High-level soccer in the Texas Rio Grande Valley has experienced a renaissance over the last few years. Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, of the second division United Soccer League (USL), kicked off this new growth period when they began play in 2016. Last year the Toros moved into a new 9,700 soccer palace, H-E-B Park in Edinburg. Late in 2017 the RGV Barracudas resumed indoor soccer operations in the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL), one of only two teams currently playing professional indoor soccer in the state. The 2015 merger of two University of Texas campuses into a new school called UT Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) has produced both men’s and women’s top-level Division I soccer programs that are improving each year.
The argument can also be made that the renaissance extends all the way across the southern border of the state. Laredo Heat, arguably the most successful high-level amateur soccer program in Texas history, will resume play in 2018, this time in the North American Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The second MASL team in Texas, the El Paso Coyotes, began play in 2016. The USL also recently announced a new expansion franchise in El Paso, to begin play in 2019 and another new team has begun play in El Paso this year in the United Premier Soccer League.
The next major step in the Valley soccer resurgence, however, will be taken by the FC Brownsville Coyotes who begin play in their inaugural NPSL season this week. Local businessman Francisco Chavez made the decision to bring high-level soccer back to Brownsville when his new team was introduced in February. In a recent interview, Chavez stated that he joined the NPSL because he saw the untapped potential in the local soccer talent pipeline that needed exposure.
“What I noticed is that a lot of talent had gone unnoticed and they had the talent to give back at the higher level, but all that was available to them was the local league.” He continued “I wanted to give them the ability to share that talent at a national level, so I saw that gap and wanted to fill it with a semipro team….both for kids that had finished college, but I also saw that for the kids that didn’t have an opportunity to go to college.”
FC Brownsville will compete in the Lonestar Conference/South Region of the NPSL and play a 10 game 2018 regular season schedule that extends from May 12 to June 27th. Eight Texas teams and Shreveport Rafters FC will form the Conference and these clubs will be divided up into 3 pods for playoff purposes. Brownsville will be part of a group that also includes Laredo Heat and Houston Regals. The top two teams from each pod will advance to the 2018 NPSL playoffs.
Though he never played the game at a high-level himself, Chavez comes from a soccer family with deep roots in the sport. His father has played for over 50 years in weekend leagues in both the U.S. and Mexico and Francisco spent many weekends on the sidelines watching. His brother also has one son who is part of the UIW soccer squad in San Antonio and another who is in the Houston Dynamo Academy program. Francisco has direct experience himself, organizing and operating a top-level team in the local adult amateur league for a number of years. From his perspective, the next logical step was to join the NPSL, a league he believes is perfect for the long-term aspirations of FC Brownsville.
“The NPSL truly cares about what they represent and the goals they have in mind and I want to be part of that. I know we will go far with them.” Chavez added that the NPSL’s ability to pay players and plans to potentially expand the length of the league’s season were big factors in his decision to align with the NPSL. “Our goal is to start with this (the current NPSL spring/summer model). We want to eventually go year-round and pro.”
Brownsville has had a previous history with high-level amateur soccer. The Rio Grande Valley Bravos and Grandes played single seasons respectively in Brownsville as part of the Premier Development League (PDL) in 2010 and 2011 before folding. Both teams were unsuccessful on the field (last place in the division) and made little impact in the community. Chavez believes his new club will not experience the same issues, because, despite the short time since the team began operation, he has made it a point to reach into the community to build long-term and sustaining connections.
“If you really want to make a difference you have to share it with everybody around you, you can’t just involve the people that have a passion, you have to chase the ones that have the potential for that passion.” Chavez continued, “Our team and venue can be the someone and somewhere to create the passion to follow soccer.”
The club has ambitious efforts underway to reach out to the local soccer community also. This will include friendlies with local adult amateur teams, creation of a soccer academy program for kids ages 14-17 who will train twice per week and play a game each weekend, and camps for younger kids on summer weekends. The team is also working with local fans to form a Supporters Group to help create a positive match-day environment.
