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Oxnard Soccer Teams Seek Level Playing Field

As participation outgrows available facilities, some involved say the city is devoting resources to other sports instead.

October 28, 2002|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Every Saturday morning, the patchy brown and green field at Fremont Intermediate School in Oxnard is carved into a crowded hodgepodge of small soccer fields for almost 2,000 youngsters.

The 10-acre site, owned and maintained by the Oxnard Elementary School District, has holes and dirt mounds, brown grass where it should be green, dirt where there should be grass.

The conditions are not ideal. But the children make the best of it, because they know everyone else is in the same boat.

In Oxnard, more than 5,000 kids play organized soccer on 14 city and school fields.

Every year, as the number of youth soccer players swells and the field space remains the same, coaches say they are left to their own ingenuity to accommodate so many. They've shortened playing times and reconfigured fields to take up as little space as possible, but these measures only help for a while.

Coaches say they need more fields, they need them soon and they want City Hall to take notice.

"Two years ago nobody mentioned this was a problem, but now we're kind of waking up," said Ruben Munoz, commissioner of the American Youth Soccer Organization in Oxnard. His north Oxnard division has grown from 102 to 182 teams in three years.

"It's like the city doesn't know the number of kids we're dealing with," Munoz added. "They seem like they sympathize with us, but there's never any action."

Coaches say they've written letters, signed petitions and attended countless meetings, but the city just doesn't respond. They say they need to become more organized and get more working parents involved.

"A lot of these kids' parents, they work late and don't have time to go to meetings," said Arnulfo Carbajal, treasurer of the Ventura County Youth Soccer League. "We really don't have that kind of pull out here."

City leaders say they support youth sports and understand the concern, but the city's parks must accommodate all types of sports for people of all ages and that takes time, planning and patience.

"We do understand that there is a need, and we're doing our best," said Richard Arias, of the city's recreation and community services department. "There might never be enough space for the number of players we have in all sports of different ages."

Coaches for the larger leagues don't think they can wait much longer.

"The reality is that next year we probably won't have the room," Munoz said of his organization, which has about 3,000 players. "We're just praying that we don't have to cut registration."

Relief will come when the 74-acre College Park undergoes a $15-million make-over, officials have said. The city's improvement plan calls for development in coming years of five baseball and soccer fields, a lighted basketball area, a fenced skate park and a 26,000-square-foot community center with a gym.

But soccer coaches and parents point to College Park as proof that the sport is treated like a second-class citizen.

Original plans for the south Oxnard park included 10 regulation-size soccer fields. But 10 fields of that size would have turned the park into a soccer facility, and residents wanted a mix of activities.

Barbara Macri-Ortiz, an attorney and soccer mom, said soccer will never catch up to older, more established sports in town if not given appropriate facilities.

"I grew up playing baseball, frankly, but we're living in a different world," Macri-Ortiz said. "I feel that they aren't ready for the concept of saying we're so behind in soccer that we should have more of a percentage of fields."

Jesus Torres, a coach for the Aztecas team, composed mostly of farm workers and children of workers from the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm, said the city's College Park plan demonstrates the low priority given to the largely Latino soccer community.

"All we're trying to do is give these kids something to do, to keep them off the streets, out of gangs, and they don't give us what we need but do all they can to accommodate the people who want to build a museum?" Torres said, referring to plans to build a heritage farm museum at the park. "It just seems like we're not a priority."

Macri-Ortiz is more blunt.

"There's been a bias in the community," Ortiz said. "It's easy to dismiss soccer because some still think of it as the foreigners' sport, the Latinos' sport. The truth is a lot of farm workers and their children play soccer. But those are the kinds of problems people don't like to talk about."

Mayor Manuel Lopez said he doesn't think other sports are considered more important.

"Soccer hasn't been in town as long as other sports, so it's going to take some time for them to catch up, but we're trying," Lopez said. "Running a city is like having a big family. Your children will accuse you of playing favorites, but you treat all of them the same."

Oxnard's children don't seem to take notice of the controversy. But older players such as Jennifer Santiago, 17, say they remember the days when they weren't so cramped.

"We used to play on regular-sized fields, but every year they rearrange us," said Santiago, who has played soccer in Oxnard since she was a little girl. "When you play soccer, the whole idea is to be spread out. You can work with the smaller space, but it makes a difference."

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