SOUTHEAST AREA — The new black sweat suit with red-and-white piping fit Waldir Guerra just fine,and the former Salvadoran could not hide his glee at being on a field with the new Los Angeles Salsa Soccer Club, a professional team based in Montebello.
"I have been waiting for something to happen like this," the 5-foot-8, 155-pound midfielder said.
Just three years ago, his dreams of a pro soccer career in this country were dashed when the Los Angeles Heat, then part of the American Professional Soccer League, went out of business. Now, the former political refugee stood alongside his Salsa teammates, far removed from the days when he fled Central America on foot in search of a better life.
In the early 1980s, as a frightened teen-ager, Guerra left his native country to avoid political turmoil. Crammed under a blanket on the back of a flatbed truck, he was smuggled into the United States past border guards.
The only things Guerra, now 26, brought with him were the clothes on his back and an uncanny ability to play soccer.
Now, the Salsa, owned by Montebello ophthalmologist William De La Pena, has given the former Bell High standout a chance to play at a level second only to international competition. The team, which will play home games at Cal State Fullerton, makes its American Professional Soccer League debut there at 4:05 p.m. Saturday against Toronto.
Salsa General Manager Rick Davis said he is happy to have Guerra under contract. "He has a name locally and he has played at this level," Davis said.
At Bell High, he scored 11 goals in one game, and his three-year total of 124 is a U.S. record. He played at Cal State Los Angeles, spent three years with the U.S. National B Team and in 1990 was a starter for the now-defunct Heat, which was based in Torrance.
Since the Heat folded, Guerra has bounced around various soccer fields, most recently in a league composed mainly of Latin American expatriates.
To support himself, his wife and a small child, he works part time as a campus aide at his old high school. The struggling APSL does not pay anywhere near the salaries top players could command in other countries.
Guerra was a toddler in his hometown of San Vicente, 30 miles west of San Salvador, when he took his first swipe at a soccer ball. As a child, he often played in matches against older boys in neighborhood parks.
The civil war that ripped through El Salvador in the early 1980s found its way to San Vicente when Guerra was 14. One sweltering afternoon after a soccer match, Guerra lay on the floor of his house during a gun battle on the street just outside his door.
Guerra's mother wanted her only son to go to the United States to live with relatives, but it was not easy to get there.
"El Salvador was like Cuba," Guerra said. "No one was allowed to leave. You had to escape."
Guerra and others began the 2 1/2-month trek north on foot in 1983 through the jungles of Central America. "There was a lot of danger," he said. "We had to find our own way. We didn't eat well. I went a whole day without eating or water. Just walking."
He ran through the jungle of Guatemala, torn by its own strife, where thieves preyed on refugees.
"I was in good shape. I would run and run," he said. "We had to jump and climb and sometimes hide out. It was a good thing I was an athlete."
In Tijuana, Guerra and others paid smugglers, called coyotes, to get them across the border. Lying on top of one another in the back of a truck, they made it past the checkpoint at San Ysidro.
"I peeked through the blanket as we passed," the soccer player said. "I saw the American flag overhead and I thought, 'I made it.' "
A different world greeted the Spanish-speaking Guerra when he arrived at the Bell home of two cousins. He worried about his family back home and was afraid to enter school because he knew no English.
"I didn't know anything about high school," said Guerra, who is now a legal resident. "For the first three or four months I didn't go to school. I wanted to go back home."
One day, Guerra, a skinny kid with curly hair, wandered onto the Bell High soccer field.
"He was standing on the bleachers," Bell Coach Bill Albano said. "According to the other kids, he was too bashful to participate. He didn't want to ask."
Albano saw a hungry look in the boy's eyes, gave Guerra a private tryout and quickly knew he had found a gem.
"He was an all-around player . . . unequaled in my 24 years at Bell," Albano said.
As his English got better, Guerra became more confident. In 1985, during his senior year, he discovered American football. He kicked four field goals of 42 yards or longer for the Bell varsity. He went into one game with a cramp in his right leg after playing in a long soccer match. So he kicked extra points with his left foot.
Guerra, who is outgoing now and has a disarming smile, laughs about those exploits. He attended a National Football League tryout camp but sprained an ankle on the first day. It would have been nice to have had an opportunity to kick a football for a living, he said, but \o7 futbol \f7 is really his life.
"He's a playmaker," Salsa goalie Mike Littman said. "He has a lot of vision on the field and is a great passer and shooter."
Guerra is scheduled to take out U.S. citizenship papers Friday. His mother and two sisters have joined him from El Salvador. The United States feels more and more like home, he said, the way a soccer field always has.