EGG HARBOR CITY - Arturo Tapia spends his weekdays hanging sheetrock and doing spackling as a self-employed contractor.
On Sundays, the 34-year-old Absecon resident plays indoor soccer for AC Milan, one of 14 teams in La Liga Latino-Americana at the Euro Sports Center.
"I grew up in Toluca, Mexico, and moved here in 2001 looking for a better opportunity," Tapia said. "I hadn't played soccer in 20 years but used to play all the time in Mexico and decided to give it a try again."
The hiatus didn't hurt Tapia.
Although he is one of the oldest players in the league, he showed he could hang with the youngsters last Sunday. Tapia brought the 200 or so fans to their feet when he scored on a header with 3 minutes, 32 seconds left in regulation to give AC Milan a 3-2 victory over Juvenil Hammonton in the championship game of the Copa De Campeones (Cup of Champions).
Afterward, he posed with the trophy while sipping a can of Modelo beer as friends and family members celebrated with the players.
The win capped an impressive indoor season for AC Milan. The team went 7-0 in group play during the regular season and outscored its opponents 44-14 to earn a berth in the Copa de Campeones as one of the top seven finishers. The bottom seven teams moved into Copa De La Liga (League Cup) for the playoffs.
AC Milan went 5-0 in the playoffs with a 22-5 edge in goals, though Juvenil Hammonton nearly ended the unbeaten streak in the final. Miguel Garcia, a 26-year-old landscaper from Bridgeton, scored midway through the second half to give Juvenil a 2-1 lead before Tapia led AC Milan's comeback.
"I moved here from Mexico in 2006," Garcia said. "I played in Mexico and wanted to keep playing. I only joined (Juvenil) five weeks ago, but I've been playing in another indoor league in Cherry Hill all winter, and I'm playing in an outdoor league in Bridgeton in a couple of weeks."
Most of the players in the league grew up in other countries and have used soccer as a way to form friendships while also feeding their competitive appetite.
Although some were drinking "cerveza" afterward, this is no recreational beer league. Last Sunday afternoon, hundreds of fans pushed through the revolving doors and rushed to the sideline of the domed facility to get good views of the championship games.
During halftime and between games, children rushed onto the turf and fired shots into the nets.
"The players in this league are very skilled," Euro Sports Center co-owner Spiros Gaitanos said. "As you can see, it's a very high level of soccer."
From near and far
AC Milan's players come from a variety of backgrounds.
Assistant coach/player Todd Huston is one of the few Americans on the team. The 40-year-old grew up in West Chester, Pa., before moving to Egg Harbor Township. He works as a server at Chef Vola and the Knife & Fork restaurants in Atlantic City is also the lead singer for a Philadelphia-based cover band called "The Block Party Band."
"A lot of the teams have been established for years, but they are always looking for new players," Huston said. "I was playing in Tuesday night pickup games (at Euro Sports Center) and got to know some of the younger guys. I joined the team three years ago."
Most of the roster and coaching staff for AC Milan came to the United States from Honduras, including head coach Jose Fuentes, assistant coach Blas Pacheco, and Blas' younger brother Angel Pacheco, who was the Most Valuable Player in the Atlantic Soccer League (outdoors) last summer.
Blas Pacheco, 27, was 14 when his family came to the U.S. and settled in Egg Harbor Township.
"I graduated from Egg Harbor Township in 2005, but I didn't play soccer in school," said Pacheco, who works as a food runner at Carmine's restaurant at the Tropicana Casino Resort. "I was always too busy working. But there was a field near my house in Egg Harbor Township, and we would go out there and play in our spare time. I joined AC Milan in 2009."
Fuentes, 46, moved to Pleasantville from Honduras 20 years ago and is a waiter at Plate American Cafe at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel. He's been AC Milan's head coach for four years.
"We've got players from Mexico, El Salvador and Haiti, but I'd say 75 percent of our team is from Honduras," Fuentes said. "Most of the players are already friends, but they all get to know each other by practicing together. We all share a love for soccer."
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