MountainStar’s Pitch: USL Soccer’s Return to El Paso Is A Winner
El Paso's heart for the game of soccer has always been there. After five years, it now has something for the eyes.
MountainStar Sports Group, the Borderland's fairy godmother in cleats, is coming through again, announcing El Paso's return to the United Soccer League.
The team's name will be different. The level will be higher. The league is the same but much, much better, even just five years later.
That will all help, but it wouldn't take a market analysis to pick up on the heart and history that makes this a good investment; though knowing MountainStar it's probably done 20.
That heart beat with the thousands of fans who marched south across the border to watch Indios win promotion and play in Liga MX a decade ago, as it does now with fans of MountainStar's other fútbol investment, FC Juárez Bravos.
It beat among the nearly 10,000 who watched at Socorro ISD's Student Activities Complex in 1995 when the El Paso Patriots became the first professional soccer team in the modern era to play in a U.S. Open Cup final a year before MLS existed.
Or the nearly 8,000 back at the SAC in 2005 to watch the Patriots in the USL's Premier Development League finals.
Walk through the mall on a weekend and it's plain to see from all the soccer jerseys – El Paso wears its heart for the game on its sleeve, albeit usually sewn short with a Liga MX patch on it.
It will take a good plan to interest those fans whose professional allegiances lie outside the United States. But plan and map and analyze is what MountainStar Sports does.
Let's be frank: MountainStar also has money, so the expectation is that the surrounding organization will be first-rate, especially with the institutional knowledge of Bravos close by.
Whatever the team is eventually called, it promises to be competitive. It will need to be.
One of the unwieldy things about taking a crack at this sport at this moment in the United States is that MountainStar is assuming a mantle of leadership for El Paso and the surrounding area.
This comes without the safety net of Triple-A baseball, where the San Diego Padres do the on-field work while the Chihuahuas plan the parties.
El Paso's team will have to hire a general manager and coaching staff and scout its own talent.
To the casual fan, the party will still be important (talk about great institutional knowledge – MSSG has one of the best organizations in minor league baseball to help). But soccer fans here know the game and will expect wins.
After MSSG CEO Josh Hunt talked directly about planning a soccer academy, soccer parents will expect opportunity.
Just don't misread "opportunity" as "roster spot".
The Patriots' utter reliance on local talent was admirable, but for as much as the organization helped blaze the American soccer trail, it never won a single trophy in 24 years of trying.
Don't underestimate how big a commitment this is, though; and it's not just an El Paso thing.
After the gut punch of missing out on a World Cup, the villagers are out in force, ready to put US Soccer to the torch. How the United States identifies and develops its young talent is under a microscope. Part of what many see on that Petri dish is a generation of Latino players overlooked by a system that still emphasizes pay-to-play and American soccer's bass-ackward club-to-college mentality.
Welcome to the Thunderdome, USL-El Paso! Will your future academy take up the cause of under-scouted, ignored Hispanic players?
Let's be frank again: in El Paso, TX, it had better.
See? This isn't being assigned a roster and a coaching staff, opening the gates and saying, "Play ball!"
Add to mix the opportunity this team will have to play in the truest national championship tournament in all of American sport – the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – and the stakes get higher still.
The Dewar Cup is the next-oldest trophy in North American sports, second only to the NHL's Stanley Cup. The winner of the Open Cup tournament will have earned its national championship by beating teams from every level of soccer, amateur to MLS.
Skip around these highlights between the USL's FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire of MLS – this is the Open Cup, and El Paso, like everybody else, will get to play.
The Open Cup's winner automatically qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League where it will take on the giants of North American soccer – the heaviest of heavyweights from Liga MX and MLS – to determine who represents CONCACAF against European, South American, Asian and Oceana champion clubs at the Club World Cup in January.
Not that El Paso will, just that now it can. No other professional sport is as plugged into the worldwide game as soccer.
But that's down the line. MountainStar says it's ready to deliver on all the other things, and it would like to build a new soccer-specific stadium somewhere in or near downtown El Paso.
I've had my own thoughts about what and where a stadium ought to be.
Hey, the last few years of the Patriots when owner Enrique Cervantes was forced out of Dudley Field, plowed an empty lot next to his clothing plant and put in a pitch and some bleachers, El Paso still came.
Ball kids had to dodge traffic on Industrial Avenue to retrieve the ones that went over the fence. It was Sam's Club burgers, elote en vaso, and blue and pink port-a-potties, but El Paso still came.
That "stadium" featured a scoreboard that fritzed out in the middle of the game if you left the press box wall unit AC on too long, but El Paso still came.
This will be better than that, but the real win is that El Paso can come again.