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Kenrick Ramirez likens the top teams in Liga Cinco De Mayo to Division I college soccer programs.
Ramirez, director of coaching for Columbus Express Soccer Club, coaches the Columbus International squad, which will play Deportivo Flamengo at 11 a.m. today at Richard Wigh Soccer Complex for the Liga Cinco De Mayo championship.
“It’s a very high level,” Ramirez said. “Up to about six years ago, you could look at two, maybe three teams that had the capabilities to win the league. Now, you can go six, seven, possibly eight teams deep that can actually win the league or have a realistic chance. We’re happy that we can have a league of this level close to home.”
Ramirez said several of the 14 teams in 15-year-old Liga Cinco De Mayo have athletes who played at a Division I level. Some have played on international youth teams, and some have played semiprofessionally.
“You can see amazing players with great talent,” said Enrique Hernandez, Liga Cinco De Mayo’s vice president. “I will qualify this league as a high-level league.”
“I’ve played in the league now eight years, and in that time period, the level of play has improved significantly across the board,” said Seth Keele, a defender for Columbus International.
Hernandez said the Liga Cinco De Mayo has grown significantly since having eight to 10 teams around the turn of the century. He said the league has had as many as 18 teams.
Most of the teams are based in Columbus, although the defending champion hails from Seymour. Players come from Indianapolis, Batesville, Greensburg, Madison and even as far as Dayton, Ohio.
Columbus International has won six Liga Cinco De Mayo titles, including three in a row from 2006-08. Deportivo Flamengo snapped the streak with a championship in 2009.
Last year, Seymour beat Columbus International 1-0 in the title game.
“We have a pretty good chance,” said Columbus International forward Nigel St. Bernard. “It’s our second straight finals, and this one is going to be successful.
“We’re older,” he said. “We’re the more grown-up team. We’ve been here last year, so we know what’s expected of ourselves.”
Today’s game will feature a stark contrast in age and experience. Columbus International features two of the older players in the league in former Columbus North and Notre Dame star and current North assistant coach Dane Whitley, 40, and defender Seth Keele, 38.
Meanwhile, Deportivo Flamengo boasts forward Tony Gonzalez, a starting forward on North’s state championship team last fall, and Luis Sanchez, who was a starting defender at Columbus East.
“We didn’t expect to get that far with the team we have since it’s our first year playing together,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s going to be a good experience.”
“(Columbus International is) a really good team, also, but I’m confident in my team, and I feel like we’re going to do well,” Sanchez said.
Deportivo Flamengo reached the finals with a 3-1 win over Arandas. Columbus International downed Sur America 5-2 in the semifinals.
Columbus International and Deportivo Flamengo met once during the regular season and played to a 3-3 tie.
“I think we’re in good shape,” said Keele, who also played at North. “We’re anxious to get the chance to take them on again and finish it the right way.”
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