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BEST OF SPORTS / SOCCER

Grass-roots Grandeur

A History of Peaks and Valleys Leaves Behind as Many Household Names as Faded Memories

December 29, 1999|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To reach back as far as possible into Los Angeles' soccer past, you have to track down a man named Tony Morejon.

It's not a difficult task. Simply take the Harbor Freeway to San Pedro and look for a pastel pink house on a hillside. This is where Morejon, 79, has lived for 42 years.

Any tour through Los Angeles' soccer history has to begin here, with a man who, more than any other, has the right to be called the grandfather of soccer in this city.

Morejon left the Basque fishing village of Bermeo in his native Spain and settled in Los Angeles in 1937. He was 17 and no sooner off the boat than he was searching for a team to join.

Sixty-two years have passed, almost two-thirds of the century, and in that time Morejon has been a player, coach, manager, an owner, a promoter and--most of all--a fan.

Always in Los Angeles.

If you attended an international soccer game in L.A. in the 1960s, 1970s or early 1980s, chances are Morejon promoted it. For almost 20 years, the gravel-voiced Basque with the ready smile and the friendly handshake was president of the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League.

It all began in San Pedro, at a place called Daniels Field, a small stadium built in 1917 that has more grass-roots soccer history soaked into its sod than perhaps any field in the country.

"I started playing there when I first came from Spain during the Spanish Civil War," Morejon said.

And then he was off and running, the memories tripping over one another as people and places from the past came to life again.

Players such as Jackie Wright, who won a cupboard full of trophies while playing for a team fielded in the 1930s by Douglas Aircraft.

"I played against him in the California Cup in '38," Morejon said. "We scored the first goal in less than 30 seconds. The L.A. paper had a picture of it. They beat us, 5-1. He was a hell of a fullback."

There were others, such as Billy Steel, who had played more than 50 times for Scotland, and Jose Noguera, the Argentine forward with a touch of flair.

"I remember, we played a British warship at one time," Morejon said. "They used to call him 'Twinkletoes.' It looked like the ball was tied to his shoelaces. He could play on any team in England, they said."

As a port city, San Pedro attracted its share of shipping from around the globe, and the sailors often were in search of a soccer game.

"In the old days, every merchant ship that used to call at San Pedro, they all used to play night games 1/8at Daniels Field 3/8," Morejon said. "I remember they used to call us up and say can we get the field ready for Thursday night or Friday night. I said sure. Soccer was always a big sport in San Pedro. There are a lot of European people here.

"I've got a picture here of the San Pedro Soccer Club from 1939 when we won the L.A. City Cup. There were one, two, three American-born players, two from Chicago, one from San Pedro. We had an Englishman, a Scotsman, a German, a Spaniard, a Swede. We almost had a league of nations here."

For the first half of the century, it was in local leagues that soccer flourished. An immigrant sport, it was filled with teams that sported ethnic names such as the Sons of St. George, the L.A. Scots and the San Pedro Yugoslavs.

In later decades, as the demographics of Los Angeles changed, the team and league names became more Hispanic, but the game was still soccer. Its growth was inevitable, an ever-widening undercurrent in a city where football, baseball, basketball and hockey were the mainstream sports.

Leave San Pedro for a moment, then, and take a quick tour, a soccer geography lesson as much as a history of the sport in this area, in the 1900s.

MAKING THEIR MARKS

From Morejon's home it is a short drive across the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the house where Carin Jennings lived. She was a four-time All-American at Palos Verdes High who went on to become the most valuable player at the first Women's World Cup, in China in 1991, when the U.S. team won its first world championship. In 1996, she added an Olympic gold medal to her list of honors.

That might not have been possible, perhaps, had it not been for a man named Hans Stierle, who in 1964 in nearby Torrance founded the American Youth Soccer Organization. Today, 35 years later, AYSO has its headquarters in Hawthorne and has grown to encompass 630,000 players nationwide, including 241,000 in Southern California.

One of those players was Jennings. Another was a Santa Monica youngster named Siegfried Schmid, whose father, Morejon said, was one of the better referees in the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League.

Siegfried was a capable player, good enough to earn a scholarship to UCLA, where he played for four years and then was coach for 19, leading the Bruins to three NCAA championships. Today, Sigi Schmid coaches the Galaxy.

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