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Teamwork is a goal for homeless soccer player

Abandoned as a 3-year-old on the streets of Guatemala City, Marlon Alexander Lux Bal ate what he picked from trash cans and curled up each night on a concrete stoop.

His friends, who also were orphans, never stuck around for long. Everyone seemed to want to steal what little he had.

You can only trust yourself. That’s what life seemed to say.

Now, Alex, 18, is sitting around a dinner table at a Boyle Heights homeless shelter with six other young men, passing tortillas and tubs of butter on Easter night. All are immigrants whose lonely journeys took them from Central America or Mexico to the streets of L.A.

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They are strangers, and, now, teammates. They’ve been chosen to represent Los Angeles in a national soccer league made up of players who are homeless.

Teamwork will be the key to their success, say their coaches, Johny Figueroa and Gerardo Gomez.

“We need to trust each other, and take care of each other,” the coaches say in Spanish. “We need to grow together like a family.”

For the players, these are unfamiliar concepts. But when the coaches ask, “Are you committed?” six heads nod.

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Later, when the meal is over, Alex pulls a chair close to the television and sits alone, deeply absorbed in a soccer game on the screen. He dreams of playing professionally someday.

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When Alex was 7 and still on his own, an American couple offered him a new life in the U.S.

Soon he and other street kids were on their way to Texas. If police hadn’t intervened, Alex says, they would have been put up for illegal adoption. Instead, he was sent to live with an uncle who was living in Potsville, Iowa. Life didn’t get easier there.

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At age 8 he went to work at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, cleaning the lunchroom and later working on the icy packing floor. He was 16 when authorities swooped down in one of the nation’s biggest immigration raids. Alex testified when the plant’s owners went on trial for violating child labor laws.

Placed in foster care, he bumped through several programs and temporary homes, eventually ending up with a foster family in Riverside.

When a classmate asked one day if he wanted to kick around a soccer ball, Alex said no. Chronic malnutrition had stunted his growth, and he was embarrassed. He stands just over 5 feet tall, and while he has the neck and head of a man, his hands, feet and arms are the size of a 10-year-old’s.

Eventually, though, Alex agreed to try. Soon soccer became the best part of his life.

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“When I have that anger, I go and kick the ball and I feel ease,” he says quietly. “It’s like when you have hunger and you eat.”

When he aged out of the foster system at 18, his foster parents directed him to Jovenes Inc., a residence and career center that helps young people move from homelessness into independent life.

Soon he was living with strangers in its small transitional housing program in Boyle Heights. Many had endured lives as hard as his.

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In the 1980s, thousands of Central American children fleeing war arrived in Los Angeles looking for a small chapel near Olvera Street. You’ll find sanctuary there, their relatives and fellow travelers said.

Father Richard Estrada and the other priests gave the children food and a place to rest, but Estrada knew they needed more. So in 1992, he opened Jovenes Inc.

The center is now headquartered on a sun-baked cul-de-sac overlooking the 101 Freeway. Its current director, Andrea Marchetti, decided to form a soccer team there three years ago.

He told the young men they could join the team if they took positive steps in their lives — signing up for English classes, getting their GEDs, or looking for jobs. Each year, he decided, the whole team would be new so as many young men as possible could play.

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The first year, Jovenes placed second in the national homeless tournament. The next year was different.

In the fourth game, the goalie simply gave up, letting ball after ball sail past him. Coach Figueroa, who still winces at the memory, wasn’t aware of the boy’s history of mental illness. He vowed to know his players better.

He’s pleased by this year’s crew, especially Alex, whose speed makes up for his size. Alex is hungrier than the others. When the others walk to practice, he runs.

Every Sunday, they pile into a van to scrimmage and run drills on fields in Monterey Park, Montebello and Rosemead.

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Figueroa, 26, drives with one hand on the wheel. Arms laced with tattoos, hair slicked up in a mohawk, the Jovenes caseworker is a laid-back guy with an easy laugh.

But on the field he stands legs apart, feet turned out, hands clasped behind his back.

“Do you want to practice or do you want to go home?” he shouts if a player doesn’t follow directions. If someone flubs a drill, he’s ordered to drop and do push-ups.

All spring and summer they prepare to travel to Washington, D.C., for the Street Soccer USA Cup, an annual tournament of the nation’s homeless soccer teams.

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In May, the young men are invited to play their first games as a team in a Long Beach charity tournament. It is a brilliantly sunny day, and Alex is dashing up and down the field. When he spots a clear shot at the goal, he calls out to his teammate with the ball.

