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There are no soccer nets to be found on the sprawling sports complex in suburban White Oak where El Salvador de Maryland goes out to practice. Yet it is still hallowed ground for 19-year-old Favio Aragon, an injured would-be soccer great.
Behind a manicured row of subdivision homes, up the hill from the sprawling Francis Scott Key Middle School, the practice field stretches out in stark, North American sports-campus splendor. There are baseball backstops, but no soccer goals. The chalk demarcates baselines, not penalty areas. This can be considered a proper soccer field only if you accept the game’s second-class status in American sports. And, as an immigrant from poverty-stricken El Salvador, Aragon doesn’t really have a choice.
It’s been hard for the game to get much respect in America—even harder for the people who play it. But in the nearby suburbs of Silver Spring and Hyattsville, which hold a big part of the D.C. area’s half-million-strong Central American immigrant population, unofficial practice fields like this one serve well enough to uphold a tradition. They are places to celebrate old rivalries, to forget pressing new problems. Soccer fields with nets? They’re usually reserved for the leagues that the American kids play in. This schoolyard ball field has no soccer moms, but it does have an aura. Its mud is punctured by the cleats of guys who have heard the crowds roar in World Cup games. Now they play as Latin-league champions El Salvador de Maryland, whose name signifies a meeting point between Central and North America.
The team also represents a culture kept alive by thousands of new immigrants who carry with them memories of poverty and war. Then again, they also remember swift Salvadoran strikers like Raul Diaz Arce and Mauricio Cienfuegos, and the fan bedlam in the notorious “Vietnam” section of San Salvador’s Cuscatlan Stadium, one of the hemisphere’s most exhilarating and—in terms of hooligan potential—dangerous places to watch soccer.
Central American soccer psychosis travels by car. And usually at a high rate of speed. Until the players drag themselves to practice from their day jobs, Francis Scott Key’s goal-less expanse is quite a peaceful world. The main form of recreation here on this school-day afternoon consists of a few games of fetch, starring a couple of neighborhood golden retrievers and Labradors. It’s a serene landscape surrounded by forest, quiet and tranquil—until 6 p.m. sharp, when a maroon Nissan sedan comes peeling into the empty school parking lot.
The car is followed by a landscaping truck, then a painter’s van, then another sedan, all in quick succession, each one seemingly faster and more reckless than the last. Each comes screeching to a halt. Then, as the parking lot suddenly fills up, doors start popping open and disgorging stout-legged Central American soccer players. They haul black-and-white balls, cleats, water bottles, cones, assorted bits of gear—and tons of imported soccer talent with names such as Juan Gomez, Leonel Suazo, Jose Melendez, and Milton Guerrero.
Technically amateurs, these men are household names to the likes of Aragon, who has spent most of his life in suburban Maryland. Standing on the side of the field, Aragon looks on in awe at the collective swagger of the team. The rumor mill has it that some of these former Central American pros might still be getting cash for their services. Soccer victories mean that much, even in the D.C. area’s small-time amateur Latin leagues. Some players whisper of taking undisclosed “compensation” for their labor of love. Like so much else in the immigrants’ underground economy of bad wages and undocumented work, spots on this soccer team roster are highly coveted—and any compensation is strictly off-the-books.
The players’ cars are followed by a black Ford F-350 extended-cab pickup truck, a new 4-by-4 model with six wheels and a gleaming wax job that reflects the blue firmament above. Out steps a short, barrel-chested man with a beard, a blue warm-up suit, and a certain air of authority. He struts onto the field with the confident demeanor of a boss, which he is, as the founding owner of the team. It’s Herbert Mayorga, the team’s guiding force and coach, and quite simply the godfather of D.C.’s Central American soccer scene. His team has won 60 regional awards and championships since it coalesced around a group of Salvadoran construction workers in 1984. The sounds of heavy bass and syncopated salsa music trumpet Mayorga’s arrival, blasting from one or two other car radios. Clipped Spanish fills the air.
The motorcade is complete; El Salvador de Maryland has arrived. Nets or no nets, they’re here to play futbol. And to remake their adopted environment in the image of their homeland.
