Outdoor Professional Soccer is finally returning to El Paso this weekend after a hiatus of 15 years when El Paso Locomotive (The Locos) begins play in the United Soccer League Championship (USL). The only previous professional team to play outdoor soccer in the city was the El Paso Patriots who played in USL predecessor leagues from 1991-2003. The other current professional soccer team in town, the Coyotes, are in their third year of indoor soccer play in the Major Arena Soccer League.
The Locomotive is owned by Mountain Star Sports Group, who also have an ownership stake in the LigaMX Ascenso team across the border, FC Juarez. Alan Ledford, who is the President of Mountain Star also serves in the same capacity with the Locomotive. The team was announced to the public in February of last year, and after outreach to the community for naming suggestions, rolled out the Locomotive name and branding last October.
El Paso is one of seven new United Soccer League Championship expansion teams to begin play in 2019. The Locomotive are now one of four Texas teams playing in the league, joining San Antonio, Rio Grande Valley and another expansion team in Austin. Plans are currently being discussed by the four clubs and their respective supporters organizations to establish a competition that will formally recognize the Texas USL team with the best record in 2019 intra-state matches at the end of the regular season.
On the field, Head Coach Mark Lowry has assembled an experienced 20-man roster (with a local flavor) who intend to play an entertaining possession based style of play. The first signing and most recognizable player to local residents will be forward Omar Salgado who returns to El Paso after a start to his career that has seen him play all over North America.
Ahead of the opener tomorrow night, I had a chance to speak with Andrew Forrest, Locomotive’s General Manager-Business Operations, about off the field plans for the club. Forrest has worked in the sport for a number of years, including time he spent with San Antonio Scorpions of the defunct North American Soccer League early in the decade. He shared with me some of the plans and programs in place to launch the new El Paso professional soccer club.
Opening Night and Promotional Programs:
The club has announced that Saturday’s opener against Oklahoma City is sold out and Forrest believes the club and community will celebrate appropriately. He expects the opener will produce an atmosphere that will be something to remember, projecting “Something that will live in soccer folklore in El Paso for a long time.” Collectible opening day game-day posters will be distributed. Post game fireworks and in-game pyrotechnics will be part of the evening. The club also intends to implement a recurring tradition with national and local celebrities to signify the beginning of a game. According to Forrest, this tradition will be similar to MLS’s Atlanta United who have a guest celebrity drive the Golden Spike to kick-off games. Without spoiling the surprise, Forrest said that a famous and popular figure from El Paso would do the honors for the team’s first traditional ceremony prior to the opener Saturday.
Club sales and marketing staff are working hard to build community awareness and have the goal to fill the building every night. To describe these efforts, Forrest commented that the club has a motivational phrase they use “we have 17 home openers” to drive towards their full stadium target. He then said the club is very encouraged, based on early ticket sales, that they will have great crowds for all the games this season.
Club and Stadium Operations
El Paso Locomotive have a dedicated front office staff of 16 individuals who handle ticket sales, marketing, public relations, social media, corporate partnerships and game-day soccer operations. Other aspects of the stadium operations, club services and merchandising will be shared with the established El Paso Chihuahuas baseball team (also owned by Mountain Star). Forrest talked about the benefit of having an experienced Guest Services Department in place. “It is of utmost importance that everything be first quality so people have a great time. Ultimately we want to create life long fans.”
