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Riverhead soccer tournament benefits family of five lost in house fire

Players in a soccer game Sunday morning, held

Players in a soccer game Sunday morning, held to raise money for relatives of five family members killed in Riverhead fire last week, including one of the team players. Credit: John Roca

The Riverhead soccer team known as Manchester City took to the field Sunday morning wearing shirts bearing the face of their teammate, player number 8, killed, along with his family, in a house fire Tuesday night.

The fast-moving blaze quickly engulfed a century-old Victorian home Tuesday night, killing the young man who, friends said, just celebrated his 24th birthday. His four family members also died in the fire.

Manchester City’s coach, Hector Vasquez, said the young man who is of Guatemalan descent played midfield and joined the league when he arrived on Long Island several months ago. Teammates were devastated and came out along with hundreds of others Sunday to play at a Stotzky Park tournament to benefit the family.

"Wednesday morning my friend called me … I started crying. When you lose a good person," Vasquez said, trailing off. "[The victim] is a good guy and I’m sorry for everything."

Newsday is withholding the victims’ names, as provided by friends, pending the official release by county officials. A spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday on whether the county medical examiner’s office had completed the identification process.

Investigators think the five were trying to flee before being overwhelmed by the blaze, Suffolk Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, head of the Suffolk police department's homicide squad, said Wednesday.

The cause, which is believed to be accidental and noncriminal, has not been disclosed.

Paul Villafranco and his father, Edgardo, founder of the Riverhead Soccer League, organized Sunday’s event to help the family cover funeral and other costs. Local businesses donated food, supplies and even DJ services. Volunteers sold atol, a cornstarch-based hot drink; elote, Mexican street corn; and more Central American fare to help the cause.

"It’s just a way to bring the community together," Villafranco said. "We love playing soccer and everybody wants to get distracted for a little bit and this is the best way to do it."

The tight-knit league runs from April through November and can draw up to 1,500 visitors on a typical Sunday, Villafranco said. Seeing the same faces week after week creates a sense of closeness.

"They became like family because they would be here every Sunday," said Vilma Torres, who is affiliated with another league team.

Twelve teams competed in the daylong tournament that also featured raffles, and Edgardo Villafranco said he hoped to travel to Guatemala to personally deliver the money.

Carlita Guevara of Riverhead made chicken sandwiches to sell to benefit the family of the young man, who she said was her husband’s teammate.

"In our community, we help Hispanics hand by hand," said Guevara, who is El Salvadoran. "We feel their pain. We’re together as a team."

The weight of the catastrophic fire and the pain of the lives lost extended beyond Riverhead’s Latin American community.

"When you have a tragedy like this, how can you not put your heart out there," said Maxine Kleedorfer of Riverhead, who attended Sunday’s game. "It’s hard to believe the whole town isn’t here. It’s good to see people coming together."

With Rachelle Blidner

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