The men of Fuerte Aguilares looked deflated, and it was not even noon yet. They sat on the sidelines of a Sterling soccer field yesterday, recovering from the morning's 1-0 loss to Centro America, musing about what separates winners from losers.
"In soccer, it's luck," said Coach Federico de Jesus Castro, 43, a white towel slung around his neck.
"It's the ones who put out the most effort," said Alberto Anaya, 35, who, like nearly all his teammates, hails from Aguilares, El Salvador, and lives in Leesburg.
De Jesus Castro offered another idea: "Those who score goals win."
The men nodded. Nobody could argue with that.
While they waited for their next game, the men cheered on Colonial, another Salvadoran team, against a Mexican team in one of the early games of the event that had drawn them all there: a two-day men's soccer tournament put on just for them by a Hispanic immigrant advocacy group. Twelve teams gathered at the Potomack Lakes Sportsplex in hopes of taking home the big trophy and $1,200 grand prize.
Organizers said they hope that the tournament, which continues today, will encourage the men, most of whom are Hispanic immigrants, to reach for a grander goal: a league of their own. Currently, the teams play pickup games at schools but only if a field is available and no neighbors complain. Many of the players lack proof of Loudoun residency, which is needed to participate in the county's men's league, said Laura Valle, director of La Voz of Loudoun, the organizer of the tournament, now in its second year.
A formalized league with more flexible residency rules, she said, would give the men more access to fields and, with the presence of referees, help prevent injuries, she said. Formal leagues also usually offer health insurance plans.
The tournament was also a sort of bait, Valle acknowledged. She hoped to lure the men to a resource fair that had been set up in a parking lot near the fields, where banks were handing out information about checking accounts and businesses were recruiting workers.
Young Hispanic men, Valle said, often are neglected by outreach programs, which tend to cater to families, senior citizens and children.
Men "suffer the brunt of discrimination, and they're less likely to integrate," she said.
Of course, few young men are attracted by the term "resource fair," Valle said. But she knew they would come for soccer.
Food -- tacos from a truck -- and a salsa band were placed near the fair, just to make sure the men could not avoid seeing it.
But by midday, soccer seemed to be the only thing on the minds of the players, with their neatly embroidered jerseys and professional-sounding team names, such as Juventus de Loudoun, last year's champ and the favorite to win this year until its 3-0 loss in the first round.
Down the sideline from Fuerte Aguilares, players for Metroplex, the Mexican team, paced, waiting for someone to score against Colonial. At one point, a Metroplex forward kicked a glorious shot toward the goal, and the Mexicans erupted in hoots. Then the ball bounced off the goal post, prompting a hail of cursing in Spanish.
When de Jesus Castro arrived in Loudoun 15 years ago, there were so few Hispanics that teams rarely represented one country -- there were never enough men from one place, he said. Today, in one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, the Hispanic population is exploding, too. More than 15,000 Latinos live in Loudoun, Census figures show -- more than seven times the population in 1990.
For all the intensity of the competition, the tournament was a flexible affair. One game was postponed because a team with only one car had to ferry players in stages. The team's opponent was delayed, too, because many of its players had to work in the morning.
Anaya switched his work shift at Wal-Mart so he could compete. His weekly Sunday morning soccer sessions with Fuerte Aguilares, usually followed by a dissection of the game over barbecue, bring relief from the stress of separation from his children in El Salvador, he said.
The score remained 0-0. Fuerte Aguilares, of course, wanted Colonial to win because they were compatriots. Besides, the Mexican team -- whose members were nearly all from Queretaro and related -- plays more "violently," Anaya explained.
At that moment, a Metroplex player tripped a Colonial player. "An example," Anaya said.
A whistle blew, signaling the end of the regulation 90-minute playing time. The score was 0-0. Players lined up for penalty kicks, and one after another they scored. On the 12th kick, a Metroplex player booted the ball high over the goal. The Mexicans sighed.
Members of Fuerte Aguilares, who had a second-round game to play, were all smiles. Another Salvadoran team had won, de Jesus Castro said, and that might portend good luck for them.