For Aragon, who came to this area when he was 3 years old, watching El Salvador de Maryland practice is almost too painful to endure. He’s got a back injury; if he could play, he would be trying out for the team. He’s here anyway, out on the practice field, watching trainer Pedro Quezada put the team through a tough workout of laps, sprints, scrimmages, and abdominal exercises. It’s not over until dark—or whenever Quezada kneels over a soccer ball and leads the team in the Lord’s Prayer. “It’s mandatory that you take the game seriously,” Aragon says.
Aragon played for John F. Kennedy High School and had dreams of someday playing for El Salvador de Maryland and then, perhaps, for a professional team in Italy, where a giant soccer industry pays players big money. “The first thing I ever held was a soccer ball,” he says. “It’s the sport I love. And if I can make some money at it, I’m gone.”
Since Aragon chipped his spine in a car crash, his dream of soccer glory has been as clouded as the cigarette smoke he’s puffing on the side of the field. “The hardest thing is not playing,” he says. He recounts how he learned the game from his father, who brought his family to the D.C. area in 1984. “I want to hold the ball under my feet. If I lose some of this gut and keep practicing, I know I can make it.”
Maybe. But if he ever does make it onto Mayorga’s team—which looks doubtful right now—Aragon will be taking a giant leap into one of the Salvadoran community’s proudest dynasties, which reflects both the glories and the disappointments that brought many of its members to the U.S. Their stories often echo Aragon’s, whose father had to escape a civil war in which young men were being either drafted or brutalized by the army. “He had wanted to be a math teacher,” Aragon says. Now his dad works alternately in construction or as a restaurant cook in the Maryland suburbs.
Aragon stamps out his cigarette and motions over to a couple of other men on the sidelines, watching their sons practice. There’s also Danny, the 4-year-old son of one of the players, eating a bag of Chee-tos. Counting Danny, who wants to play like his dad, the sideline spectator section contains three generations: past, present, and future soccer players. The tradition is being passed on, from father to son. Mayorga’s son, 15-year-old Herbert Jr., started getting playing time on El Salvador de Maryland this year. He wears his father’s jersey, No. 13. “In El Salvador, you always have two coaches,” Aragon says. “There’s the coach, and then there’s your father.” For Herbert Mayorga Jr., they’re wrapped up into one.
The 1999 Copa Taca (Taca Cup) trophy, the D.C. area’s premier Latin-league championship award, now resides inside a glass case in Mayorga’s basement. It’s a 2-foot-high golden icon of the world in which he lives. A perennial favorite to win the summerlong tournament held on the auxiliary fields outside RFK Memorial Stadium, his team is the toast—and the envy—of the Washington area’s burgeoning Salvadoran community of 350,000 people.
Some of El Salvador de Maryland’s players, like Guerrero, played professionally back home in El Salvador. For Guerrero, a truck driver, stepping onto the playing fields outside RFK on weekends is something of an escape from the anonymity of his new country. His brush with the pros in El Salvador puts him in an elite group here, in a metropolitan area with two dozen Latin leagues, hundreds of teams, and more than 5,000 players. It nearly puts him in the same company as Melendez, a painter who played for the now-defunct Washington Diplomats and the national team of his native Honduras. There are stars from other countries, as well. But Salvadorans, driven to emigrate in greater numbers by their country’s past civil war, seem to be the dominant group in the leagues. “El Salvador is a small country,” Aragon explains. “But we’re like ants. We’re everywhere.”
Among the Salvadorans, Guerrero’s story is typical. Between the jobs the players can get in the U.S. and whatever they make unofficially for playing in the local “amateur” leagues, there’s a decent life to be had here, although it comes with a price: homesickness and longing for the glory of faraway soccer stadiums like Cuscatlan in San Salvador.
Still, it’s not as if money, prestige, and the cutthroat competition they engender aren’t a part of the local soccer scene. Much of the talk around the fields outside RFK on a recent Sunday is about the gunfire that erupted the night before at an awards banquet of the Salvadoran Soccer League, a D.C.-based Latin league that plays in Anacostia Park. Nobody was shot, but five people were hit by glass or debris as somebody on the street sprayed bullets toward a party of about 100 people inside the St. Augustine Catholic School near 14th and V Streets NW.
