It's a `Liga' of their own

Soccer: Passion for the game drives men to a competitive league with international players and styles.

Howard At Play

February 20, 2005|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ed Davis, who is 35, just can't get soccer out of his blood. The Elkridge resident played at Old Mill High School and then at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is now an assistant coach at Old Mill.

Davis' day job as a mortgage broker puts him at his desk at 8 a.m., but soccer explains why Davis was in a Jessup industrial area at nearly 11 p.m. Wednesday, talking with friends, watching and getting ready for yet another game in La Liga.

La Liga, named after Spain's renowned pro league, was formed when Soccer Dome Inc. opened in late 2003.

Locally, La Liga is what those involved often call the men's first division, with players from all over the world, many of whom have watched the sport played at the most competitive levels. They play from 7 p.m. to about 1 a.m. every Wednesday.

"Even though we're older guys, the competitive juices still sit inside of us," Davis said. "We still want to play."

La Liga is the reason Soccer Dome was still buzzing as midnight approached, with players watching from behind the glass at one end of the main field, on the sidelines and in metal bleachers next to the field.

Players were also milling around the snack bar and watching the satellite feed of a foreign soccer game on television.

"The league is fun, and we like it," said Sean Peay, 36, a Columbia resident who owns a computer company. He played for Oakland Mills High School and Radford University.

"It still keeps my interest up," he said. "I get to play with guys my own age, guys a little older and guys a little younger."

La Liga was the brainchild of Jose Benitez, vice president of Soccer Dome. The native of El Salvador has played at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County and in several strong Latino leagues in the area.

But he wanted a five-star league for players when Soccer Dome opened -- and got his wish with little trouble.

The league has grown to 10 teams that total about 110 players. The teams and players come from all over the Baltimore and Washington area, and La Liga boasts waiting lists of teams and individuals.

Benitez's team is named Extranjero, a tongue-in-cheek Spanish joke, as the word means "foreigner." Extranjero's roster includes teammates from Brazil, Ghana, Korea, El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador, Bulgaria and Morocco.

The team has one American, Benitez said, but language isn't a problem.

He jokingly tells new players they must be bilingual to play on the team.

"I speak Portuguese and Spanish, but I speak whatever I have to on the field," Benitez said. "We have an international [flavor]."

There also are different flavors of play on the field in La Liga.

Benitez said his team worked heavily with short, more-frequent passes -- typical of the Latin American game. It is a style that often clashes with the European style of longer, more direct passing.

Extranjero will often keep possession and play with patience while a British team in La Liga, called the UK Exiles, loves to run and shoot.

"In general, there's European style and South American style. The moves that they have are different," said Clif Everett, Soccer Dome's president. "It's more challenging, because you're not playing with the same styles. There's [differences]."

La Liga competition remains high, a number of players said, because many of them have been together for a long time.

Joe Cullum helps run Korea United, a Liga team that is all Korean, except for one American.

"We've been playing together [for so] long that we know each other and how we're going to play and what we're going to do," Cullum said.

La Liga teams play six men against six on an indoor field. The experience seems like outdoor soccer because there are no hockey dasher boards. A big net covers one sideline, and the building's wall lines the other side.

"You have to be more under control here [than in typical indoor play]," said Bob Smedley, 39, a Clarksville electrical engineer who played at Kennedy High in Montgomery County. "It rewards skill here. It's a purer form of the sport."

Garrett Oie likes being able to play tough soccer at the age of 38. The Elkridge resident played at Rockville High and UMBC and said the competition still stokes his fires.

"For us, we're playing as high as we can possibly play," Oie said. "It's great fun, and just fun to be able to mix it up with [these guys]."

Davis said that although the players in La Liga are older, the soccer is at a quality level.

"The skill level of some of these guys, even though they're older, they can still play like they're in their prime," Davis said. "I love it."

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