The outfield grass at LaGrave Field has been patrolled over the decades by Hall of Famers such as Duke Snider, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. So the historic home of minor league baseball’s Fort Worth Cats — and an occasional career stop for many true greats of the sport affectionately known as “America’s pastime” — might not seem like an obvious place to play soccer.
But for the leadership of a new minor league soccer team known as the Fort Worth Vaqueros — which will make its debut May 9 — LaGrave Field is a perfect fit. For now.
The club will play its home opener against the Tulsa Athletics, a powerhouse team in the fledgling National Premier Soccer League, a group of nearly 80 professional or semi-pro teams considered the third- or fourth-highest level of soccer in the U.S.
The Vaqueros will play on a soccer field laid out diagonally across the LaGrave’s outfield with a little bit of the dirt infield also in play and with many of the home plate grandstand seats offering a less-than-ideal sight line to the action. Even so, nearly 200 season tickets have already been sold, and club officials say they expect at least 3,000 attendees at the May 9 kickoff.
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Geometry aside, the decision to play at LaGrave Field was no accident, Vaqueros owner and former FC Dallas president Michael Hitchcock said. It shows a commitment by the team to stake a claim to its fan base in Fort Worth’s urban core.
“What we’ve seen through Major League Soccer and all levels of soccer in this country is stadium location is critical to the success of the team,” Hitchcock said during a break at an open tryout last week at Gateway Park in southeast Fort Worth. “Ultimately, we’re going to need a soccer stadium and, ideally, we’d like that to be downtown and centrally located. In Seattle and Portland, the stadium is right downtown, and they draw fans where they live, work and play.
“For us to be able to play in LaGrave Field, it’s not ideal in that it’s a baseball stadium and the sight lines aren’t perfect, but the location is perfect for us. It’s between Sundance Square and the Stockyards, and everybody knows where it is.”
The arrival of yet another minor league sports team in Fort Worth — especially one so low-budget that so far it has essentially relied on little more than social media to spread the word about its existence — is perhaps not that remarkable. But what makes the Vaqueros (Spanish for “Cowboys”) a more unusual and interesting case study is not only the club’s choice of home field but also the way in which its leadership has decided to make its splash into the market.
In choosing to play at LaGrave Field, about a mile north of downtown Fort Worth, the team is staking a claim to a fan base that many believe has been long-ignored in Fort Worth’s inner-city neighborhoods. The club could have sought to play at any of several high school, college or privately owned, soccer-specific stadiums, but it made a conscious decision to stick with LaGrave Field.
Why? It helps to note that LaGrave Field sits in one of the city’s historically Hispanic neighborhoods, not far from the North Side and Diamond Hill communities. The city is home to an estimated 266,000 Hispanic residents, according to U.S. Census figures. That’s 34.1 percent of the city’s total population.
Compare that to 1970, when Cowtown was home to a mere 393,476 — only 31,084 of them (7.9 percent) Hispanic.
Baseball is unarguably America’s pastime. But is soccer a big game of Fort Worth’s future?
Many of Fort Worth’s soccer fans were loyal followers of Major League Soccer’s Dallas Burn in the 1990s and early 2000s, back when that team played in the Cotton Bowl. But in 2005, when the MLS team moved to Frisco and changed its name to FC Dallas, at least some of the fans in the western and southern portions of the Metroplex lost their emotional bond.
Particularly in Fort Worth, the 48-mile, 75-minute drive to the Collin County suburbs was simply too much geographical — if not cultural — distance to make up.
This is where the Fort Worth Vaqueros leadership believes it can fill a void.
During the past month or two, the club has engaged its prospective fan base through Twitter and Facebook, inviting followers to help name the club. The Vaqueros moniker won out among three finalists in a fan voting contest that drew more than 1,000 entries.
Fans are also being asked to submit entries in a team logo contest.
In another unusual stunt, 20 advertisers are being placed in a lottery to see whose brand logo will be featured on the front of the team’s royal blue and gold jerseys.
But perhaps the most grassroots way the club has connected with its fans has been at a series of open tryouts in February and early March.
More than 200 local athletes — some young, some old, some fast, some slow —attended the tryouts. And even though only a handful, if any, are likely to make the roster, those fans now can follow the team knowing they had a shot.
“We know everybody can’t make the team, but these are our future fans as well,” said head coach Mark Snell, who arrived at the Fort Worth Vaqueros from FC Dallas’ youth program. “And, of course, coming to the tryout, they’ll get two tickets to our May 9 opener, which we hope they attend. There’s a lot of passion here. It should be probably crazy, absolutely nuts, at our opener. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw between 3,000 and 5,000 people there.”
Among those trying out on a recent Saturday was John Machado, 25, who played college soccer at El Camino College in southern California before moving to Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, to play minor league soccer for a year.
He’s now living in Frisco, where his father and some family friends operate martial arts schools in cities such as Fort Worth and Allen.
For Machado, a forward, the tryout was a chance to join a club building from the ground up.
“It’s second or third division now, but it’s professional and with the goal to turn this into a Major League Soccer team,” Machado said after his tryout. “That’s how most teams start in the MLS, and I just want to help.”
Machado’s father, also named John, grew up in Brazil. He sees the creation of the Fort Worth Vaqueros club as a step in the right direction. Mainly, he said, it’s his belief that the United States is full of talented soccer players who often look for roster spots in other countries because there simply aren’t enough teams at home.
“I think any team that’s doing well can move up into the next division,” he said. “With the right sponsor and the right crowd, this can become a professional team.”