Andres Sanchez sat under an umbrella in Richfield to escape the scorching heat. He speaks little English, but his under-the-radar soccer league — Liga La Zapata — speaks volumes about how much the state is changing and how popular the sport is becoming in Minnesota.
In his regular job, Sanchez works for a roofing company — many of the league’s players are manual laborers — and has little in common with the deep-pocket investors who are bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Minnesota. But Liga La Zapata represents what Bill McGuire, the former UnitedHealth Group chief executive leading the MLS bid, refers to when he talks of Minnesota’s changing ethnic demographics and what it portends for soccer.
The league has more than 100 teams, each with at least 13 players, and despite the language barrier the message for football, basketball and baseball is equally clear. “I find baseball very boring,” said Ramon Aycart, who plays for Cuautla, a team in Liga La Zapata named for a town in Mexico. “Football — [there’s] a lot of action for three seconds, [and] then they stop for five minutes.” Aycart added that, before the headlines erupted around Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson for whipping his son, “I never knew who he was.”
Jesus Hernandez, who referees soccer games for Liga La Zapata, agreed. “I don’t watch those,” he said of the Vikings and Minnesota Twins. “I don’t even know the rules.”
A shipping and receiving worker now in the Twin Cities, Hernandez was born in El Salvador and came to the United States when he was 18. “Sometimes they give [Vikings and Twins tickets] for free, and I’m not even interested to take one,” he added.
Eighteen percent of Richfield’s population is now Hispanic, as are one in 10 residents in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Just blocks from the soccer fields where Liga La Zapata plays, the parking lot in Richfield is full at Andale Taqueria & Mercado, a grocery store and restaurant offering “street-style” Mexican food.
As the teams take the field on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, scores of fans bring chairs to watch at least three games that typically take place at once. “They’ll [only] speak English when I’m around,” said Dave Elvidge, who supervises the fields the league rents from the Academy of Holy Angels High School.
“It’s almost a carnival,” Elvidge said of the atmosphere surrounding the games.
Nick Thompson, a Richfield park official, said he once came across a Hispanic league that seemed to morph out of nowhere and began regularly — but unofficially — playing in a city park. At one point, he said, he even came across games being played complete with a public address announcer providing the play-by-play. “No, no, no — not here,” Thompson said he told them.
“They take their soccer seriously,” he added.
Sanchez’s family runs the concession stand at Liga La Zapata, selling Pulparindo and Barritas treats, and uses a portable machine set up on a table in a parking lot to produce plastic identification tags for players. Teams are charged a $150 entry fee, plus $60 a week. The league’s website is almost entirely in Spanish. A native of Puebla, Mexico, Sanchez has been in the U.S. for 27 years.
“We started with eight teams at first,” said Sanchez’s 13-year-old son, also named Andres, who translated for his father. “We [started] looking for cities that we could play” in. Liga La Zapata — named after a Mexican revolutionary force that fought for the poor — also plays games in Eagan, Apple Valley, Burnsville and Bloomington.
And while the players may not pay much attention to the Vikings, Twins or Minnesota Timberwolves, they do pay attention to Minnesota United FC — McGuire’s lower-level professional soccer team that plays its games in Blaine.
Holding an energy drink and wearing a baseball cap backward, Serafin Contreras said he knows some of the Minnesota United players and added that the MLS teams are slowly moving toward the level of play in the European and Central and South American leagues. “Year by year, they’re getting better,” he said. Contreras has four children — two boys and two girls — and none of them plays a sport other than soccer.
Juan Sanchez of Apple Valley plays for Baledores, a team in Liga La Zapata that in early August played a key game and sat in third place. He said he plays soccer five nights a week. A 22-year-old plumbing apprentice, Sanchez said he often takes ribbing from his work colleagues about his soccer passion.
“They ask me why I’m wasting my time,” he said, smiling. “They’re always making fun of the sport. It’s normal around here.”
Shortly after his team — Aguilas — lost its game 3-1, Aguila Sanchez stood shirtless on the sidelines on a summer evening. His team will play as many as 30 games by the time summer ends, take a brief break, and then begin winter league play. “If we stop — two weeks, three weeks the most — then we start again,” said Sanchez, who works for a painting company.
“I used to follow [Minnesota’s pro teams — like the Vikings] in the past,” he added. But “I’m getting into soccer more and more.”
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388