The Beautiful Game Back in El Paso? Bring it. I’ve Been Waiting.
Not to be sappy, but watching El Paso Locomotive FC take the field Saturday night will be a real moment for me. Getting to call the game with my new friend Michael Balogun will make it even better.
A sellout crowd. Legit players making legit money playing a legit professional sport in...El Paso?
That kids and even twenty-somethings have never lived in a United States without real professional soccer sometimes amazes me.
Not that the sport is bumping the NFL from its perch any decade soon. Having three tiers and two leagues of internationally-televised pro soccer is amazing progress. Having beer companies throw seven figures at you to show their cornball ad for thirty seconds in your big game is a different galaxy.
Calling the difference between the two a gap is like calling the Grand Canyon a divot.
But before? There was...so...much...nothing!
Listening to arguments about how American professional soccer doesn't compare to this league or that country or promotion-relegation or how disappointing the national team is misses the point for this old dog.
Soccer in the United States today is such a long way from my first-ever stab at covering it for my first real job in media, sports correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal. I wrote a short preview of an exhibition about the not-even-semi-pro Albuquerque Gunners of the SISL playing a friendly against a team from the former Soviet Union.
The Gunners were getting ready for their indoor season at the mighty Rainbow Gardens Roller Rink later that winter.
That was 30 years ago.
I was the first beat writer to cover the New Mexico Chiles in their inaugural season that next summer. The Chiles played on a brutal, ancient astroturf field with a cement curb that separated it from the track at my old high school's football stadium.
I remember at least two ACL/MCL injuries suffered that season alone.
Bless the late, great El Paso Patriots. I worked with the team for most of its 20-plus years of existence.
Unable to get help to build a stadium after the city demolished Dudley Field for the El Paso Zoo, team owner Enrique Cervantes simply cleared a lot next to his clothing plant and made his own.
Doing the team's publicity and PA, our "press box" was an old portable building that had its wall unit AC plugged into the same extension cord as the scoreboard.
Imagine our delight when the scoreboard crapped out in about the fifth minute of a match played in 100-degree heat.
Imagine our delight after comprehending the solution.
There were steps forward.
I ran the press box with US Soccer when the Patriots became the first professional team of the modern era to make it to the finals of the US Open Cup in 1995. That game drew nearly 10,000 fans a year before MLS even existed.
I watched the PDL Patriots draw 8,000 fans for the league championship 10 years later.
But there have been plenty of times over the last 30 years when I've wondered what it is that draws me to this game.
How in the world does a gangly Okie growing up figuratively and literally landlocked in the geographic middle of the country fall in love with...soccer?
The odds were surely against it. My grandfather and father were the first and second sports publicists ever for the Oklahoma Dadgum Sooners. Everything in my hometown of Norman, OK, was colored Crimson and Cream.
So, would it be irony that my initial desire to follow soccer sprang from the foot of an OU football player?
Uwe von Schamann was among the new breed of kickers in the 1970's. "Soccer-style" was becoming the norm across the country. Kickers who used their instep kicked footballs further and more accurately than toe-booters, so colleges and NFL teams alike scoured the country and started throwing scrawny little guys into pads and helmets that made them look like they'd just been brought up from YAFL.
Von Schamann was not scrawny. A 6-foot-tall German with a 'stache and long hair that was all 1970's, he also had a penchant for the dramatic. There isn't a Sooner alive in 1977 who could forget his game-winning field goal to beat Woody Hayes' Ohio State Buckeyes in The Horseshoe.
Easily a hero for a kid who enjoyed learning about anything that didn't surround him.
When von Schamann told me about soccer and that it was his sport growing up in West Berlin, I was hooked. I forced my mom and dad to sign me up for my area AYSO team and was thrilled to walk into the sporting goods store and have my parents pay to gear me up...to ride the pine.
Still. The die, as they say, was cast.
My friends and I watched Pelé play his final game on television; one half for the NASL Cosmos, the other for his original club, Santos. That's right, national TV for a glorified exhibition. During football season, no less.
That would be as good as it got for the sport in the United States for over a decade until the US Men's National Team qualified for the World Cup in 1990, with many more setbacks and stifling press boxes and lots and lots of bad astroturf well after.
So, when Locomotive FC kicks off its inaugural season in front of that standing-room-only crowd and blue and yellow smoke and drums and a chanting supporters' section, when it beams a 12-camera telecast to both local television and worldwide via ESPN+, you might pause for a moment to remember an ol' Okie sweating in a portable stuck between two sets of park bleachers to cover the game he loves.
You might...but I won't. ;-D
I'll be making myself busy.