EL PASO, Texas – The soccer pitch at El Paso Patriots Stadium is situated in the middle of an industrial area in the east part of town. Its whitewashed walls bear the words “Home of the Chivas El Paso Patriots” in blue paint – the team has since ended its affiliation with the Mexican First Division giants – and the high fences that rise above the goals are crooked in places.
The bleachers need a paint job. The grass is brown in spots and there is rust around the little building that doubles as a press box.
The Patriots play within sight of Ciudad Juarez, formerly the home of the Mexican First Division club, the Indios. The lights of the Mexican city twinkle in the distance south of the stadium.
It’s like a constant reminder of when this entire borderland area was abuzz with soccer fever.
The Indios, in their heyday, were not just Juarez’s team but also El Paso’s and all of the region’s heroes. Two years after playing their final match, they are gone, and the only professional team left in the entire area is the USL Premier Development League side Patriots.
“A lot of people (who were Indios fans) that just wanted to see competitive soccer or organized soccer make it out to the games,” said locally-based soccer writer Joe Rodriguez, who is a contributor to the El Paso Times newspaper. “The spirit is there.”
The Patriots began as an indoor soccer franchise in 1989, and have stood the test of time as the soccer landscape in the U.S. has grown and changed. The team is comprised almost entirely of players of Latino descent, and even a few who have lived or still live in Juarez.
There’s a small supporters group that sits near midfield, and those fans call themselves “La Nueve Kince,” a misspelling (on purpose) of the word for the numbers 915 in Spanish.
Nine-one-five also happens to be the El Paso area code.
When one learns that El Paso is around 80 percent Latino and around 65 percent Mexican or of Mexican heritage, it’s not surprising that most cheers are in Spanish. Fans try to make the atmosphere resemble that of a game in Mexico, complete with the “C—o!” obscenity when the opposing goalkeeper boots a goal kick.
You’d think an area this large with this many soccer fans, or at least one-time soccer fans when the Indios were around, could support a higher division soccer club. The Patriots are a tough sell to the public sometimes with their lower-division status and dry pitch that is close to the main freeway though town, but hard to see with all of the other industrial buildings surrounding it.
Yet the team has a devoted following. Fans stay after games to talk to players after they emerge from the locker room, which looks more like a farm shed or a barn from the outside. People arrived late, but a recent U.S. Open Cup match against the higher-division Charlotte Eagles – a rare weeknight match that had only a few days of advance publicity — drew a few hundred for a late start to avoid the excess heat and wind of the day.
It might not look like much on the outside, and it might not seem like there is a strong infrastructure to allow for continued operations, but the El Paso Patriots play on. Year after year, and now as the only major soccer show in town. They broke out new kits and a new sponsor for them this season, although that sponsor, a local eatery, just filed for bankruptcy, according to a local report.
The biggest sports show in town is University of Texas-El Paso football and basketball. But among Mexicans, soccer is the heartbeat even if it doesn’t show in attendance figures at Patriots games.