring on a nifty shot from the wing.

"Now you can stay up. You only needed to score one," Curtis added with a smile as Borjas jogs back to midfield.