“We don’t know who they were, or why they wanted to bother us, but we’re trying to find out,” says Eliseo Ventura, president of the Salvadoran Soccer League. The league anoints a “queen” every year, and this year was no different than the rest, he says. Whether this year’s dust-up was related to a drunken dispute or a soccer rivalry is a mystery police are still trying to sort out.
What is certain is that, outside of the restaurant business, the soccer scene is where Washington’s Central American community is most visible. Central America-based Taca Airlines, which knows a prime marketing opportunity when it sees one, sinks about $50,000 a year into the competition that bears its name. Part of that investment involves flying each year’s Copa Taca winning team—22 players—to El Salvador and Guatemala to play against the pros.
As defending Copa Taca champion, El Salvador de Maryland got an extra perk this year when the team was invited to Atlanta to play against a Jamaican squad that had seven “Reggae Boyz” from that country’s 1998 World Cup team. The Salvadorans got banged around a bit in a very physical match on May 28, but they played the Jamaicans to a 0-0 draw. It was just the kind of seemingly uneventful match that repels native-born Americans. But to soccer purists, the game proved a close defensive contest, the rough equivalent of a pitchers’ duel in baseball. Guerrero figured that his team had more than held its own in a demanding match. He would have been satisfied with a 0-0 result. But in a surprise departure from the custom of “friendly” international soccer matches, the officials in Atlanta announced a sudden-death overtime. Perhaps the American audience needed a winner. In any case, it got one: The Jamaicans scored a goal and won 1-0.
But in local Salvadoran soccer lore, the local boys played the Jamaicans to a tie, or at least barely lost to a team that by rights should have creamed them.
In a parallel universe, Guerrero might now be playing professional soccer for C.D. Aguila, his hometown team in San Miguel. But then, if he had stayed in El Salvador, he might also have been killed by an exploding shell, like his 3-year-old half-brother Esau. Or, if he had survived the long civil war, he says half-jokingly, he might be scrounging for ways to support five children by now.
Instead, Guerrero, 25, is the field captain for El Salvador de Maryland. Eleven years after arriving in the States, he lives comfortably in a two-story house in Hyattsville, which he bought last year with his Salvadoran wife, Gisela Guerrero. They met at Northwestern High School, where he was the star of a championship soccer team. He drives a truck for a recycling company in Rockville; she works in a downtown D.C. office. They don’t have kids yet. They’re upwardly mobile wage-earners, El Salvador’s second generation in the D.C. area. In the prom photos that hang on their stairway wall, Guerrero’s dark-brown eyes sparkle and his wavy black hair is coiffed fashionably short around the sides, long on the top. In a white suit, he has the look of a Casanova.
The black Magnavox TV in the living room is hooked up to cable, which on this weekday afternoon is transmitting a Euro 2000 soccer match from Belgium. Guerrero, up since before dawn for his recycling route in Montgomery County, sprawls out in his undershirt on the couch and takes in the game. The commentary is in English—a departure from the Spanish-language TV he grew up with even in the States.
The eldest of four children, Guerrero had the singular luck of coming to the U.S. legally on an airplane, through the auspices of his father, who had already been in the D.C. area for 10 years. For his father, it was a chance to make amends for having divorced and left Guerrero’s mother back in El Salvador soon after Guerrero was born. The father sent money, but he was otherwise absent from his son’s life.
Meanwhile, Guerrero’s mother remarried and had three more children. One of them was Esau, who was killed by an explosion in a running skirmish between army troops and guerrillas around San Miguel. But two others survived the war: Jaime Chevez, now 23, and Ada Rivera, who is 20. Like their half-brother, they followed the Salvadoran migration to the Maryland suburbs. Unlike their half-brother, they were forced to take the well-beaten underground trail to America: overland by bus through Guatemala and Mexico, and then over the Rio Grande river—illegally—on foot or in a smuggler’s truck.