The Locomotive will initially play its matches in City of El Paso owned Southwest University Park, which has a listed seated capacity of 7,500, but can hold up to 10,000 total fans. The club has long-term plans to build a soccer-specific stadium in central El Paso, but that is for the future. In the present, $3.5 million has been invested to upgrade Southwest University Park to allow dual use for both baseball and soccer. In addition to making adjustments to enlarge the pitch, the stadium installed a retractable pitching mound that can be retracted in 15 minutes. An October 23, 2018 Soccer Stadium Digest article also has details on the high tech soccer locker rooms that have been constructed for the team. Further stadium details can be found in the link below:
International soccer matches have previously been played at Southwest University by FC Juarez, though the field was not regulation size for these friendly matches. In the previously referenced Soccer Stadium Digest article, Forrest commented that the stadium design works well for soccer. “The stands, though it wasn’t intended for soccer at the time, are tight to the field, so our sightlines lend itself to an awesome soccer experience.” Forrest stated that the team has no worries about changeover from baseball to soccer and vice versa. He talked about his high degree of respect for the award winning grounds keeping staff they share with the baseball team. He noted, but isn’t worried, that some of the field conversions need to be converted in less than 48 hours when baseball and soccer games are scheduled back-to-back. “I know that these guys (groundskeepers) are some of the best in the business and they will ensure we have a quality pitch.”
Last year the club also struck a deal with the City to upgrade two fields at the Westside Sports Complex to use as a temporary practice and training facility for the team.
Following the Club
El Paso Locomotive will begin their inaugural season with outstanding media coverage. On the print side, the club has received regular coverage from the local newspaper, The El Paso Times, and other local print publications. Local TV sports segments also regularly run stories on the team. The new club even has a podcast up and running…Seriously Loco Soccer Pod.
On the television side, all matches will be streamed live through the ESPN Plus national USL package and the club has also established an agreement with the local CW network channel to broadcast 13 weekend home matches. The broadcast team will be soccer knowledgeable. The first (Duke Keith) has a 30-year career in the business and previously covered the Patriots. The other broadcaster (Michael Balogun) played Division I soccer and spent time in the U.S. Youth National Team program.
An active supporters group in already in place called 8th Notch. The name is derived from the highest throttle speed setting an actual locomotive can achieve. The group will sit behind one of the goals and Forrest said that the club has endeavored to understand 8th Notch’s vision and plans and has worked closely with the group since their beginning to develop a great soccer experience at the stadium. Forrest commented, “We are going to try and create a raucous atmosphere in their section and [we think] they are going to be the leaders of the energy for the entire building.”
Youth Soccer Programs
I asked if the club had any current plans to develop their own youth soccer Academy. Forrest stated that the club is focused on launching the professional team now, but is beginning to test youth programs in the El Paso area. These programs include summer soccer camps, a “Lil’ Locos” program for children ages 3-6 in the spring and a player development network, in conjunction with Parks and Rec and local soccer clubs, to provide supplemental training sessions for select players in town. He talked about the experimental nature of these programs and desire to conduct them in conjunction with the local youth soccer community. “We are testing to see what this market is interested in. We think we have a good plan for the short term, but long term I am not sure we have the answer at the moment.” He added that the club intends to listen to and build relationships with all youth programs in the community.
An E-Sports component has been added to the club’s marketing effort as a way of setting themselves apart in the league. E-Sports are a growing part of the MLS landscape, but the Locomotive are only the second club (Orange County SC is the other) in USL Championship to have an E-Sports manager. Forrest talked about how big the club believes E-Sports will be in the future and that they are “happy to be a front runner” in this space. He also commented that the Locomotive is fortunate to have the E-Sports manager living in El Paso, which will help bring closer coordination with overall club marketing efforts.
Locomotive Relationship with FC Juarez
Finally, we discussed the very unique relationship Locomotive have with FC Juarez, who are only 1 1/2 miles away from each other and have a partial shared ownership structure through Mountain Star’s stake in the Mexican club. Forrest mentioned that a number of El Paso young adults, in the absence of any pro soccer presence in the City, already play with FC Juarez youth teams. He believes that this relationship with FC Juarez is unique in North America and has the potential to create interesting cooperative future opportunities for the Locomotive. I plan to write a separate article about this subject in the future.
Professional soccer is back in El Paso and the return is long overdue. The Locomotive will kick-off at 7:30 against Oklahoma City Energy F.C. tomorrow night. Further details on professional soccer’s return to El Paso can be found in Nicholas Murray’s uslchampionship.com article: