A stabbing costs Hyattsville soccer squatters their field.

Neighbors say it had been going on for many years: Every Sunday, dozens of Spanish-speaking futboleros would congregate in the parking lot of the Hyattsville Presbyterian Church, then slip through a hole in the chain-link fence onto the soccer fields behind Nicholas Orem Middle School.

Though not sanctioned by any official soccer league, the pickup games seemed well-organized to observers, given the size of the group. And to judge by the license plates of cars parked in the church lot, they add, people came from all across the region to play.

But no longer. The informal soccer games have been shut down, following a vicious attack during a Sunday match two months ago.

On May 12, Hyattsville police say, 21-year-old Valeriano Cruz of Northwest Washington brandished a knife during play and attacked referee Saul Villatoro, chasing him off the field and stabbing him once in the chest, directly over his heart.

Villatoro survived the incident, though just barely. Doctors told police that if the knife had been any longer, he undoubtedly would be dead. He was released following surgery.

Cruz, meanwhile, sits in a medium-security cell at the Prince George’s County Correctional Center, awaiting trial on charges of attempted first-degree murder, first- and second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and openly carrying a deadly weapon. His attorney has entered a plea of not guilty.

Witnesses told police that the altercation began after Villatoro ejected Cruz from the game, though the exact nature of the referee’s call is unclear. One spectator, who is set to testify against Cruz in court, says the agitated futbolero was simply playing too rough for Villatoro’s liking and had been warned to cool it, but he persisted.

Upon his ejection, Cruz began yelling at Villatoro but then retreated from the field to an area under a tree where spectators were sitting. When play resumed, witnesses told police, he rushed back onto the field with a knife.

When Hyattsville police arrived on the scene, shortly before 1 p.m., they found the wounded referee in the church parking lot. Across the fence, they came upon Cruz, a Salvadoran native who goes by the nickname Gato, being restrained by four fellow

players. Using a bilingual witness as an interpreter, police say, Villatoro identified Cruz as his assailant.

Cruz, contacted through prison officials, declined to discuss the incident, and his attorney failed to return repeated phone calls. Villatoro, meanwhile, could not be reached.

“We don’t really know the circumstances behind it,” says Hyattsville police Sgt. Chris Purvis. “Was the guy drinking? Did he just have a bad day at home? We don’t know if he got gypped on the call, either.”

Police also don’t know what happened to the weapon. None of the estimated 40 to 50 onlookers knew or would say where it was, and a search of the scene failed to turn it up. Purvis says police issued several public-service announcements on Spanish-language radio in the hopes that someone might turn in the knife or provide information leading to its recovery.

However the investigation comes out, the school grounds aren’t hosting Sunday games anymore. The empty fields, located two miles from the Maryland-D.C. border, are a far cry from a perfect pitch. Large spots are entirely bare of grass, covered with nothing but sand and pebbles.

But there are four rusty goal frames, which made it a sufficient setting for a game. With better-groomed fields nearby reserved for sanctioned league play, there was really nowhere else for the off-the-books soccer enthusiasts to go.

“It was a nice outing for them,” recalls nearby resident and former Hyattsville Councilmember Lucille Brogden. “There’s a little park between the church and the field, where the women and children would play while the men were playing soccer.”

The games sparked contention in the surrounding community, however. Churchgoers were annoyed by soccer players’ taking up too many parking spaces, as well as noisy cheering during worship service. Neighbors complained that the players were leaving litter strewn about the field and sometimes using trash bins as urinals.

Such grievances prompted Brogden and other councilmembers to try resolving the issues by speaking to the games’ organizers. Trouble was, they couldn’t locate them.

Says Brogden: “Our first thrust was to find who the officials were, or if it was a league, or if it was sanctioned, and where we could find it. And we were just totally unable to get anywhere with that.”

School officials had no record of the group applying for the appropriate permit to use the field, she says, and city administrators had no information, either.

Officials with the Washington International Soccer League, the Metropolitan D.C.-Virginia Soccer Association, the Prince George’s Soccer Association, and the Latin-league Copa Taca tournament all say they had no affiliation with the group.

“I don’t know what you call it in soccer, but in baseball, you call it ‘sandlot,’” Brogden says. “They’re a group of people who like to play against each other, but it’s not a league of any kind.”

The Sunday after the stabbing, neighbors say, a large group of players returned to the area, only to find the church parking lot crawling with police cruisers, awaiting their arrival.

The would-be players parked their cars on side streets and congregated on the sidewalk across Nicholson Street. But when officers approached, they quickly dispersed. Neighbors haven’t seen them since.

Police say school officials have asked them to increase patrols of the area, with officers empowered to remove any unauthorized persons from school property.

“It kinda stinks,” Purvis says. “They’ve been playing there for years, and this one guy took it so serious and wrought havoc, ruining it for hundreds of other people.”

Abusive acts aimed at referees are nothing new, though the viciousness of this particular attack is unprecedented, says Steve Long, registrar for the Metropolitan D.C.-Virginia Soccer Association. Long has presided over numerous player-discipline hearings since the late ’70s.

“I’ve heard all sorts of reports of refs getting pushed, shoved, or verbally abused,” Long says. “I witnessed one incident where a guy kicked dirt at the ref and covered him up to the middle of his shirt.

“Now, the flashing of a knife, that’s happened before,” he adds. “But no one, so far as I know, has been so brazen as to actually use it.” CP