As Santa Ana officials credit explosive growth in recreational soccer leagues with helping cut local gang activity, they also say it has sparked turf battles of another sort: Who gets to play where, and when.
Soccer has achieved near-religion status throughout much of Latin America. And Santa Ana's large Latino population--more than 70%, according to the 2000 census--has given rise to youth and adult leagues in which 40,000 players on more than 2,000 teams fight for space on the city's 15 overtaxed fields.
"It's the sport of choice in the city," said Councilman Jose Solorio. "It's probably the best crime-prevention program we have, because it involves the entire family."
The growth of soccer has come as other sports have declined. For example, 15 years ago city-sponsored leagues included 500 softball teams. Today, there aren't enough teams to form a single league, city officials said.
As soccer's popularity has exploded along with the city's changing demographics, officials are facing a problem that parks and recreation director Cleve Williams called "the best kind of headache you can get."
"It's nice that we're building soccer fields instead of jails," Williams said. "But soccer is a very complicated issue in our city. It's further complicated by the fact that our players are very passionate."
He noted that the American Youth Soccer Organization, an umbrella group with thousands of leagues and teams nationwide, does not run a Santa Ana league.
"In the AYSO, soccer is a fun sport, and every kid gets out there and runs around," Williams said. "In Santa Ana, the teams have a huge commitment to keep kids off the streets. But they're also expected to win, not just have fun. That's how passionate our residents are about soccer."
That passion has become political.
Earlier this month, about 50 adult players from an established 35-team city league marched into a council meeting to protest Williams' plan to open the five-field Centennial Park complex to teams from a newer and different city-sponsored group, the Santa Ana Soccer Assn.
Under an agreement scheduled to expire in August, the 35-team league enjoys exclusive Saturday use of the Centennial fields. Williams wants to open the complex to teams from the Santa Ana Soccer Assn.--formed three years ago by 14 leagues--on Saturday, too. He sees it as a fairness issue.
Mayor Miguel Pulido and the council ordered Williams, the soccer group and the city league to work out a compromise.
Juan Sanchez, a Santa Ana schoolteacher and spokesman for the older league, said players fear they will have trouble finding a field once association teams begin using the Centennial complex.
"There aren't any fields available," Sanchez said. "We won't have a place to play."
Association President Frank Ramirez, though, said his group has chafed over the other league's exclusive agreement.
"They want to play at Centennial all the time, but they're not the only league in the city," Ramirez said. "Why should they be the only ones allowed there [on Saturday], when the city doesn't have enough fields?"
Larry Chavez, the park and recreation department's liaison to the association and the city league, said such disputes have increased pressure on the crowded city to develop new fields.
"We've taken to converting open space owned by the city to makeshift soccer fields," Chavez said.
At Bomo Koral Park, at the city's south end, this has resulted in complaints from nearby residents, he said.
"We've gotten a lot of angry phone calls, but when we explain to them that this helps keep our young people out of trouble, most people understand," said Chavez. "Everyone recognizes that soccer has helped make our city a safer place to live."
Heavy use of the existing fields also has taxed the playing surfaces, leading to frequent maintenance.
"We have to close fields to reseed, and this always causes problems," Chavez said. "The solution is to have soccer follow a season, so we can use the off-season to reseed. But that's almost impossible, because everyone wants to play year-round."
City officials are seeking state funding to lay artificial turf at the Centennial complex and to increase the number of fields to eight.
"We're going to recommend to the council that they approve $2 million for the project," said Williams. "That will solve some of our problems, because the fields can be used seven days a week and at night with improved lighting."
Some adult teams and teams from Santa Ana Youth Soccer United are forced to play on fields in other cities. Ignacio Rivera, president of the group--composed of 10 leagues--said the youth teams are allowed to play at local schools and schools in other cities for free.
Chavez said city officials hope to reach an agreement with the Santa Ana Unified School District for the use of additional fields for both adult and youth teams.
"If that happens, it will be a big help," said association President Ramirez. "There are enough school fields available to accommodate all adult and youth teams."
Rivera, who has been involved with youth soccer for 12 years, said league officials also are seeking more sponsors for the youth leagues.
"Our kids come from immigrant families who don't have a lot of money," Rivera said. "Our registration fee is only $5, and that covers insurance. But the kids also have to bring money to each game to pay the referees and to stripe the field. Many of them can barely afford to buy cleats."
Adult teams also pay referees and hourly fees to use the field. To defray costs, some leagues charge $3 admission to games played on Sunday at Centennial Park.
Williams said that he does not like the idea of charging admission, but the practice is permitted under the agreement between the city and leagues.
"There's not too much of that happening, but I understand that they're trying to recover their costs," Williams said. "The leagues bring in well-known teams from Mexico to play against local teams, and they have to pay the Mexican team's expenses."
The city charges up to $120 per hour to use fields for night games, he said. Daytime fees range from $20 to $50 per hour.
"That can add up for the leagues," Williams said. "The city takes a percentage of the gate whenever admission is charged, but there have been times when I've had to forgive the city's share or forgive some of the fees to help them out. The bottom line is . . . benefits to our citizens have made this a better place to live."