Potential may be one of the most dangerous words in the English language. You can hear it and think it entitles. You can remember it and regret. And you can wonder, just where was the line between the two?
Does El Paso still have potential when it comes to professional soccer, or was the line crossed for good in 1995 by this city and its Patriots?
Chivas El Paso Patriots is the city’s soccer franchise, for those who don’t know.
If you don’t, it’s not your fault; and therein lies the rub. Though a native son might again put potential in his hometown’s future, rather than its past.
(The El Paso Patriots in headier days, as midfielder Jorge Briones scores a goal in 2007 during a rare Patriots television appearance.)
El Paso native Omar Salgado’s selection as the top overall pick of MLS’ SuperDraft by the Vancouver Whitecaps was a wonderful — but not complete — surprise for a city where many are born with the ball on their foot. Salgado’s name is already known internationally after a stint with Chivas de Guadalajara’s organization and time with the U.S. Under-20 National Team.
But Salgado’s pick alone doesn’t inspire any long looks back. The team that chose him does.
The history of modern professional soccer in North America is relatively short and littered with this old league and that old team. Like phone booths and Betamax, they helped define the conversation before being discarded for what came Next.
The Whitecaps and Patriots waded through all of that and are still around. Beginning in 1997 — Vancouver, a remnant of the old A-League; El Paso promoted from the USL’s third division — the teams played together in the new A-League, one level below still-new Major League Soccer.
The Whitecaps have always been a decent franchise. The city had a North American Soccer League team of the same name that closed shop in the 1980’s. Vancouver has a passionate multi-cultural fanbase, many of whom grew up with the game. Those fans will certainly be there this March when the team kicks off its MLS campaign.
Patriots is still the oldest continuously-running soccer name in the United States after owner Enrique Cervantes bought the franchise in 1991, re-naming it after the Scud-busting defensive missile system headquartered at Fort Bliss.
El Paso, too, has a knowledgeable, passionate fan base. More than most cities, as anyone can see from the multitude of world soccer jerseys found on a stroll through the mall.
What stings a bit is that soon some of those jerseys in the mall will belong to the Vancouver Whitecaps, emblazoned with Salgado’s desired number 17. Without a Patriots jersey in sight.
Vancouver and El Paso played in the same league for years, but where the Whitecaps have had vision and leadership that has taken the same ownership group all the way to MLS, the Patriots…
Well, they have a nice little field next to Enrique Cervantes’ clothing plant — a field he built himself when the city wouldn’t help him get or use one. A field he pays taxes on year after year. A field where you can get a nice freshly-cooked burger. But to get there you must drive your car over kidney-testing street creases created by tractor-trailers and their business in that part of the city.
And there is the Patriots organization itself — a family affair run by a man who has put his money on the line to fund this team for 20 years, but without a vision past finding a few fans and sponsors to offset fielding it.
The Patriots have been close. So close there were rumors MLS Commissioner Don Garber had communicated with Enrique Cervantes. If El Paso minds its P’s and Q’s, maybe someday…
That was a few years back, the P’s and Q’s since lost in alphabet soup for an organization that has remained a toddler in a high-chair, unable to spell, just hungry for the next spoonful.
Inattentive parents haven’t helped.
The Patriots have squandered opportunities, but have also been squeezed by a city leadership that does not see that its most realistic — and perhaps most inspirational — path to a top-level pro sports franchise is through soccer.
Many in El Paso don’t like or know soccer. But the media attention Salgado has had or the hundreds of enthralled kids who listened to him speak at a Canutillo school show: This Is For Real.
However, there hasn’t been a viable franchise in place to help spark interest, investors or ideas.
The shame of it is that, once upon a time, the Patriots were that franchise.
In 1995, El Paso’s Patriots played for the U.S. Open Cup title. The tourney is now open to every club at every level of the game, from amateur to MLS, but before ’95 was open only to amateur sides. It is America’s truest national championship tournament and the Patriots were the first professional team to play in the title match.
Its playmaking midfielder, Salvador “Chava” Mercado, went on to win two first division championships in Mexico, one of those with Chivas.
El Paso lost to the Rickmond Kickers on penalty kicks in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Socorro ISD Student Activities Complex and an international television audience.
But the real losses came next year when it came time for the Patriots to play again.
Though the team was good, the franchise was unable to sustain the buzz generated by its run to the national championship game. Playing at aging Dudley Field and forcing fans to endure the summer heat with a single concessions area, great crowds at the beginning of the 1996 season melted faster than a sno-cone bought before standing in line for elote at Dudley.
The Patriots kept waiting for the city or the county to help, believing itself to be an entity worthy of consideration, if not tax money, to build a soccer-specific facility.
After the move up to second division, an unsuccessful run playing at the SAC and a five-game stint at the Sun Bowl, the Patriots went back to Dudley, dropped down to third division status and have been there since.
Unable to find a friendly ear at city hall or the county courthouse to help him build, Cervantes was then forced to vacate Dudley, scheduled for the wrecking ball to extend the El Paso Zoo. Digging into his own pockets, Cervantes built what is now the Gary del Palacio Field of Dreams in an empty lot next to his business.
But in good times and in bad for this team, the Patriots have never had sufficient vision to find ways of sticking the team onto El Paso’s consciousness. The team has done a little television and radio, but never consistently. It has worked for sponsorship dollars but has never kept a sales staff through an entire off-season, which is when every semi-pro team makes its money, with no traveling expenses, players salaries or stadium light bills to pay.
When things go a little sour financially for the club — which is every season, it seems — Cervantes circles the wagons and keeps close family in charge.
It is his right. It is his money. But dreams and aspirations for something bigger are always sacrificed for here and now.
It is time for the Patriots to stop treading water and either swim or climb out of the pool.
And El Paso? Word was there was a very serious group of local investors ready to spend very serious dollars to bring the San Diego Padres Triple-A baseball team in from Portland, OR. The Padres elected to buy their own farm team instead, and will move it to Escondido, CA.
Here is where Salgado re-enters the conversation.
Certainly, El Paso has had major league baseball talent, but a number one pick? And a major league team to go along with that major league talent? It would never happen.
My serious suggestion to those serious investors? Consider soccer. Consider the headlines and attention one of El Paso’s own is generating internationally and know there could be more like him.
And think about this: the city of Portland — a good pro town and home to its own NBA team — is ending a 103-year-old relationship with minor league baseball. Portland’s franchise was forced out of its home at PGE Park.
PGE Park is being retro-fitted to become a soccer-specific stadium and is home to MLS’ other brand new franchise this year — another former A-League rival of the Patriots, the Portland Timbers.