GRASS-ROOTS GRANDEUR

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.

The west side of town, specifically Brentwood, also is home to the man who has turned soccer on its head in the U.S. over the last 15 years. In the late 1960s, however, Alan Rothenberg was merely a young lawyer working for Jack Kent Cooke and getting his feet wet with Cooke's Los Angeles Wolves.

The Wolves--actually Wolverhampton Wanderers of England, a team founded in 1877 and brought to L.A. lock, stock and barrel for one summer--were the city's first professional soccer champions.

The Los Angeles Kickers had won the U.S. Open Cup in 1958 and 1964, and Morejon's San Pedro Canvasbacks had won it in 1959, but those were both amateur, or at best semipro, teams. The Wolves were the real thing.

In one of the most dramatic soccer matches played at the Coliseum, they defeated the Washington Whips (actually Aberdeen of Scotland), 6-5, in overtime to win the United Soccer Assn. title in 1967.

The next year, the USA and the National Professional Soccer League merged to form the North American Soccer League, which eventually included two Los Angeles-area teams--the L.A. Aztecs and the California Surf.

Brentwood also is home to Marla Messing, like Rothenberg a lawyer who has helped shape soccer in this country. As president and CEO of the 1999 Women's World Cup, she turned it into the largest and most successful women's sports event ever.

Cross over the Santa Monica mountains and head into the San Fernando Valley. Here, the best that could be offered in the way of soccer entertainment in the early 1970s was the Los Angeles Skyhawks, a team in the American Soccer League, the NASL's poor cousin.

The Skyhawks had little going for them. For one thing, they played at Van Nuys High, hardly a professional environment. What they did have was a colorful and quotable coach, Ron Newman, who later moved to San Diego, where he turned the San Diego Sockers into an indoor power, winning 10 titles and a place for Newman in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.

It was the Sockers, incidentally, who brought Leonardo Cuellar to California after his exploits for Mexico in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Cuellar stayed on when the NASL folded in the mid-1980s and today is the coach at Cal State Los Angeles.

The Skyhawks were merely one in a long line of failed franchises. Also carved on the marble monument to Los Angeles' soccer past are such teams as the Los Angeles Toros, the Los Angeles Lazers and the California Sunshine.

The Aztecs at least made a fight of it. To find their beginnings, leave the Valley and drive to East Los Angeles, where, in 1973, a dentist named Jack Gregory and some partners bought an NASL franchise and put their new team in East L.A. College.

The next year, the Aztecs were league champions, coached byAlex Perolli and featuring a squad that mirrored Morejon's "league of nations" teams of the 1930s and '40s.

The Aztecs were sold to a car dealer named John Chaffetz, who moved them to El Camino College in Torrance and brought L.A. its first real superstar--Irish playboy and 1968 European player of the year George Best, who could often be found after games in some local saloon, a vodka in one hand and a girlfriend in the other.

The Aztecs did well enough at El Camino to move to the Coliseum. Those were the days when Elton John could be found on the sideline. Later, they played at the Rose Bowl, with Rothenberg their main owner.

He brought Dutch legend Rinus Michels in as coach, and Michels, in turn, brought the city its second superstar, three-time European player of the year Johan Cruyff. Cruyff made his American debut at the Rose Bowl, scoring twice in his first game.

In Orange County, meanwhile, the California Surf was trying to attract fans to what was then Anaheim Stadium. One drawing card it had was the only World Cup winner ever to play for a Los Angeles area team: elegant defender Carlos Alberto, who had captained Brazil to victory in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

After the demise of the NASL, the 1984 Olympic Games provided the next impetus for soccer locally. The tournament drew 1.4 million fans, including an L.A.-record 101,799 to the Rose Bowl to see France edge Brazil for the gold medal.

Pasadena, in fact, has attracted the top eight soccer crowds in the area's history and 10 of the top 12. It is also the birthplace of Carla Overbeck, captain of the U.S. women's national team that won the Women's World Cup in China in 1991 and again this past summer.

Pasadena also is where the area's latest professional team plays. The four-year-old Galaxy's roster features a home-grown look with a half-dozen former UCLA players, among them such former or present U.S. national team standouts as Paul Caligiuri of Walnut and Cobi Jones of Westlake Village.

How long the Rose Bowl will be home to the Major League Soccer team, however, is uncertain. Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz is intent on building the team its own 35,000- seat stadium in Los Angeles within the next two years.

As commissioner of the 1984 Olympic soccer tournament, Rothenberg caught the eye of FIFA and, with the backing of world soccer's governing body, he was elected president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

He topped his 1984 Olympic feat and paid FIFA back many times over by making the 1994 World Cup the most profitable and best- attended in history.

Los Angeles, Rothenberg said recently, has always been a soccer city and the Rose Bowl is unique in having staged an Olympic final, a World Cup final and a Women's World Cup final. No other stadium can match that.

The U.S. hopes to host the World Cup again in 2014. If it succeeds in winning the bid, Los Angeles could be where the final is played.

"It always will be the front-runner," Rothenberg said.

A PLACE FOR SUPERSTARS AND EVERY MAN

At his home in Rosemead, Charles "Chuck" Bowerman has what is probably the best collection of soccer pins in the city, if not the country. Several thousand in all.

Originally from Malta, Bowerman came to the U.S. in 1960 and he and Morejon quickly developed a close friendship, with their mutual love of soccer as its bond.

At his home in Monterey Park, Toros Kibritjian of Armenia can look back on a officiating career that took him around the world as a FIFA referee. So can Heinz Wolmerath of Germany, who lives in Westminster, and Arturo Angeles of Mexico, who lives in Temple City.

The three referees owe their expertise at least in part to the late Johnny Best, an Irishman who was one of the most respected referees in the country in the 1950s. Best (no relation to George) was the referee when Manchester United paid a visit to L.A. in 1951.

Foreign clubs and national teams have always regarded Los Angeles as one of their favorite off-season destinations, drawn by both the weather and the relative anonymity they could enjoy here. Many of the world's greatest players have appeared here.

Long before Diego Maradona became a household name, for example, he played in the Coliseum. Just 19, the future World Cup winner scored a goal on a wicked free kick for Argentina's youth team, which had stopped in L.A. on its way to Japan to win the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1979.

Morejon's scrapbooks are filled with such memories. One that stands out above the others--and which provided a unique souvenir--was a 1967 game he staged at the Coliseum.

"It was between Santos of Brazil and River Plate of Argentina," he said. "Pele missed two penalty kicks. I've still got the ball. People look at it, they can't believe it."

Morejon doesn't get about as much as he once did. Age, a heart bypass operation and a bad knee have seen to that. But he stays in close touch with the game.

From his home on the San Pedro hillside, he can tune in games from all over the world. He has been a subscriber to the London magazine, World Soccer, for 40 years and to Soccer America for more than 25.

Even now, 62 years after coming to the U.S., he still gets newspapers sent to him from his native Spain.

"I always like to know what's going on in soccer all over the world," he said. "Soccer has always been part of my life."

Just as he has been a huge part of soccer's life in Los Angeles.

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