Buscala aqui! Pasala aqui!” he yells. “Look for me! Pass to me!”

But the other team steals the ball. Alex shakes his head in disgust. Walking off the field after losing the game, he strides angrily toward a plastic water bottle on the grass and punts it into the air.

“We didn’t play like a team,” he says. “We just played like individuals.”

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Coach Gomez, a 31-year-old social worker, sighs and gathers the sweaty crew in a huddle. “If you don’t pass, you don’t win,” he says, repeating a mantra that seems simple but isn’t.

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Two of Alex’s teammates are his roommates. Melvin Alexander Lopez and Jarlin Leonel Hernandez each made their own way from Honduras and entered the shelter after aging out of the foster system.

The three share a sunny apartment with touches of home — bowls brimming with oranges and bananas, a potholder that says, “Love grows here.” But they carry shower kits in and out of the bathroom, and a bulletin board lists strict house rules.

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At first, Alex cooks and eats most meals alone. And even though all three boys are enrolled at Roosevelt High School, where Alex is on the honor roll, most mornings he walks there by himself.

The coaches notice this.

“You have to have a sense of belonging to one another,” Gomez tells them. “It has to be, ‘I know you, I live with you, I play with you.’”

They find ways to get the young men to hang out. One afternoon, Gomez takes them to a backyard barbeque, where they listen to hip hop and Mexican folk songs and eat spicy tostadas. On the weekends, the team walks around MacArthur Park, selling bottled water, sodas and soccer balls to raise money for Washington.

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As the weeks go by, they play more games— winning some, losing others and growing closer.

Alex and his roommates start walking to school together, joking and roughhousing along the way. One day, when Melvin mentions the word “short” in conversation, Alex pipes up, “Like me!” They all crack up.

When the last bell rings, they meet on the football field. There are no soccer goals, so they use their sweatshirts and backpacks as markers. They play until their hair is soaked with sweat.

One morning in June, they wake at dawn to catch the Honduran team in the World Cup. Sprawled on couches in their still-dark living room, they stare sleepily at the TV screen. And they talk. Soon they will leave Jovenes, where the maximum stay is one year and eight months. Jarlin and Melvin may move to the East Coast. Alex laughs self-consciously and says they’ll probably lose touch. “No,” Jarlin says, smiling. “You’re my brother, man.”

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In July, Alex turns 19. Coach Figueroa asks him if he wants a job teaching with him at a soccer clinic in Duarte. Alex likes the long drives to Duarte in Figueroa’s beat-up Honda. And he likes that Figueroa doesn’t treat him like a kid.

“Why have you been smoking cigarettes?” Figueroa asks Alex one day as they sit in rush-hour traffic. Alex starts to joke. “I’m serious,” Figueroa says. “You want to be a good soccer player? You can’t smoke.” Alex quits.

The coach connects with Alex in a way that most can’t. Figueroa was 16 when he left the green hills of Honduras for the United States. He was beaten, robbed and deported more than a dozen times before he made it.

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He headed to Los Angeles because his mother had come here to work when he was six, and eventually died here. But when he got to L.A., Figueroa couldn’t find her grave — or a job.

He squatted for a time in a burnt-out trailer in South Los Angeles, surviving mostly on soda sneaked from a Burger King soda fountain. Then he was arrested and sent to a juvenile hall. He entered the foster care system, aged out and ended up living in a park.

He, too, made his way to Jovenes, where he stayed in the same small bedroom where Alex sleeps now.

He also played soccer, on Jovenes’ first team. At the national tournament, he was selected to play in the Homeless World Cup in Australia, where he was named MVP.

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It’s nearly 90 degrees and muggy when the team steps into the stadium in Washington. Hundreds are there to watch.

They win their first two games easily and by their third, the crowd is chanting Alex’s name. Journalists want interviews. Kids want autographs.

The next day, L.A. loses, 0-4, to a Texas team, Fort Worth.

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Alex struggles through the awards ceremony, where he poses for photos with a fourth-place medal. But then the members of the U.S. Street Soccer World Cup team are announced, and his is the first name called.

Teams from 64 countries will compete in Brazil. There may be professional scouts.

Alex is lucky. Although he recently started working at the American Apparel factory, his boss lets him take the time off. His team and coaches throw a party to wish him luck in Brazil.

Meanwhile, his dreams keep growing.

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One recent afternoon, Alex holds his small hand up at chin level.

“Now I’m here,” he says. “But I don’t want to stop here. I want to go up there.” He lifts his fingers to the sky. “And when I go up there, I’m going to want to go higher.”

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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