One of the first steps Chavez took when contemplating joining the NPSL was to reach out to the Brownsville Sports Park, a modern facility with a 5,000-seat stadium, artificial turf field and locker rooms. After two meetings with facility management and the local Economic Development Corporation, the Coyotes established a partnership with these entities that includes a four-year lease with the Sports Park to be the only semipro or pro soccer team at the facility. Plans are in place to showcase the FC Brownsville team at the facility with signage and other marketing efforts in conjunction with the Sports Park. He also discussed how the potential evolution into a full-season and/or professional club planned for the club was one of the main reasons for the long-term partnership with the EDC and Sports Park.
When starting the team, Chavez was also acutely aware that he only had 3-months before he would need to put a team on the field to compete in the high quality Lonestar Conference. He turned to a local colleague, Martin Vela, to take control of the technical side of the club and become the first head coach. Vela, who has a US Soccer B-License and numerous coaching diplomas from, what is today called, United Soccer Coaches, previously served as Soccer Director at a local youth club and also coached a team of U-20’s in a previous league. Vela was born in the Brownsville area, but grew up in Mexico prior to returning to Brownsville to complete high school. His university education was in an unrelated field, but he developed his passion for soccer coaching when he first volunteered to coach his kids in local youth soccer leagues. Vela has brought in UTRGV Men’s Soccer Assistant Coach Lee Williams to help with the coaching duties for the inaugural season.
When he took the job, Vela understood the challenge of trying to assemble a roster in such a short period of time but was undaunted because of the untapped pool of talent in the Rio Grande Valley. He also has a significant advantage because he has known a substantial portion of the current roster for several years. Tactically, the Coyotes intend to implement a possession-based style that will emphasize building from the back, regaining the ball quickly in transition and attacking in groups. Vela specifically mentioned the familiarity with his players and how the system he is implementing fits the team assembled.
“If you want to build your style you are going to get the players that are going to help you with the style they want to help you implement for the team. Because I already knew most of the players for a long time, I think that style that we are trying to use is more beneficial for the team.”
The roster now includes 22 players and Vela hopes to add a handful of players before the season begins. All but one of his players (who average 22 years old) come from the Rio Grande Valley. The youngest, only 18 years old, is still in high school and only trains with the team so that he can retain his high school and college eligibility. Interestingly, three of his local players originally came from Europe. These internationals, from England, Ireland and Norway, went to college in the Valley and elected to stay there after graduation.
Coach Vela also considers himself fortunate to have 3 NPSL/PDL veterans on his roster and believes they will help the rest of the roster understand the rigors of the compressed schedule and grueling travel that is part of competing in the geographically large Texas/Western Louisiana NPSL conference. The Coyotes open the season when Midland-Odessa FC makes the almost 9-hour trip to Brownsville on May 12. Brownsville FC then jumps straight into a similar travel schedule the next week when they travel to play Tyler FC and Shreveport Rafters. The return ride from Shreveport to Brownsville will be almost 600 miles. Welcome to Texas NPSL life.
The focus will be to become competitive very quickly and Vela has high expectations
“Our goal is to finish in one of the first two places (during the NPSL Lonestar Conference regular season). Vela continued “This is very ambitious, but I think we have a good team and will work very hard to get to that goal”. In his comments, club owner Francisco Chavez also emphasized that he believed that on-field success was a key element in building a long-term community presence.
When Chavez joined the NPSL he envisioned long term plans that include, in addition to a potential full-year season and/or pro club, extending opportunities to kids from their sister Mexican border city of Matamoros or other border cities in the Valley to become part of the club’s future.
These strategic plans will necessarily take a back-burner initially. In 2018 the focus is on creating a team and a game day stadium atmosphere that will be must see entertainment in the Brownsville area.
Soccer fans in Brownsville hope so and there are a lot of reasons to believe that the soccer renaissance in the Valley can be successful there too. FC Brownsville’s journey begins this Saturday, May 12.
MORE ON FC BROWNSVILLE:
FC Brownsville Joins the NPSL (npsl.com-February 2, 2018)
Llegan los ‘Coyotes’ del FC Brownsville (elnueveoheraldo.com-Sourced from Brownsville FC Twitter March 5, 2018)
FC Brownsville Announced as NPSL Expansion Team