By the time soccer practice begins, it is so dark in this corner of MacArthur Park that Brian Castillo squints his brown eyes to find the ball in the moon’s shadows. He must listen for his teammates’ voices to guide him to the goal. “Go, go, go!” they yell in unison.
The 10-year-old dashes up the grassy slope that makes up half this makeshift field, darts around three tree trunks and aims for the goal: a well-placed backpack and trash can.
It’s been good news, bad news this season for thousands of soccer players who converge weekly on MacArthur Park, vying for a slice of open space in the Westlake district, Los Angeles’ most densely populated neighborhood.
Today, the city will break ground on a $2.5-million renovation plan that will bring artificial turf, stadium lights, picnic tables and a children’s playground to the barren field that has offered players little more than a flat, dusty expanse of land.
The eight-month project has drawn groans and cheers from Castillo’s team and the surrounding immigrant population.
“It’s good because when we fall, we won’t get dirt in our eyes,” Castillo says, to roaring approval from the rest of team Mexico.
“It’s bad because we can’t play there for a long time,” says a disappointed Jorge Castro, 12.
The boys are part of a legion of players and spectators that flocks to the weed-choked acre weekly from tiny, crowded apartments seeking respite and exercise in their soccer matches.
Grandparents and passersby cheer from concrete benches as children compete on the west end of the field and men face off on the east side. After weekend games, families hang around until dusk celebrating birthdays or shopping at nearby stores.
For years, soccer on this patch of land has been the antidote for the gang and drug violence that once overwhelmed -- and still harasses -- the neighborhood. Progress has come in the form of a renovated band shell with summer concerts, video cameras and more police.
The new synthetic field promises to be a hit when it reopens next summer. But for now, the upheaval and lack of field space elsewhere has alarmed players and upset team rosters.
Already, 300 youth -- ages 16 to 18 -- have been eliminated from a 1,600-player program based at the park.
“On one hand, we’re saying, ‘Finally! It’s been so long,’ ” said Daniel Morales, a Nicaraguan and Guatemalan immigrant who runs the program at the park. “But it’s also a little frustrating. The city says, let’s fight delinquency, but there are no other opportunities for youth. This is the only area kids can go.”
City officials helped Morales relocate his players to the new Vista Hermosa Park a few blocks away, but they can use the field only for games. Practices are still held nightly at MacArthur Park, and teams such as Castillo’s have been pushed to the fringes, where hills grow steeper and light from sidewalk lampposts is blocked by trees.
On game day, parents board buses -- lawn chairs, umbrellas and coolers in hand -- to Vista Hermosa.
Morales said he has searched for space at nearby parks but has had no luck.
The crunch has also displaced adult players, some of whom are traveling to a nearby school, where they reluctantly pay $5 each to a league organizer to play each night.
Players aren’t the only ones pointing toward the cordoned-off construction zone with mixed emotions.
“I think this is it,” says Maria Palacio, a street vendor unaware of the city’s plan. “The end is here.”
Every night, the 48-year-old loads her cart with sodas and water to sell to hundreds of thirsty soccer players. On a good night, she makes up to $30.
This week, she arrived to find the dirt parcel empty, save for two backhoes. Only a few dozen players, not the usual hundreds, kicked a ball nearby.
“It’s not the end,” Morales assures her. “It’s the beginning of something that will be very good.”
A few years ago, the city tried growing grass on the plot of land that was once a lagoon, but after a few weeks, the soccer players wore the field down to dirt, said Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes the park
Plans to resurface the land with artificial turf had languished for nearly a decade, mired by a delay in funding and concerns from preservationists who worried that turning the site into an official soccer field would detract from the park’s historic significance.
As a compromise, the project is called a “children’s meadow.”
To preserve the look of the park, no field lines or equipment will be installed.
Reyes said he would like community soccer teams to begin partnering with surrounding schools to share school fields.
“We need to get to a place where kids get so tired in the daytime that they want to go to sleep at night, not be in the street,” he said.