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What’s Next for Cohen Stadium? Here’s An Idea [OPINION]

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It’s time, El Paso. Time to seriously address two different sports questions that have the same answer.

What should we do with Cohen Stadium?

What should we do for the one sport that has the most participation but the least representation in almost every way — a top-level team to cheer for, places to play and respect?

Turn the whole area into a first-rate soccer complex and transform Cohen into a stadium ready-made to house a Major League Soccer franchise.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS…

AND KNOCKS…AND…

There is no guarantee MLS would expand or move here, but good quality second division soccer can be played while the city works its way up.

This is what we should do, and soon. It is, in part, why we voted Yes to Propositions 1, 2 and 3 last November. Soccer fields, including a “championship level” field, were specifically included in Proposition 1, which passed with 75% of the vote.

With a Triple-A baseball team and stadium on the way, with money for that big downtown arena everyone has talked about for decades on the books, top-flight soccer remains the most attainable but least-regarded feather not in El Paso’s sports cap.

Seeing a world of soccer jerseys at the grocery store and teams of kids clamoring for practice space, you wouldn’t think so.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s the one sport in this city outside of UTEP basketball that has potential and — if done well — lasting meaning. Even so, UTEP is limited by poor funding and geography, especially for a resource-needy sport like football. Baseball can’t and won’t go any higher than Triple-A here. No other sports have the participation and fan-base.

EL PASO’S BIG BREAK?

Those sports are part of this city’s sometimes self-imposed firewall. Plugging into soccer, though, would open up a world-wide web of attention, not only for El Paso but for El Pasoans. After all, there is only one professional league that has selected an El Pasoan first overall in its draft — Major League Soccer. The Vancouver Whitecaps made Omar Salgado the top pick two seasons ago.

I’ve heard some talk about possibly getting in with UTEP and helping the Miners and the Sun Bowl Association by building sky boxes at the Sun Bowl, then offering it up to Major League Soccer. Worked in Houston for former UTEP senior associate athletic director Mack Rhoades, right?

The answer here is no, and once again El Paso is behind the times in its thinking about the sport.

LET’S GET REÁL

To be honest, the Sun Bowl is just too big for MLS. Reál Madrid bugging out of the Bernabeu to come here would be one thing, Reál Salt Lake would be another. That might change in the next half-century, but not this half.

When the Sun Bowl was soccer-sized in 2001, the hope was that it would earn some exhibition matches featuring some of the big franchises from Mexico. I told listeners (and a couple of people at UTEP) that they were going to have a hard time getting those teams here. Why?

If you wanted an NBA team to play an exhibition, would you try to get it to play in arena with an uneven tartan surface, marked up like a rec center gym with lines for five different sports? This is the Sun Bowl and its plastic field with permanent football lines, domed down the middle for water runoff. Not soccer-friendly.

In the 12 years since, the Sun Bowl has hosted only a handful of exhibitions and maybe one or two big-name teams.

These days, movers and shakers thinking this could be a win-win-win for UTEP, the Sun Bowl and soccer need to realize that the buy-in for an MLS franchise is high eight figures. The league has now done this enough to know its franchises have to have a very specific kind of stadium to help make back that money. A stadium small enough that it won’t look empty. Even more, a stadium where a franchise won’t have to share profits with anybody else.

That’s not the Sun Bowl. That’s a revamped Cohen Stadium with soccer fields to nurture an academy and — speaking of the Sun Bowl — a major youth soccer tournament or two that can draw millions to the city in sports tourism money.

Any top level soccer franchise needs to be able to run the city’s soccer scene, allowing the team to not only make money by hosting tourneys but also to develop the best young talent. A stadium is fine, but to truly take the sport to another level a complex is needed.

ONE DOOR SHUTS…

As for Cohen Stadium now, Speaking Rock and the El Paso Diablos are beginning to force the city’s hand. Though they’re behind on some bills, they and the stadium deserve some attention. Not every franchise has to deal with a new Triple-A team and a new stadium vacuuming up all the attention and money.

In the next few months, all parties involved should hammer out a deal that will end the lease, allow the Diablos and their undervalued general manager, Matt LaBranche, to shutter its doors for a year until it can find a new home and new ownership.

And then El Paso needs to get to work on its new goal. Pun intended.

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