Guerrero doesn’t even like to think about the chances his siblings took to get here. Their father was in El Salvador, unable to help them with either visas or money. Rivera arrived in 1995, around the time Guerrero was flirting with a professional soccer career back home. He wasn’t even in the U.S. when she got here. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “But I know the trip takes about a month—and a lot of money. It’s dangerous, and a lot of people die along the way.”
As a U.S. citizen, Guerrero had the luxury of going back and forth to El Salvador freely, without having to worry about having “good papers.” That’s why in 1995 he found himself back in El Salvador with his Northwestern High teammate, Melvin Barrera, a fellow Salvadoran with lightning-quick goalie moves. They also had played together for Mogotillo, a rival team in the local Latin leagues, where Barrera’s reflexes had earned him the nickname “the Scorpion.”
Barrera went on to play professionally in El Salvador, in a temporary reverse migration. Barrera’s career later shot into the soccer stratosphere of the El Salvador national team, where he played alongside Salvadoran heroes Diaz Arce (now of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United) and Cienfuegos (now of the major league’s L.A. Galaxy).
Guerrero was also recruited by C.D. Aguila, which is a professional team, but he played only one game. Though he loved the excitement, it was not steady money. His salary, if the owners were living up to their obligations, was 3,500 colones a month, roughly the equivalent of $400. “My heart was in soccer, but it just didn’t pay,” he says. A bit reluctantly, he decided to come back to the States.
“I miss my beautiful country,” Guerrero says. “The hard part is being apart from your family. But it’s hard to live in El Salvador. There are no jobs, and if you do work, it’s not enough money to live on.”
Of his immediate family, only his mother remains in El Salvador. She’s never been the same, Guerrero says, since she saw Esau die. “She saw everything,” her son says. “The last thing he did was ask for water. But then he died immediately.”
Like many Salvadorans who fled to the U.S., Guerrero expresses ambivalence about the war that ravaged his country between 1980 and 1992. Though it left scars on almost everyone, it’s a subject they’d rather leave behind. And while different families might have harbored different sympathies, Guerrero says most people, like his half-brother Esau, were just caught in the crossfire. “The guerrillas said they were helping the people,” he shrugs, “But how? When you destroy villages, how are you helping the people?”
Guerrero has tried to get his mother out, but her feelings about coming to America seem to change from day to day. Guerrero got her a ticket to visit in January, but she didn’t want to stay. “She missed El Salvador, and she missed her husband,” Guerrero says.
Now Guerrero generally sees his mother every couple of years, usually on a return visit care of Taca Airlines after El Salvador de Maryland has won the Copa Taca championship. So for him, soccer is not just a way to re-create a bit of El Salvador on the weekends on a field outside RFK stadium. It’s literally a ticket home.
One balmy Saturday afternoon in June, a particularly large crowd has turned out at RFK’s auxiliary fields next to Oklahoma Avenue NE to see El Salvador de Maryland, the 1999 Copa Taca champion, against River Plate, the runner-up, which takes its name from a popular pro team in Argentina. It’s the first rematch of the 2000 Copa Taca season.
At 1 p.m., just an hour before game time, Melendez, El Salvador de Maryland’s marquee player, is in the impromptu kitchen set up near the field, standing behind a smoking grill, smiling and exchanging idle gossip with four Salvadoran women who are balling up the flour tortillas that make up pupusas. They’re surrounded by bags of charcoal and propane tanks. Under a banner that says Bud Light, they’re also serving up sodas and Gatorade that’s kept in giant coolers. But no beer is being served. Cup organizer Elias Polio, a Falls Church travel agency proprietor who also owns the concession, wants to maintain a family atmosphere. That’s not to say that young men aren’t drinking beer out in the parking lot, but that’s their business, Polio says. Inside the gates, where fans pay a guy in a Panama hat $5 to enter, many of the young men are quenching their thirst by sucking on mango strips that have been cut up and sold in plastic bags, Central American-style.
Melendez seems right at home in the hot kitchen, with the merengue rhythms bopping on the portable Sony radio. He works there because he needs the extra cash, but he definitely cuts a different figure from the rest of the kitchen help in this down-home operation. For one, he’s the only man. For another, he’s wearing his blue-and-white No. 12 jersey, not a flowery apron.
