Oak Park soccer stars hit the big league

Saul Pacheco was a little nervous when he first stepped onto the professional soccer field in Southern California last weekend, he said.“We’re not used to playing in the big fields,” the youngster said with wide eyes, “but it was exciting.

The 11-year-old is one of more than 400 youths in Paso Robles’ Oak Park Soccer League. The team of 14 players traveled to Southern California to play in a May 1 and 2 tournament sponsored by the professional soccer club Chivas USA.

The tournament showcases young soccer players in front of scouts looking for professional potential.

It was boys’ first away game since the formation of the league in 2000.

“I think many of the kids were very happy,” Coach Francisco Pacheco said. “Because this was their first tournament. Their first experience with the professional games. Their first experience with the people.”

A decade ago, after noticing kids hanging around outside the federally subsidized apartments at Oak Park with nothing to do, league founder Salvador Echeverria organized a small soccer team in one area of the complex. Goals were marked with leaves. In 2001, the Oak Park Housing Authority invested in the installation of a fenced playing field within the housing complex, complete with goals, nets and seating.

The original group of players grew to more than 400 kids — ages 3 to 14 — from throughout the city who now take part. And the league is still expanding, currently seeking more girls to play.

The soccer program is one of many methods being used to improve community involvement in Oak Park, where families live on very low incomes.

The trip to Southern California marked the first time many of the boys had ever stayed in a hotel, Pacheco said.

That was actually one of the best parts of the trip, his son chimed in with a smile.

Housing Authority officials cite the league as a way to reduce gang activity and crime among youths who face more than their share of life’s challenges.

In order to practice and play, they must obey strict rules about avoiding alcohol, drugs and gangs.

“We teach good behavior and respect,” Echeverria said at a recent practice at Sherwood Park.

Players also must keep their grades up.

“They have a dream to one day play professional soccer,” Echeverria said. “And we say it’s very good to dream about it, so now think about school, too.”

Parent Mauricio Mincitar said his son’s behavior greatly improved once he joined the league several years ago.

Mauricio Jr. “now listens to his father,” Mincitar said in Spanish.

Most families were able to put some money aside for the trip to Southern California.

“I told parents that right now is the time to do something for our kids,” Pacheco said.

He hopes to enter more tournaments in the future to expose the players to talent scouts and professional teams. He’s also looking into additional fundraising. Players’ families pay dues, and local groups have donated to the league over the years.

Echeverria said he was proud that the team now has some tournament experience.

Looking on from the sidelines, he spoke highly of the players he oversees each week. The league has 36 teams.

“This is our goal — to take them to professional fields so they learn more about it,” he said.

Youths of all ages filled the grassy fields at the Sherwood park practice scrimmage before the trip. Those who weren’t playing were taking turns kicking soccer balls against a wall while laughing and talking.

“I tell parents that if we don’t do something for the kids right now, then they’re involved in gangs and it’s too late,” Echeverria said.