Call them freestylers, performers or simply entertainers.
But on Thursday afternoon in the Baton Rouge River Center, during the 2014 US Youth Soccer Region III Championships opening ceremony, the Futboleros were catalysts to help bring athletes of all ages and backgrounds together.
When the doors opened at noon, the Futboleros were the first act to welcome parents, players and coaches from 11 states in Region III — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — to Baton Rouge.
The freestyle soccer group stems from Los Angeles, where it is the head of entertainment for the LA Galaxy.
Hours before Thursday’s opening ceremony, though, James Ortega, the squad’s owner and founder, was constantly surrounded by an array of jerseys ranging in all colors and sizes.
Ortega was not just entertaining. He taught the army of wide-eyed players how to properly juggle a soccer ball.
“Soccer is a universal world,” Ortega said. “It’s a covenant sport that everyone relates to. Everyone’s one goal in mind is to play together and be together, and at the same time it brings out a lot of ethnicities and nationalities here.”
From there, interaction began.
One athlete would accidentally bump a ball to another, which spurred a shared laugh and a tiny conversation.
The goal of the opening ceremony was evident.
“That’s one of the fantastic things about this experience for the kids, is that they get to take a peek outside of their home communities and states and meet kids from different states,” said Matt Berman, whose daughter plays for the under-13 girls Tennessee Soccer Club 2019 from Nashville.
Players roamed the premises for hours scouting out fellow competitors to trade jerseys.
Later in the day, players from Tennessee held uniforms from Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and other southern states.
When competition kicks off Friday at the BREC Burbank Soccer Complex, the thousands of young faces seen sharing tips and stories Thursday will face off for the chance to travel to Maryland to play in the US Youth Soccer National Championship series.
Before any whistles blow, though, the opening ceremony gave the young competitors a chance to build an ally or two.
“You get a team from North Carolina and a team from Texas who never see each other. Then they come here, and the different cultures interact,” said Tim Evans, whose under-15 boys 98 CASL Elite Black team travelled down from Raleigh, North Carolina.
“They’re friends beforehand, then all of a sudden they get on a soccer field and play against each other.”
When the opening ceremony officially kicked off at 4 p.m., the Futboleros took center stage inside the main arena and performed an opening act before they opened the floor to the players.
Girls and boys from every state in the region got the chance to show off what they had learned from Ortega and his crew.
Ortega said seeing all the smiling faces excited about soccer in region known for other sports was a welcome sight.
“The last 20 years, soccer has really come close to (football and baseball),” Ortega said. “We compete against so many sports in this country. Being here in Baton Rouge and bringing soccer and having over 5,000 kids here in one facility, it’s pretty amazing.”