After a hot stint behind the grill, while other games go on, Melendez steps onto the field to join his team’s long-anticipated match. The action gets under way beneath darkening storm clouds. By halftime, a steady deluge has created a huge puddle in the middle of the field. It feels like the tropics. Most of the 600 or so spectators have left the bleachers and crammed under the pupusa stand—the only refuge from the weather. Despite the crackling of thunder and lightning, the refs wave the teams back onto the field for the second half. Because the fields cost nearly $2,000 a day to rent, it’s unlikely the officials are going to let a little lightning stop the action.
Aficionados call it the “beautiful game,” but the sport of soccer has been infected around the world by coaches who play not to win, but, rather, play not to lose. The plague is especially pronounced at the oh-so-cautious international level—the level most American television spectators see—where losses mean national dishonor and broken careers. Unfortunately, this trend has only intensified since the ’70s, when the sport was introduced to the United States at the pro level. And American sports fans hate those desultory 0-0 or 1-1 ties—and the coaches who produce them.
Mayorga is not one of those coaches. If his temperament were that timid, he’d probably still be in El Salvador. And it shows in the way El Salvador de Maryland attacks, attacks, attacks. Mayorga paces the sideline, often with an index finger in the air like a lecturing professor, imploring his players to keep control when they have the ball, to keep pressing for it when they don’t. Good plays are rewarded by calls of “¡Bien hecho!” (“Well done!”) and “¡Que lindo!” (“Beautiful!”). When El Salvador de Maryland is in possession, the ball moves from player to player the way Mayorga likes it—like the cue ball on a pool table, hardly ever going into the air. It’s a precise, short-passing style of soccer; there are few of the long booming balls that characterize the Anglicized version of the game.
Still, as the match enters its late phases in the mud, El Salvador de Maryland and River Plate are slogging it out to a 1-1 tie. Then, with less than 15 minutes left, Julian Orellana, one of Mayorga’s top players, is ejected after the referee shows him the red card for a hard tackle.
At that point, playing a man down, most coaches would drop everyone back to defense and try to salvage a tie. Not Mayorga. “We never go back,” he says, wincing with grit and determination. He urges his team forward, searching for the winning goal and the league dominance the players believe should be theirs.
With a few minutes left, the whole team is caught forward on the offense. River Plate launches a quick counterattack. Goalie Edwin Cruz is left by himself to face an onrushing River Plate forward one on one. Cruz, whose team nickname is Monkey, has little choice but to dive at his opponent’s feet, sending the forward sprawling into the box. For his trouble, Cruz gets a cut next to his right eye. A penalty kick is awarded to River Plate. Cruz dives right. The shot goes left. Game over: River Plate, 2; El Salvador de Maryland, 1. The first loss of the season.
“Hacia futbol” (“That’s soccer”), Mayorga tells his dejected team, standing around a Rubbermaid drinking cooler after the game. “You win and you lose.” There’s a pause. Then he continues: “The important thing is just that you don’t get used to losing.”
Melendez goes back to his post at the pupusa stand.
By the age of 17, Melendez had achieved an elite status in Honduran society, earning the white national-team jersey of his soccer-crazed country—a country that fought a border war with El Salvador in 1969 to avenge a controversial defeat in a soccer championship between the two nations. (El Salvador won the three-game championship; the “war” was a short stalemate characterized by a few inconclusive border skirmishes and bombing runs.)
To comprehend the honor of playing for the Honduran national team, it helps to understand that soccer is no mere national pastime in this part of the world. “In Central America, it’s an endemic form of madness,” Lorenzo Dee Belveal wrote in The Great Honduras-Salvador Football War. “There’s nothing else in the form of sports that can begin to approach the levels of passion it evokes in this land.”
Although impoverished Honduras didn’t qualify for the 1986 World Cup finals during Melendez’s tenure on the team, the teenager made a memorable contribution toward salvaging the national pride by scoring a goal in a 2-1 victory over Hamburg, a visiting professional team from Big Bad Germany, one of the globe’s most potent soccer machines. Moments like that are remembered in the Latin leagues.
