While the sun was setting behind LaGrave Field on Friday evening, a new era dawned for Fort Worth soccer inside the stadium better known for baseball.
More than 2,700 fans turned out for the debut of Fort Worth Vaqueros FC, an expansion team in the National Premier Soccer League.
“The fans are having a great time, it was a great turnout,” team owner Michael Hitchcock said. “It’s great to see we have a great soccer market here in Fort Worth.”
While the Tulsa Athletics’ 5-0 shutout of Vaqueros FC wasn’t the result the team or fans had hoped for, players seemed to appreciate the support.
“The fans stayed the whole time and kept supporting us,” midfielder Zachary Adler said. “We’re glad they came out to support us like that.”
A little more than an hour before scheduled game time, a line of several dozen waiting for the initial gate opening stretched into the parking lot, where a half-dozen or so separate tailgates of varying sizes milled about, most dressed in colors and jerseys of the home club.
Inside LaGrave, last-minute preparations were taking place, most notably the installation of the second goal, which didn’t arrive by flatbed truck until roughly a half-hour before kickoff.
Once the gates opened, a few hundred early arrivals got their first look at what a soccer field inside a baseball park looks like. With a goal in deep left-center field and the other in shallow right field, the top portion of the infield dirt is in play along much of the near sideline. The seats at midfield were among the least crowded, given that they had the most distant sight lines.
About a half-hour before game time, the sounds of banging drums emanated from the parking lot, growing louder as the Panther City Hellfire marched its way into the stadium. The club’s unofficial supporter group eventually settled into the north end of the field, banging, chanting and waving flags throughout much of the contest.
“We all have a passion for soccer and when we heard our home town was getting a team, we knew we needed to put something together,” said Brian Price, one of the founding members of the group, which numbered about 30 or so on opening night, with several joining along throughout the match.
Even when the Vaqueros fell behind three goals midway through the second half, the Hellfire made their presence felt.
The group’s march into the stadium is something season ticket holder and Fort Worth resident Doug Black would love to see it grow into part of a bigger soccer culture if the Vaqueros are well supported. Mentioning how a fan march in Seattle adds to that team’s overall fan experience, Black said a downtown soccer venue could keep interest going.
“It would be great if there was some place fans could meet up before the game and then all walk together to the stadium,” he said. “You can’t do that if everyone has to get in their cars and take the freeways to a stadium. We need to keep it centrally located.”
Following the game, fans were treated to fireworks, and well after most fans had left, several kids of various ages played soccer on the field.
Supporter Sean Wall is happy to have a club come to Fort Worth, and the expectant father is hoping to bring his son to games several years down the road.
“We launched this in January so it’s been a relatively short runway,” Hitchcock said. “But we believe in Fort Worth as a market and this is just the start. We’re going to be growing this for years to come.”