Violence and gangs used to rule the rundown tennis courts at Valley Park in Cardinal Valley, but these days the courts are dominated by soccer players.
Zac Peterson and Luis Martinez, owners of Kentucky Street Soccer Association, share a passion for street soccer and are trying to make the game a community staple.
The league, in operation for three years, defines street soccer as a fast-paced and freestyle game. The five-on-five games are comprised of two 25-minute periods, as opposed to 90 minutes for regular soccer. Peterson said teams use a "futsal" ball, which is heavier, smaller and moves faster and is mainly used indoors. Otherwise, he said, the rules are pretty much the same, although the ball may be played off the wall. If it goes over, it's out of bounds.
During the most recent season, which ended last week, there were nine teams in the league, each with a maximum of 10 players ages 16 and older. The players don't wear protective gear, and referees don't call the game; the players do. The league's mission is to provide a competitive street soccer league for the health, recreation and enjoyment of anyone who's interested, according its website, Kentuckystreetsoccer.com.
The league, which also plays games in Coolavin Park, hopes to expand and will focus on areas of Lexington with higher crime rates to provide something positive for young people.
Martinez, 27, originally from Mexico City, and Peterson, 27, a native of Lexington, grew up loving and playing street soccer, but their perspectives vary. Martinez played in the streets with cans or whatever he and other players could kick around. Peterson played street soccer in a more traditional sense — and with a ball.
Their different experiences helped them shape the league.
"There is just a certain thing about street soccer — the freedom," Peterson said. "You can express yourself and yet it still is super competitive. We just love street soccer."
The seed for the program was planted in 2009 when Martinez attended a community meeting to discuss ways to eliminate gang activity and keep young people out of trouble.
He suggested that soccer courts be built, starting with Cardinal Valley Park, an area where gang activity was getting out of hand. The idea didn't make the cut then, but it would get new life later.
Rudy Cruz, recreational manager at the Division of Parks and Recreation, saw the abandoned and rundown tennis courts at Cardinal Valley Park, where pick-up soccer already was popular among residents. Martinez told Cruz about his idea; Cruz liked it and decided to do something to make it a reality.
Through his connections, Cruz was able to get Cricket Wireless to sponsor the Valley Park project. Cricket, Parks and Recreation and other sponsors invested more than $40,000 on court renovations, including paint, blacktop and walls, and for maintenance.
"I had to come up with the layouts of the courts," Martinez said. "After a month or so, they were ready. They turned those rundown tennis courts into street soccer courts."
In 2010, Martinez organized a couple of free two-day tournaments with 16 teams. In 2011, Cruz connected Peterson with Martinez and encouraged them to work together.
With a business idea in mind and an itch to create a soccer league, Peterson and Martinez formed Kentucky Street Soccer Association LLC in 2012.
It is "the only league in the United States that I'm aware of," Peterson said.
Once the league became an official business, a referee was hired but doesn't interfere much during the games. Peterson and Martinez wanted to keep the essence of free play even after becoming official.
"You don't have to be the fastest guy to play," said Martinez. "In street soccer it is all about skills; you could be as fast as you want, but if you don't have the skills, that might not help you. It's a different type of soccer that is open to everyone."
The league is pretty diverse. Several teams are comprised of players from countries that include Mexico, Brazil and Iraq.
"Not everybody knew the same language, but they all spoke the common language, which was soccer," Peterson said.
Norberto Mata, 30, has been playing in the league for all three seasons. He enjoys it and says he would like to have more courts available.
"I like that we play outside and meet new friends," he said. "Luis does a good job of running the league."
The association looks for sponsors in an effort to keep the cost affordable. The league added McDonald's to its list of sponsors this year. It charges each team $400 to $450 to join, and the players get T-shirts, prizes and other perks.
The end-of-the-season tournament was last week at Coolavin Park. More than 200 people attended. The next season will begin in August.
Peterson has a vision of expanding the league nationwide, but he would like to start with Louisville and have tournaments between teams from the two cities.
Until then, they will continue working on making a dent in local crime statistics.
Martinez said Valley Park "is now the mecca of soccer. You go over there and you see people playing soccer everywhere. It helped to have those courts there ... we took them away from the gangs. That is what we hope to do with Sixth Street."