Editor's note: Deco's real name was withheld because of his immigrant status.
Beneath the shadow of Interstate 85 near the tangled highways of Spaghetti Junction lies the RE/Max Greater Atlanta Stadium. Built in 2006, the stadium serves as the seasonal home — five summer days a year, to be exact — of the United Soccer League's Atlanta Silverbacks women's professional soccer team.
On one particular Saturday night in June, a modest crowd of 800 or so fans — less than 20 percent of the stadium's capacity — scatter across the seats to take in the second home game of the Silverbacks season. A group of 'tweens huddles up for an impromptu texting party, and scores of people spend more time standing in line at the concession stand than in the bleachers. It appears that few here really care about what's taking place on the pitch (true soccer fans will understand that one).
Today, soccer is barely a blip on the American sports radar screen. Aside from a few weeks every four years — the drinking fest known as the World Cup — soccer falls somewhere between hockey and yachting in mainstream popularity.
In 2007, however, the RE/Max stadium and its two adjacent practice fields began to see new life — not as the stomping ground of the Silverbacks, but as the new home of local Hispanic soccer leagues.
On the Hispanic leagues' game day, the smell of roasting carne asada and pechuga de pollo replaces the scent of popcorn and hot dogs at the concession stand. Permanent seating, high-tech scoreboards, and a booming public address system — all features of the main field — may not be luxuries afforded to the practice fields, where many of the Hispanic games take place. But the lack of frills is more than made up for by one key ingredient: passion.
Dozens of leagues and thousands of players, nearly all of whom are Latin American, play every week at the RE/Max Stadium. One of the leagues — widely considered the most competitive Hispanic league in Georgia — is La Liga MAGG, a year-round tournament-style league made up of 24 teams and three divisions.
The La Liga teams play a 14-week regular season schedule followed by a six-week playoff round before crowning an overall champion. That means the league spends approximately 35 more days on the field than the stadium's more official team, the Silverbacks.
With games every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. — for 20 weeks straight — one would expect some semblance of an off-season. But according to league secretary Abraham Rojas, taking time off isn't really an option.
"There's no off-season because the players don't want it," Rojas explains. "It's part of our culture. We're a soccer culture."
Deco, who was born in Brazil and came to Atlanta seven years ago in hopes of providing a better life for his wife and three daughters, says he immediately set his sights on a local soccer league.
What he found wasn't as spirited or celebrated as leagues he'd joined in Brazil. But it still felt like home. "It was a good league with some good players," he says. "And I loved being able to play soccer again."
Armando Valadez, coach and owner of the 2007 La Liga MAGG Champion Guayabo team, says he knows why the league draws more players and fans than even the now-defunct men's Silverbacks team that once called the RE/Max Stadium home.
"That's obvious," he says. "It's because Spanish people want to see Spanish people play."
Valdez claims that, had the men's Silverbacks had "two or three Spanish guys," maybe they'd still be up and running. Reynaldo Deras, head coach of Liga MAGG's Barcelona team, says many players' legal status is the main hurdle. "They're good," he says, "but they can't play legally."
Then there's the issue of pay.
According to Deras, the amount of income a MAGG League player makes working maintenance or construction jobs far exceeds the amount paid to the Silverback players. "They work like 50 or 60 hours and make about $1,000 a week," Deras explains. "I've heard that the Silverbacks players made something like $1,500 to $2,000 a month."
In addition to owning and coaching his own team, Valadez works six days a week at his day job as a painting contractor — a job that he says allows him more freedom.
"A long time ago, I had a problem with the company I worked for because they wanted me to go to work on Sundays," he explains. "I said, 'I don't work Sundays.'"
Valadez says most of the players on his team and around the league have a similar freedom with their jobs: "Everybody's waiting for Sunday to just play."
As for why the fans keep coming back, it's the quality and style of play found in La Liga MAGG that draws them in week after week, according to Deras.
"Our Spanish community likes to have people play good soccer," he says. "I'm not saying that the Silverbacks aren't playing good soccer, because they're good. But the style they have, for us, is kind of boring. Spanish people like more of a short pass, quick game."
The racial and cultural divide between the Silverback supporters and fans of La Liga MAGG is something Deras would like to see bridged. Though the task of bringing together two different cultures isn't an easy one, Deras says there's a way to attract broader support: "Invite American players on the team. I used to have three or four American players, so at least I have parents or wives or sisters to watch the games. If we start doing that, we'll have a lot of American fans here."
Of course, if Hispanic soccer leagues are integrated with American players and fans, the cultural identity of the local Hispanic soccer community could change. La Liga MAGG remains a cultural staple in Atlanta's Hispanic community. And to the thousands of people who show up every week to support their favorite teams, it's fine with them if it stays that way.
There are no paychecks for the players. No endorsement deals. No post-game interviews. Most of the teams can't even afford to spare the time to practice. Still, Deco and thousands others return every Sunday to play.
On a muggy night in August, Deco prepares for a game that will likely determine the playoff fate of his Barcelona team. Tattoos of his two oldest daughters occupy the left side of Deco's back as he pulls his brand-new (tags still attached) jersey over his head.
"I'll put my youngest one back there soon," Deco says with a smile. "I just have to wait for her to get a little older."
Deco takes the pitch hoping to recapture the time he spent playing soccer in Brazil, being with loved ones and, most importantly, feeling at home.
"In Brazil, soccer is everything," he says. "Here, it's everything to me."
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