ASHLAND — The sun is strong, the fans are few and the town is teeming with other things to do.
Yet here is Rael Hirning, playing soccer at North Mountain Park on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
He's enjoying himself, too.
For the elder statesman of the Southern Oregon Fuego team, soccer is life and life is soccer.
"You wake up thinking about soccer," said the 31-year-old Hirning, who co-founded the semi-professional men's soccer team with Iman Siadat. "And you probably go to bed thinking about it."
On Saturday, Hirning and his teammates ended the second of six summer friendly matches in a scoreless tie with Eugene Metro Futbol Club.
The Fuego used to compete in the National Premier Soccer League but is not currently. Instead, Southern Oregon is sticking with the short exhibition schedule for now.
"Right now we are just trying to get things rolling again," said first-year coach Caleb Peterson, a 28-year-old who helped guide the Ashland boys soccer team as an assistant from 2007 to 2009. "We are trying to get something going and then possibly next winter get it solid. ... It's a bit of an investment to jump into those leagues. Right now we are just covering our own personal costs. We're just here to play for the love of the game."
Players on the team range in age from their late teens to as old as their early 30s. The squad is about "75 percent" new, said Hirning, and includes talent from North Medford, Ashland, Phoenix and St. Mary's.
During the winter, Fuego went 2-2 in friendly matches.
Veterans like Hirning have been there since the beginning. He and Siadat were roommates and came up with the idea of forming the team, Hirning said.
"We wanted to create a premier team in the area for the best players," Hirning said. "We've had ups and downs, but it's been a fun ride."
Hirning, who played the center back position on Saturday, graduated from Illinois Valley High in Cave Junction in 1998 and from Southern Oregon University in 2008.
Hirning has worked as a co-head coach with the SOU women's team, as the head boys coach at Crater High and as an assistant at Ashland and Illinois Valley.
He played professionally for one season in El Salvador.
"I love the sport," said Hirning, who now teaches social studies at Central Medford High. "It keeps you healthy. It keeps you young."
Though the matches may just be exhibitions, former North Medford standout Jesus Solorio said the opportunity offers "a higher level of competition. It's better."
Seeing players like Solorio — who will play for Chemeketa Community College in Salem next fall — with Fuego makes the elder statesman even happier.
"We want younger guys with some of the older guys," Hirning said. "If we get back in the league again, (scouts) look for these players for colleges. It's good for high school players who want to move on to college or want to even go to the professional level. This is a feeder league for that and if we're in it, people will watch."
Tentative plans are set for Southern Oregon to play at Chico in two weeks and to host Redding during the final weekend of July.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org