Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some Notes on Hollywood United & the LA League Scene

It’s a misty and cool January Sunday - nearly a year ago - and I’m wending my way from downtown Los Angeles to Palos Verdes – a gorgeous and very exclusive coastal region south of the city (not far from Carson, home of Chivas USA & LA Galaxy). The landscape changes from the flat freeway-crossed grid of south LA to the open, breezy boulevards of Lomita (I think), and after an hour I’m lost in a hilly enclave whose streets are lined with eucalyptus & willow, edged with gorgeous running paths and demarcated by wooden signs that look so little street signs that I’ve missed my turn-off twice. This looks like a place where people ride horses and know what a field hockey stick looks like.

I arrive at the Palos Verdes High School, mere blocks from seaside cliffs. It's about ten minutes into the game between Hollywood United Football Club and Palos Verdes Soccer Club. It’s not a beautiful game. The field is pretty shitty, and nobody seems to have much rhythm, except for HUFC’s defense – anchored by Alexi Lalas.

Hollywood United is a somewhat fabled team in Los Angeles. My information here is sketchy, but: They were founded in the 1980s, by mostly Hollywood musicians. I want to say that someone from The Cult (Billy Duffy, who still plays?) founded the team. Check out the very media heavy HUFC myspace page. Anyway, I have the impression that the team was made up of the sorts of guys who used to hang out at the pub-style bar, The Cat & The Fiddle on Sunset Blvd. Rockers, europhiles, eurotrash. I normally use that last word with much affection, here, however, I use it with deep ambivalence.

The team's greying roots in the entertainment industry are still alive - Steve Jones takes the field, Anthony Lapaglia plays goalie (they have an older team they call "Dad's Army" as well as young team that plays in the LA Metro Division). I in fact learned about HU first from my friend Peter, who was playing for another interesting LA amateur team, Dinamo - he was defending Steve Jones, and recognized him in the middle of game - a strange experience I would imagine. (He said Jones is really good, and was fun to defend.) LA Galaxy president Alexi Lalas plays for them - I have a soft spot for him, as we were at Rutgers at the same time - the first soccer games I ever watched were at Rutgers, and were during their great 1990 season when they went to the NCAA championship (only to lose on penalty kicks if memory serves).

I've seen a couple HUFC and HUFC related games over the course of the year, as I've been interested in learning more about league play in Los Angeles County. HUFC is the most visible team in the region - if by visibility we mean mass media attention - though, to be honest, I think they get more press in the UK than back home. They are however, the least representative team if by representative we mean how much they look like the people who play soccer in Los Angeles. There are more leagues in LA than one can imagine - setting aside youth leagues (a universe unto itself), we have adult men's and women's leagues in abundance, and a wealth of opportunities for pick-up games - the latter much easier to find if you are a guy, but not impossible if you are a gal. The men's leagues are mostly but not totally Latino - and with the Latin scene, we have a huge diversity - Mexican, Costa Rican, Ecuadorian, El Salvadorean, Argentinian, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Guatemalan players abound. Add to that Armenian, Russian, home-grown African-American, African, English, French, Korean, Korean-American, Japanese-American - and you get a picture of what the sides are like in LA.

SO, the game that Sunday was representative of a narrow slice of LA life - the teams, while not entirely white (though both were mostly so), seemed cut from the same cloth in terms of class - guys who played NCAA Division I soccer and ex-internationals, which is a pretty specific filter. That slice includes very well funded teams, manned by guys who are really dedicated to the sport (many of whom are fantastic players), but perhaps more upward-looking in terms of the soccer food chain - cultivating something like a 'big club' vibe about themselves.

What struck me most about this particular game was the contrast between the Palos Verdes guys & the HUFC guys – and the three El Salvadorean referees. The HUFC guys were cold and aloof, they eyed me with what seemed like suspicion - with the exception of Lalas, who warm, friendly, and curious about what I was foing. The rest were, like: who is this weird girl? The only women there were girlfriends and wives of players - so I can see how my presence didn't make sense. The PV guys were a bit nicer - as were their friends and family - I talked to a couple moms - soccer moms with 30 year old sons on the field - and they were all too happy to recount the details of their sons' careers playing for UCLA, etc. The HU WAGS weren't featuring me at all.

But most interesting, and forthcoming, were guys working the match as referee & linesmen, all certified by CAFLA, a training school for refs, run, as it should be, in spanish - the defacto language of the pitch in southern california. I catch them as they are loading up their cars long after everyone else has left. And where with the others my introduction “Hello, I’m researching amateur soccer in LA” was met politely, but not exactly with enthusiasm – the ref’s spot my Club América scarf, and so start teasing me about what a disaster Mexican soccer is ("crazy futbol!"). Turns out the three are from El Salvador. We talked about the Mexico/Argentina World Cup match - one of the best of the summer.

This leads to a great conversation about nationalies playing in the leagues - about the rivalries between esp. El Salvadorian players and Mexican players, and then about the subtleties within Mexican soccer culture itself.

The three of them have lots to say about the game I'd watched - HUFCs players complained endlessly about the calls, and about the field – “Ballarinas only want to dance on Broadway” one says, and they laugh about how the old guys are reluctant to admit that they just don’t have the speed to compete against a middling-in-terms-of-skills, but younger-in-terms-of-years team. (HUAC lost this one.) I remark that it seems to me that when guys go up against HUFC, they look at Lalas - who was a hero to American players in the university circuit - and they get really pumped up to win - how many chances in your life do you get to play against your heroes? It seems to me that the teams playing against HUFC have more fun, and relish every good shot, good tackle - take a real pleasure from the game - one less accessible to the HUFC guys who, in the games I saw, spent a lot of time yelling at each other. (Frank LeBeouf in particular - who had little business yelling at anyone in my mind, as he never seemed to be up for a run.)

We mull over this, and they tell me about the better games being played by the Latin leagues – at far flung corners of the LA basin – Whittier, and Compton. They tell me to check out CAFLA training sessions. We stood in the parking lot chatting for a long time - they also gave me their names and numbers, which I much appreciated.

Anyway, I have lots more to say about this - those guys were absolutely right: the most inspiring scenes are to be found in the scrappy urban leagues inand around the city. That's where you'll find the coolest players - like Tenge, of Lafayette Park, who plays half the time on the pitch talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone - and isn't hindered by that in the least - in fact, I think he plays better while on the phone. I have lots more to say about HUFC - especially about their "sister" team, which I tried to appreciate, but just can't support - it's the most offensive thing ever, in fact, such an upsettingly sexist endeavor that it's poisoned whatever generousity I might have had about HUFC. I have to save my thoughts on that for a separate post.

The future of soccer rests in the scenes the CAFLA guys know - the enthusiam, love of the game, knowledge - there is a deep resevoir of talent and energy out there, below Anglo mass media radar. The LA times picked up on this in a recent story about the changing demographics in LA area schools - where many campuses are 80% + Latino - at those schools, there is a tremendous interest in soccer, and those teams are now dominating high school competition. Well - that, and the whole gender issue, is for another day, another post.

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