MANATEE -- Bradenton’s Ervin Lopez repairs cars in Oneco Monday through Friday.
But on Sundays, clad in his purple shirt and with his adoring family cheering from the sidelines, he’s a star soccer defender for the team Marquense in the Latin American Soccer League.
On Sunday, his team defeated Municipal, 2-0, in the second of two championship games that ended the league season.
So, just where are the matches of the Latin American Soccer League played?
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Are they in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Bogata or Caracas?
Try Manatee County.
Founded in Palmetto in 1988 by former tomato picker Francisco Walle Sr. and still going strong after 23 years, the Latin American Soccer League brings all the color of an international soccer match to local venues like G.T. Bray Park and the State Road 70 soccer fields off Natalie Way.
The league has two seasons: one that goes from February to the middle of June, and another that starts the middle of September and finishes before Christmas.
“Manatee County is the oldest league in Florida involving Hispanics playing soccer,” said Francisco “Chico” Walle Jr., who has followed in his father’s footsteps and taken over the leagues. “We are older than Tampa or anyplace else. In 2013, we will celebrate our 25th anniversary. We are doing something that is good for the community. We are keeping these kids off the streets.”
The hundred or so fans who attended Sunday’s game say it is high-level soccer.
FC Internationale Alpha-Z beat Athletic Marte, 4-2, in Sunday’s first match, an Under-19, Division 2 competition.
Alpha-Z was led by three goals by superstar 16-year-old Oliver Salmeron of Wimauma.
In the second match, Manuel Carrillo scored two goals for Marquense in a thriller involving adult Division 1 players.
Not unlike Little League or Friday night high school football, Sunday soccer is a family affair. Fans set up a picnic under trees a few paces from the soccer field and sip soda, eat and cheer their stars on.
Back in 1988, Walle Sr. decided that Palmetto’s produce work force needed an outlet.
The league started at Blackstone Park in Palmetto and the patch Walle Jr. wears on his sports shirt still proudly claims the Palmetto birthplace.
There is also a Friday night Veteran’s Division for “coaches and old players back from the wars,” Walle said.
Women play Saturday at Buffalo Creek Park in an open division for all ages, Walle added.
The games are beautiful to watch, says Ellena Gray, whose 18-year-old son, Alex Zidani of Alpha-Z, is one of the few non-Hispanic players in the league.
“Alpha-Z, my son’s team, moves the ball as crisp as Barcelona in the Spanish league,” Gray said. Alpha-Z is ranked No. 6 in Under-19 in the United States and No. 1 in Florida, according to its coach/manager, Jeff Jones.
Zidani, who is a rarity since he is left-footed, is a star at Riverview High School and comes to Manatee County to take on the best competition he can find.
“My dream is to play pro soccer and this is a good step,” said Zidani, who attended Lee Middle School in Manatee County and has been playing soccer since he was 6.
“We love to watch the competition,” said Diana Lopez, 14, Ervin’s daughter, who joined her mother, her sister, Shar, 13, and Little Ervin Lopez, 8, perhaps a future Marquense player, all camped out beneath a shady tree within shouting range of the field.
It’s no coincidence that Marquense and Municipal are named after Guatemalan professional football clubs.
“When the league started in 1988, we were 99 percent Mexican players,” Walle said, “Now, 70 percent are of our players are of Mexican heritage and the remaining 30 percent are from Honduras, Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala and, yes, the United States.
“Trust me, soccer is coming slowly to America,” Walle added, with a grin.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.