The local Hispanic adult soccer league, Liga Hispana, may be a long way from the ultra-competitive Mexican first division, but for some, the passion is still the same.

Luis Encinas once kicked it around with the famed Cruz Azul of Mexico City. Now he leads Atlas, a team based largely in Ocean Park, through their fourth year in the blossoming regional Hispana league.

Last year his black-and-red-striped boys came within just a few goals of the championship, taking home a worthy second-place. This year, they came back wanting it all, and will likely cash in on the hard work and talent that has brought them to the top.

"In the years before we've been good, but we keep progressing. Everyone on the team works pretty hard," says Encinas.

In some ways Atlas was a team even before they stepped onto the field at the Warrenton Soccer Complex, where they play their matches on Wednesday evenings. Many of them are brothers or cousins, some having played together in Guadalajara. Today, many of the guys work together at Ledbetter Farms on the maintenance crew.

Atlas' smooth and deliberate brand of play surely has a lot to do with the teams'close-knit community and Encinas' coaching - but these guys really show up to play. Whereas most teams can only coordinate one sparsely attended practice a week, Atlas puts in a hard-working session twice a week, without fail at Sheldon Field in Ocean Park.

What has all this hard work and dedication come down to on-field? What strategy has Encinas and his boys from Guadalajara come up with? Well, it's really quite simple.

"Get rid of the ball as quickly as possible, while advancing down field," says Encinas.

Doesn't sound like much in theory, but when Atlas comes at you, you know it because it happens fast, and often ends up with the goal in the back of your net.

If you can imagine a heavy pinball bursting its way through a table, racking up points along the way, the players of Atlas would be a lot like the bumpers, catapulting the ball along swiftly, while changing the direction of attack and adding speed and ferocity.

Gustavo Velazquez, player-coach for Wolf Pack, a team nipping at the heels of Encinas'Atlas, could be considered one of the pioneers of this largely Latino-based league that started 12 years ago with just three teams on a mini soccer field in Cannon Beach.

In many ways, Velazquez' own story mirrors that of many of the league's players, past and present, that have fed the growth of soccer on the North Coast with their passion and persistence.

"Most of the Latino people come here for a new opportunity," said Velazquez, who swooped into Seaside in the early 90s from Michoacan and is now an active organizer of the league and also head coach of the Astoria High JV boys soccer team.

Velazquez has worked his way up from humble beginnings to support a family and a new life in Seaside, but those early, soccer-less days are still fresh in his memory.

"A lot of people were down because there was no place to go and play," he said recently.

Ironically, today the eight teams that make up the league kick it around at what is likely one of the best grass facilities in the state. The Warrenton Soccer Complex has grown from one, to three of the greenest, most level, and best-maintained fields around.

What it all adds up to is a colorful atmosphere of exciting sport and Latin-infused flavor. On any given Wednesday, the aroma of fresh tacos filtering from the snack bar fills the air. Wives and girlfriends cluster with baby boys and girls on the sidelines. Kids kick soccer balls and delight in the open air and family-friendly atmosphere.

Growth & DiversityAs the league has grown in popularity and size, the level of competition has likewise increased. Many players are current or former high school standouts. Some have college experience, and others simply ruled the streets of the village or town where they learned the game.

"It's getting there. It's building up. More teams and more people are showing up," said Velazquez.

And what was once a purely Latin phenomenon is increasingly attracting more American players to its ranks. A trend that Velazquez and others think could bolster the strength of the play.

"The Americans bring a lot of speed to the game," said Velazquez. "The Latino's play a little more brutal."

In other words, those raised stateside may perhaps play a more structured game, the result of soccer programs while growing up. The Latinos play a different style, one more direct and intuitive that can include uncanny dribbling skills and acrobatic kicks, but may also be unpolished and tactically less cohesive.

Ben Dueber, 21, and sister Sajru, (pronounced Sara), 26, grew up playing soccer in Cannon Beach pretty much as soon as they learned to walk. Now they both kick it around with River Plate, an inaugural team battling it out in the middle-of-the-pack.

The Duebers both have premier club-level experience with Portland-area teams, and Sajru also played college ball at Western Oregon State University.

Sajru may have always been one of the only females in the league, but now she's no longer among the league's only non-Latinos.

As more American players show up, she says, the contrasting playing styles become increasingly evident.

"You can see there's almost like two games going on," she explains - those that have been coached set one agenda, while those with a more raw background create one altogether different.

But this isn't something that keeps her away. Just like one of the guys, Sajru simply loves the game.

The next generation

Leo Luna, 16, a midfielder for River Plate, caught his breath Wednesday night after a feverish match against Wolf Pack that closed in a 2 to 2 draw. Luna began playing in the league when he was just 13 and has already noticed a change in the pace and pressure on the field.

"It's getting much better. It's getting tougher and tougher every year," he said.

In many ways Luna blurs the line between a foreign-born and an American player. Though most of his teammates are from Michoacan, Luna was born in Seaside and plays for the high school's varsity team.

He says the level of play in the league is close to what it is in the higher level varsity matchups. But in his opinion, at least one Liga Hispana team would mop up on the high school circuit. That team is Atlas.

"They touch the ball real well. They communicate and they don't get upset if someone makes a mistake or a bad pass," said Luna.

As Valesquez builds up his own pack of hungry futbolistas, he may be dipping into the depth of Atlas' formula.

"Any team they play, they'll play tough and they'll play smart," says Valesquez.

As a veteran of the league, he knows just how hard it is to build cohesion among players, coordinate practices and training sessions amongst guys with different schedules and busy lives. But is it worth the effort? Definitely, he says.

"You can tell by the way Atlas moves the ball," he says.

The red and black striped team leads the league in points, goals and quite possibly technical ability. Because there is no playoff and points determine the winner, Atlas is well-poised to secure the championship.

But winning and losing isn't all this league is about. Velazquez is more than happy with a growing league that has developed from nothing more than a yearning to compete in the game of his childhood and native land.

In fact, Velazquez has even coached and mentored some of the very best opponents he sets out each week to beat. He also realizes that even though one can try, it's pretty hard to play on forever.

"It's not even for us anymore," said Velazquez. "We're doing it for the new generation to come and play."

David Plechl plays midfielder for Wolf Pack of Liga Hispana

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