As Panther City Hellfire supporters heckled opposing defenders and kids of varying ages made new friends in pickup soccer games, the Fort Worth Vaqueros etched a milestone in club history, hosting the organization’s first playoff game, in front of about 800 Wednesday at Texas Wesleyan University’s Martin Field.
But Fort Worth allowed a 2-0 halftime lead to be erased by a stoppage-time goal as visiting Shreveport claimed a last-minute 3-2 victory in the NPSL Texas Conference playoff game.
The loss was a bitter end to what easily had been the club’s most successful season on the field, the impact of which could be vital off the field. The organization is still in search of a permanent home and hopes the momentum of this campaign can catapult that forward.
“Our vision has always been to build a soccer-specific stadium in Fort Worth,” team owner Michael Hitchcock said. “It’s something that we think this market deserves and we know our fans want.”
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The Vaqueros’ inaugural season in 2014 was housed at LaGrave Field, which now lies vacant and in disrepair. Since then, while pushing plans for a home venue, the team has tried to build its fan base in a location that isn’t exactly conducive to doing so.
“The challenge is that if you don’t have a venue with the professional infrastructure, you’re limited in the revenue you can generate and the experience that you can provide,” Hitchcock said. “We’re very fortunate our fans have stuck with us and Texas Wesleyan University has been a great community partner. They stepped in when there really weren’t any other options at the time to allow us to keep doing all the great things we wanted to do to grow soccer in Fort Worth.
“We went from a venue that had plenty of parking and plenty of seats and infrastructure to a facility where we had to come up with a fun way to do this to where it almost feels like a barbecue,” he continued. “The benefit of it is that we really created this sort of family feeling and the supporters became closer, I think, because of it.”
The team has played its part this season, the first under head coach and former Dallas Sidekicks player Nick Stavrou. The Vaqueros earned the top seed in the Texas Conference, finishing 7-1-2 in the regular season. Unsurprisingly, the success helped the fledgling franchise.
“It’s been great,” General Manager Tobias Xavier Lopez said. “We’ve seen it both at the gate and especially with merchandise. You start winning and people want to support you. We’ve sold more merchandise this year than any year before, by far.”
While not its largest crowd of the season, a midweek game played in a heat index over 100 still brought a lively audience.
“The challenge of playing any outdoor sport in Texas is nights like tonight when it’s 97 degrees,” Lopez said. “If you’re going to lose, no one is going to want to come sit in the heat and watch their team get beat. But when you’re winning, people are willing to brave the heat because they’re excited.”