At the same time, Melendez was also playing for a professional Honduran soccer team called Victoria. A few years later, he was recruited by the now-defunct American Soccer League’s Washington Diplomats. That team called Melendez up after seeing him play in a 1987 Ambassador Cup game at RFK as a member of the Honduran national team. Moments like that are also remembered.
So it is poignant for his old fans to see Melendez, now 32, playing amateur ball in an El Salvador de Maryland jersey, organizing the attack on a field outside RFK. For the fans, it’s also poignant to see Suazo, Melendez’s teammate on both the Honduran national team and the Diplomats. At 40, Suazo is the bearded sage of El Salvador de Maryland’s on-field strike force.
And it is even more jarring to see Melendez in the open-air kitchen next to the field on game days, in his uniform, selling carne asada and pupusas. Goals and spicy Salvadoran delicacies. It’s all in a day’s work. For the father of two, with twins expected in December, the extra money supplements the income from a job on a painting crew at RFK, where he got his start in American soccer. “My life has always revolved around soccer,” he says. “If I can’t play on the big field anymore, at least this is a way to stay close. I’m happy. It couldn’t be better.”
America has been good to Coach Mayorga. The directions to his sprawling estate outside Burtonsville, Md., just off of the Patuxent River, end like this: “Take a right at [the last intersection], and it’s the only house on the road.”
The obligatory tour of the family home, surrounded by 3 acres of forest, almost seems like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: marble floors, mirrored walls, a master bedroom with a jacuzzi and fireplace, a huge Angler motorboat parked in the driveway, and the basement trophy case holding the 60 trophies and plaques that chronicle El Salvador de Maryland’s 16 years of soccer success. The honors include Copa Taca championships in 1994, 1996, and 1999. No need to pity this poor immigrant.
At the age of 18, with his father’s blessing, Mayorga left his family’s grocery and restaurant business in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, and came to America. He left because the National University, which he had wanted to attend, had closed due to political unrest. He drove up by car with a friend and sneaked across the border on foot into California. A network of contacts brought him to Washington, where he started out working construction jobs. Over the past 26 years, he has built up his own construction company in Maryland. He became a U.S. citizen five years ago. Most of his crews are made up of more recent Salvadoran immigrants; everyone, he says, is legal. As he sits in his living room talking about his life, his crews are putting the finishing touches on his mansion, which has been two years in the making.
“People like me who came a long time ago, we have worked hard,” Mayorga says. “We were never satisfied to stay at the lower level of society. We go one step at a time. But each step has to be higher. I’m not going to be tied to the ground.”
At 43, Mayorga still takes nothing for granted in the pursuit of his dream. He’s usually at one of his construction sites by 6 a.m., and if he makes it to the 6 p.m. team practice on time, then he’s knocked off work early.
In many respects, Mayorga’s talk of hard work and discipline reads right out of the classic immigrant’s script. But you need only look at the big-screen TV, the pool table, and the sauna in his basement to see that his is not the typical immigrant’s story—unless the typical immigrant is Andrew Carnegie. In any case, Mayorga’s personal drive can be credited with single-handedly transforming amateur Latin soccer in the D.C. area, making it a little less “amateur,” if you will.
After years of playing around in the D.C.-based Metropolitan Soccer League and other early incarnations of the current league structure, Mayorga decided to get serious about indulging his lifelong soccer passion. He and a core of construction buddies joined together in 1984 into an all-Salvadoran all-star team. Because D.C. already had a Salvadoran team, and because he and most of his Salvadoran friends had moved out to the suburbs, they called themselves El Salvador de Maryland.
The name is not as incongruous as it sounds. Despite the popular American image of Hispanic immigrants living on top of each other in sweltering inner-city tenements, the biggest chunks of D.C.’s Latino community now live in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. It’s where the jobs are. And it’s where they like it. For Salvadorans are not, for the most part, city dwellers.
