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MLS Stadium Plan Sparks Tug-of-War Over Hispanic Support

QUEENS — Backing the building of a new Major League Soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, State Assemblyman Francisco Moya predicted the addition would be successful for a very specific reason — the soccer-mad population.

He said the area has a lot of Hispanic residents, and Hispanic cultures treat soccer "like a religion."

"We live and breathe the sport," Moya said recently. "It becomes a sense of pride for the team and the city, and that's exactly how it would be for Major League Soccer and Queens. That whole surrounding area is just a soccer community."

This has become the prevailing wisdom: Because of the cultural impact of the sport in Spanish-speaking countries, Corona's largely Hispanic, immigrant population will overwhelmingly support a new stadium if it is built in the nearby park.

But the stadium's opponents are disputing this narrative. The truth, they say, is more nuanced.

"This is the storyline they want: 'Latinos want soccer, and [protesters] don't want to give it to them.' That's a false argument," said Will Sweeney of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, one of the groups opposed to park development.

"They're trying to make this false choice. We shouldn't have to choose between jobs and parkland. We shouldn't have to choose between having soccer and not having soccer. Let's have soccer in the right place."

Supporters of the project, including local politicians like Moya and State Sen. Jose Peralta, have stressed Hispanic support for the stadium, and Major League Soccer claims about a third of the league's fans are Hispanic.

"Soccer is a way of life to us, to Hispanic people," said Alfonso Vargas, president of Alianza Ligas Latinas De Futbol, a group of Eastern New York Hispanic soccer leagues that has aligned itself with Major League Soccer.

"Are you proud to have a St. Patrick's Cathedral? We'd like to have a cathedral of soccer built."

The stadium, which would be built in the space currently filled by the Fountain of the Planets, will take up to 13 acres of public land in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, according to Major League Soccer.

The league also estimates that construction will create more than 2,000 jobs on and off site, and that stadium operation will bring more full- and part-time work to the surrounding areas.

But groups like Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization that supports minority and immigrant communities, have attacked the stadium plan for taking away public land and have challenged MLS to provide what they call "quality" jobs.

"Will these jobs be above minimum wage? Will they have benefits?" said Theo Oshiro, a deputy director at Make the Road.

"We hear day after day from the community on this, and there's no shortage of people saying, 'I'm worried.'"

For MLS, the argument has been a salient one. Even the New York Times' editorial board agreed that "New Yorkers who came from soccer-mad nations now live nearby and would presumably support a local franchise."

But while the sport's popularity in the community is undeniable, the park, too, is an important resource to Corona residents, Oshiro said.

"It is very clear that soccer is very much a main form of entertainment for the Latino community," Oshiro said. "When you show people the detail of where the stadium will be, and how much space it will take, the perceptions change."

That, though, depends on the details. Moya and Peralta believe that their constituents will benefit from the stadium's construction, both economically and culturally.

Moya also believes it will also be an improvement to a park that has been neglected for decades.

"They're going to make an investment into the maintenance of that park, which the park has not had ever, and the impact that it's going to have on the local businesses is going to be huge," Moya said.

"People who want to do things to preserve parkland, I know where they're coming from," he added. "But I think this is something much bigger."