SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah soccer league that saw one of its referees punched by a teen player and sent into a coma plans to play on — but with security present at games and without the player's team, its president said Friday.
Mario Vasquez, president of La Liga Continental de Futbol, said he'll hire off-duty police officers to watch over games, which will resume this weekend at a middle school in a Salt Lake City suburb. The 17-year-old's team has been expelled from the league.
The referee, Ricardo Portillo, 46, remains in a coma with his family praying for a miracle. The teenager, whose name is being withheld because he is a minor, is in juvenile detention on suspicion of aggravated assault. The charges could be amplified if Portillo dies.
Portillo's oldest daughter said Thursday her father had been attacked before while refereeing — even having his ribs and leg broken. But Vasquez said those incidents didn't happen in his league.
"We've never seen something like that before," Vasquez said. "We are still in shock. We can't believe it happened."
The unaffiliated Hispanic soccer league will have to be on its best behavior moving forward or risk losing the field it plays on each Saturday. The school district that has rented it two soccer fields at Eisenhower Junior High School for the past three years has sent the league a formal warning.
The letter cites Saturday's assault and previous complaints that the league didn't clean up trash and violated the ban on drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Teachers at the school say they recently found water bottles, beer cans, cigarette butts and a dirty diaper on the field following the games.
"In addition, as you know, Eisenhower was mentioned in the news as a result of the player's assault on the referee," wrote Granite School District director Bryce Holbrook. "This situation only adds more cause to warn you in the hopes that your soccer events will be positive and civil activities."
Vasquez said he created the youth league in 2009 to give Latino children in the Salt Lake City area a place to play soccer, and for their family and friends to gather, socialize and have fun. These types of leagues are common in major U.S. cities, especially among Spanish-speaking immigrants who often barbecue there and play music in a de facto celebration of the Latin American passion for soccer.
But that passion became a flash of rage last Saturday in the goalie box at an Eisenhower field in Taylorsville, a Salt Lake City suburb about 10 miles southwest of downtown.
Accounts from Vasquez, Portillo's daughter and a police report released Friday offer a detailed narrative of what happened.
The teenager was playing goalie when Ricardo Portillo issued him a yellow card for pushing an opposing forward trying to score a goal. In soccer, a yellow card is given as a warning to a player for an egregious violation of the rules. Two yellow cards lead to a red card and expulsion from the game.
The teenager, quite a bit heavier than Portillo, began arguing with the referee, then unleashed a punch to his face. Portillo seemed fine at first, then asked to be held because he felt dizzy. He sat down and started vomiting blood, triggering his friend to call an ambulance.
When police arrived around noon, the teenager was gone and Portillo was laying on the ground in the fetal position. Through translators, Portillo told EMTs that his face and back hurt and he felt nauseous. He had no visible injuries and remained conscious. He was considered to be in fair condition when they took him to the Intermountain Medical Center.
But when Portillo arrived to the hospital, he slipped into a coma with swelling in his brain. Portillo's daughter Johana Portillo called detectives to let them know his condition had worsened.
That's when detectives intensified their search for the goalie. By Saturday evening, the teenager's father agreed to bring him down to speak with police.
Vasquez said he doesn't know much about the player, but said the league has had no problems with him before.
The league, which has 100 children, is not affiliated with the popular Utah Youth Soccer Association or any city or town recreation department. Utah Youth Soccer Association CEO Andrew Hiatt has called it a "rogue league," saying there usually are at least three of these leagues in the Salt Lake City area at any given time. They come and go, he said, due to a lack of organization.
Vasquez, however, said his league has rules and protocols, and that every player is informed about the code of conduct. Vasquez and Portillo have been friends for many years, having refereed together in other Hispanic leagues. Vasquez has been visiting Portillo every day in the hospital.
On Friday, the league's Facebook page featured a picture of Portillo in an orange referee uniform, along with the words, "Estamos contigo," or "We're with you."
Johanna Portillo said she and her sisters begged their father to stop refereeing because of the risk from angry players, but he continued because he loved soccer.
"It was his passion," she said. "We could not tell him no."