“We are not town people,” Mayorga says. “We are from the country.” And in some strange respects, he adds, exurban parts of Maryland somewhat resemble El Salvador, with their rolling hills and small towns. Like a lot of suburbanites, Mayorga is loath even to drive through the District: “If I have to go to Virginia,” he says, “I take the Beltway.”
Mayorga’s daughter, Cindy, a student at Boston University, notes that her father’s only vice is soccer. “He doesn’t drink,” she says. “Soccer is his drug.”
And he’s a perfectionist, of sorts. His team has to be as organized, tidy, and disciplined as he is. Unlike most other Latin-league teams, it has always had a trainer, coach, and regular practices, which are mandatory. If players aren’t willing to make that commitment, they can go join other teams. Not surprisingly, El Salvador de Maryland crushes a lot of those other teams by large margins, wins a lot of league competitions, and attracts the best players, like Melendez, Suazo, and Guerrero. Also not surprisingly, a few people resent it. And so the word started spreading a long time ago that Mayorga, in violation of the amateur spirit of the Latin leagues, was lavishing his wealth on his top players to keep them in his fold.
Mayorga acknowledged paying players thousands of dollars in a 1998 Washington Post article, but he backs off that admission now. His description of the player arrangements is guarded, however: “There’s no formal salary for anybody,” he says. “But if players need something, and they ask you a favor, we’ll see what we can do about it. You have to compensate people somehow, because they sacrifice a lot of their time, even time off from work, to practice and play. It’s a big commitment, and we all have families to support.”
Taca regional sales manager Gloria Granillo, one of the organizers of the Copa Taca tournament, says she is not bothered if some team owners are generous toward their players. “So what?” she asks. “They play soccer because they love it. It’s difficult for Americans to understand. Nobody is making a living at this.”
Granillo, however, is careful to stay out of the team rivalries that lead to accusations and counteraccusations. “To understand the Latin leagues, you have to know they all have their own directors, boards, or owners,” she says. “They’re all jealous of each other. If you get involved, you’ll just get in trouble.”
What Granillo does know about Mayorga’s largess is that it extends to college scholarships for Salvadoran students he’s never met on a soccer field or anywhere else. And, of course, she knows he’s passionate about soccer. “He takes his soccer very seriously,” she says. “People love him or hate him, but they all want to beat him.”
Given El Salvador de Maryland’s cachet in the Latin soccer scene, Mayorga claims, he doesn’t have to pay to attract players to the team. “The problem is keeping players, because on this team, they have to compete to get playing time.”
The roster of Latin teams looks like a geographic index of Central America: Municipal Limeno, Usulutan, Honduras, and so on. Borrowing the soccer cachet of the homeland costs nothing. But fielding an amateur team, even without salaries, has its costs, from uniforms and cleats to entrance fees, referee payments, and field rentals. It’s hardly big business, but a single pair of cleats can cost upward of $100. So organizing a 22-member team isn’t something you do on a dishwasher’s salary. And if you want to beat El Salvador de Maryland now, you probably want to hire a trainer or a coach.
But whether or not other teams “compensate” their players, it is clear that standards have been pulled up to compete with El Salvador de Maryland. “Ten, 15 years ago, most of the teams were guys who went out on the weekends and kicked the ball around on a field,” Mayorga says. “Our team has taught all the others about the need to practice. In the last 10 years, most of the teams started getting serious by hiring coaches and practicing.”
Mayorga knows his intensity hasn’t won many friends among other teams and their fans. There was also grumbling a few years back when he decided to bail out of the Maryland leagues and join Polio’s Virginia International Soccer League, where he considers the competition better. But Mayorga says he’s not out to win popularity contests; he’s out to hoist a cup at the end of the season. “Nobody likes our team, but everyone wants to watch us play,” he says. “The other teams play their best, and the fans always cheer against us. There’s a lot of envy.”
Polio, the Copa Taca’s on-field manager, understands the immigrant’s soccer yearning as well as anybody. He makes a living at it. His enterprises all market to one or another aspect of the immigrant experience: He gets a salary to run the for-profit Virginia International Soccer League, owns a travel agency that specializes in trips to Central America, and organizes the Copa Taca, which is open to the champions of each of the Latin leagues. A major perk of his role as Copa Taca organizer is the rights to the Salvadoran food concession where Melendez works. The kitchen is run by Polio’s wife, Laura Polio, and daughter Roxana, a second-year student at George Mason University.
