SAN JOSE -- As wealth increasingly dictates who wins and loses in youth sports, along comes a story of underdogs, success and hope. East San Jose, an area unfortunately known more for street gangs and crime, has spawned a youth soccer team of national championship caliber.

"We went from a backyard league to No. 3 in the country," said Edwin Luna Jr., one of the players on the Los Tigres team that just returned with a bronze medal at the national US Youth Soccer Championship finals in Maryland. The competition started with 185,000 players on more than 10,000 teams around the country.

The Los Tigres youth soccer team at Five Wounds Church in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, July 30, 2014. From left are: Angel Oronia, 18, Sergio Rico, 19,
The Los Tigres youth soccer team at Five Wounds Church in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, July 30, 2014. From left are: Angel Oronia, 18, Sergio Rico, 19, Cesar Garcia, 19, Josue Mendoza, 19, Edwin Luna, 19, and the team coach, Sergio Rico. The team returned home to San Jose with bronze medals won in a national tournament in Washington D.C. earlier this month. The players are immigrant and working class Latino 18-year-olds from the east side of San Jose. Their sponsor is the Portuguese Athletic Club based at Five Wounds Church, a parish whose members have mostly moved to the suburbs but still serves the mostly Hispanic and Catholic neighborhoods around their well-known shrine. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) ( Patrick Tehan )

Los Tigres is one of three dozen largely Mexican-American teams sponsored by the Portuguese Athletic Club. Established in 1962, the club still sits on the grounds of Five Wounds Portuguese National Church, whose graceful bell towers are so easily seen from Highway 101 at East Santa Clara Street.

The club grew from a bunch of kids from "Little Portugal" into a regional dynamo under the leadership of the late John Rodrigues Silveira, a star player in his birthplace, the Azores. The club's youth and adult teams collected trophies by the dozens, and still do.

By his death in 2004, the demographics of the area had changed to largely Hispanic and Asian, but Little Portugal's Portuguese didn't pack it all up and move to the suburbs. Some Portuguese men still play on the club's teams for players over the age of 35.


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"Portuguese or Hispanic, you bring it, we're going to do what we're going to do," said Lisa Sousa, president of the athletic club's soccer board.

It was during this demographic shift that Tigres co-founder and coach Sergio Rico was invited 12 years ago to play for a Portuguese Athletic Club adult team.

"These are true soccer people," he said. "They just want to help the community."

Randall Riedel and Roy Ortiz, members of the Los Tigres soccer club, played in the US Youth Soccer National Championship tournament last month in Maryland.
Randall Riedel and Roy Ortiz, members of the Los Tigres soccer club, played in the US Youth Soccer National Championship tournament last month in Maryland. Sponsored by the Portuguese Athletic Club of San Jose, the team finished third after winning several youth state and regional championships in recent years. (Courtesy of Los Tigres)

Rico and two friends, Felipe Mendoza and Edwin Luna Sr., had started Los Tigres in a local league when their sons were 5 years old in the late 1990s. However, they soon realized that youth soccer was undergoing a profound change. Teams sponsored by clubs, and not by public schools or city recreation programs, had the wherewithal to recruit and groom players for the highest levels of competition.

The problem was, Rico said, private club teams often charge fees that the families of low-income players cannot afford. That isn't the case at the Portuguese Athletic Club. Parents pay what they can contribute, and coaches often volunteer their services.

"Most of these kids are from low-income families and they've beaten the odds to win at the highest level in youth sports," said Cheryl Van Zuylen, a club soccer board member. "They don't have the money to go play for one of the more elite groups. The Tigres coaches work hard to get donations to help these kids play."

Rico and the other co-founders of Los Tigres moved the team to the Portuguese club in 2005, and it proved all the difference. The team won a state championship the next year. Since then the team has won at least five more state cups and three regional championships, and finished second and third in national tournaments. The team was a semifinalist twice and a quarterfinalist once in the prestigious Dallas Cup International Tournament.

The Portuguese club doesn't have gobs of money either, but it has the organization, a building for meetings and fundraising events, and a brain trust familiar with donors and the soccer world. Two anonymous funders each donated $10,000 to help get Los Tigres to the national tournament.

The only hitch to the Portuguese club's backing: Along the way, the Tigres' players often were mistaken for being Portuguese. The badge on their jerseys and travel shirts says, "San Jose P.A.C."

"We got a lot of Portuguese fans who stopped us and asked, 'Are you Portuguese?'" said Sergio Rico Jr., the coach's son. "When we told them no, they said, 'We like your jerseys anyway.'"

Josue Mendoza, right, of the Los Tigres soccer club, pursues a free ball at US Youth Soccer National Championship tournament last month in Maryland.
Josue Mendoza, right, of the Los Tigres soccer club, pursues a free ball at US Youth Soccer National Championship tournament last month in Maryland. Sponsored by the Portuguese Athletic Club of San Jose, the team finished third after winning several youth state and regional championships in recent years. (Courtesy of Los Tigres)

Last month's national tournament was likely the last hurrah for the under-19 boys team's five or so core members who have played together since childhood. According to Van Zuylen, every player on the 21-member team has graduated from high school and almost all will be attending college in the fall. That's the result, Rico said, of requiring Tigres players to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average in school.

"If they had school projects to do, that took priority over soccer practice," he said. "Education was always our highest priority."

Josue Mendoza will study and play for DeAnza College in Cupertino and seek tryouts with professional teams. Sergio Rico Jr. will do the same at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. Cesar Garcia will play for Evergreen Valley College and Angel Oronia will try out at San Jose State University. The one with the best chance for a shot in professional soccer probably is Luna, the Mercury News' 2012 Boys Soccer Player of the Year.

Meeting for one of the last times together in the trophy room of the Portuguese Athletic Club, the five core members of Los Tigres did their best to stay cool. They remembered the good wins and tough losses, birthday parties, pranks pulled on each other and Thanksgiving Day dinners on the road at faraway tournaments.

"I have a sister but no brother," Mendoza said. "These guys are my brothers. We've seen each other practically every day at practice, at parties. We've played together for past 14 years. Definitely, we're proud of it."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.