“People work 50 hours a week or more and have little time to visit friends or see anybody,” Polio says. “On the weekends, they want to come out and be with their families or friends to play soccer or watch soccer. They come together and create something typical of where they come from.”
Catering to this niche, the Copa Taca itself has three commercial sponsors: Budweiser, Kappa (a merchandiser of sports gear), and Taca Airlines. But Polio says that the tournament merely breaks even after paying for field rental, referees, security, player insurance, and special uniforms—costs the tournament, rather than the individual teams, must bear.
Still, the tournament is a growing platform for Polio’s other businesses, an entrepreneurial nexus that inspires both awe and envy in some of the other team and league owners. Polio has managed to turn soccer into an immigrant gold mine.
And whatever the frictions, no one can deny that Polio, himself a former pro player in El Salvador, has come a long way since he came to the U.S. illegally in 1975. He spent nearly a decade living in an underground economy of restaurants and odd jobs in the D.C. area, where he spoke little English but had “a few friends.” After nine years, he gained citizenship and legal residency.
Polio’s father still lives in El Salvador, as do a brother and a sister. The separation from his family has been painful, he says, especially the first year. “But we don’t have any choice,” he adds.
So it’s not surprising that Polio set out to make a living forging connections to back home. And that meant travel and soccer. Polio Travel was born of selling airline tickets out of his home. The Copa Taca was born of the amateur Latin leagues that had been spontaneously organized for decades. “Outside of church,” he says, “it’s the biggest way to socialize.”
Back at his day job inside RFK Stadium, Melendez stands near the B Gate on the edge of the lush grassy playing field and adjusts his white painter’s cap with the five-star Honduran national emblem. From that field, where he used to play as a visiting Honduran national player and later as a Washington Diplomat, the walls of orange, purple, and yellow seats seem to rise up to the heavens themselves. Even when they’re bereft of people, the stands look as if they could close in and crush you.
In his head, Melendez replays the chanting and the dancing of the crowds, the touches of the ball out on the field, the swoosh of hard shots driven into the back of the net. There was the time the Honduras fans, seeing Melendez, Suazo, and other members of the Honduran national team stepping out of the tunnel from the locker rooms, let out such a roar that the pair felt as if they were playing back home.
Those days are over, at least for Melendez. At 32, he knows, realistically, that he’s fallen off the recruiting radar of Major League Soccer. “Besides,” he says, “D.C. United doesn’t seem to be interested in local players.”
Former D.C. United coach Bruce Arena (currently the U.S. national team coach) has been seen outside the stadium watching Copa Taca games on the auxiliary fields. But rarely, it seems, has anything come of it for the Latin players who are making a new stand in a new country.
Apart from D.C. United acquisitions like Sergio Salas and Jose Alegria, who tried out after starting in the Latin leagues, the team—like the rest of Major League Soccer—relies mainly on college talent. There are two reasons for this situation, says D.C. United spokesperson Boris Flores. First, college players have the training “structure” that is thought to be needed at the professional level. Second, each team has a four-player cap for foreign nationals, although that doesn’t count resident aliens with green cards.
One explanation for the cap, Flores says, is to develop American soccer talent. But another is marketing: League officials believe that one of the reasons previous professional leagues folded in the U.S. was the predominance of foreign players. “The American fan can’t identify with that product,” Flores says.
So the “Americanized” brand of soccer—at the professional level—is played inside RFK, and the Latin game is played outside on the auxiliary fields. Not that this has diminished Latin soccer bravado. “D.C. United is a good team,” Mayorga allows. “But I think they would be afraid to play us.”
Win or lose in the Latin leagues, everyone leaves happy. The Copa Taca final beckons at the end of summer. Life is good. There’s another week of work, and at the end of it there’s another weekend of soccer. “Futbol is in our hearts,” Melendez says in his native Spanish. “When there’s no futbol, there’s sadness.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.