Alan Ledford grew up on a pear farm.
“There is nothing like a Comice pear,” Ledford says. It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon and he leans back in a conference room at the ballpark turned soccer field in Downtown. The transformation from a baseball diamond to a field is striking.
For months, Ledford, coaches, players and staff have been focused on one thing: soccer. And with only three days until El Paso’s first professional soccer team hits the field for the first time, Ledford doesn’t allow himself to digress – or relax – for long.
“As with any family business, you learn to work,” he says. “Frankly, here, we look for people who have a background in a family business.”
The El Paso Locomotive FC opened its inaugural season March 9 at Southwest University Park, losing 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Energy. The team is part of the USL, the second highest level of professional soccer in the United States behind Major League Soccer, or MLS.
The Locomotive will play at the ballpark where the El Paso Chihuahuas play until a new stadium is built. The baseball diamond has a retractable pitching mound that can be moved in 15 minutes. New turf is rolled out, stripes redrawn and goals added as needed.
Ledford’s upbringing on a farm in Ukiah, California, gave him a taste for pears and business. He earned a degree in business from University of California, Berkeley where he decided he wanted to work in sports.
“I was a naive college student who thought working in sports would be fun,” Ledford said. “Had no clue what that meant.
“Through some persistence and good fortune, I ended up getting a one-year internship with the Oakland A’s while I was in school. And that turned into 15 years there and ultimately a career. I left there addicted to the sports business.”
In 2000, he helped to establish the River Cats in Sacramento as a consultant, eventually joining the team as president. They led Minor League Baseball in attendance every year during his nine-year stint there. He worked briefly with the Portland Timbers soccer club before its ascent to Major League Soccer.
Later, Ledford started a business that helped put baseball deals together, and MountainStar hired him to help with the acquisition of the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres in 2012.
Along the way, Ledford was named president of MountainStar, which is now also an owner of a Mexican fútbol club, FC Juárez.
In 2014, MountainStar launched a public campaign to court MLS after the league announced it was expanding. Executives met with the MLS commissioner, and that conversation sparked the process that ended with the announcement about a year ago that MountainStar was bringing USL soccer to El Paso.
“What the commissioner told us directly during our visit was the best bet for El Paso was to work with the USL and grow the professional soccer club and see what happens,” Ledford says.
So that’s what MountainStar did.
Ledford sat down with El Paso Inc. at Southwest University Park and talked about the historic inaugural season, plans for a new stadium and the future of soccer in El Paso.
Q: What can El Pasoans expect from the inaugural soccer season?
It’s going to be a level of soccer this community has never seen before. We’ve never had a professional soccer team here in El Paso. It’s made up of players from around the world. In fact, our players come from 11 different countries.
These guys are going to become part of the community because they’re here all of the time, living and training here. Baseball is different because they’re gone for a week-and-a-half and then they’re back and then they’re gone. It’s just a different rhythm.
Q: Coach Mark Lowry formed the roster with a lot of international talent – a different approach than other expansion teams. Why?
Mark has a particular style of play that he is accustomed to and thinks is most effective. Through his relationships with players, agents and colleagues in professional soccer around the world, he’s able to go out and put together the puzzle that ultimately results in a team.
It’s been remarkable how this team has come together off the field as well as on the field in what is less than an eight-week period of time. Soccer is a sort of universal language worldwide and this team, in a way, is an example of that.
Q: How important is it to have homegrown talent like forward Omar Salgado?
We love the fact that we have three players from El Paso, but that wasn’t the ultimate objective. The ultimate objective was to put together the best team possible and be successful on the field.
Frankly, in the past, the level of talent in El Paso has been overlooked. The youth soccer players that have been successful and played at a high level have often had to leave the market to play at the next level.
Ultimately, as our youth programs evolve, hopefully we can keep those kids here and help them get noticed and develop to the highest level of the sport.
Q: What are the team and ownership group doing to expose more youth to soccer and help them get involved in the sport?
We have a terrific opportunity to grow the sport at all levels. Coach Lowry and Bob Bigney, who has decades of experience in youth soccer and oversees our youth programs, are the only people in this region with “A” coaching licenses – the highest available. So they can go out and work with local coaches and provide training sessions. We can put together clinics with young players.
Underlying all of that is developing a passion for the sport and exercise. It’s a good thing for kids to do.
Q: Looking into your crystal ball, how well do you see the team doing in its inaugural season?
At this time of the year, it’s like spring training in baseball, right? You have high hopes. The slate is clean, and we all believe we have a quality team to put out on the field.
Talking to coach Lowrey and others it seems that we have been very fortunate to put together a high-quality group of players who are playing at a high level. The caveat here is this is a brand new team. These guys have not played together except for the past few weeks. So there is going to be some evolution of the team and ups and downs.
We are also optimistic – we experienced this with the Chihuahuas – because El Paso is a great place to play. Our fans are the absolute best. It makes a difference. These are human beings on the field, not robots.
Q: When the team name and logo were announced for the Chihuahuas, the first 48 hours was rocky to say the least. Locomotive was a lot less controversial.
We set an incredibly high bar for controversy with the Chihuahuas and an equally quick turnaround as the community embraced the team.
Q: At least for a while, Chihuahuas merchandise was the best selling in the league. How well is Locomotive merchandise selling?
We sold more Chihuahuas merchandise during our first four years of existence than any minor league team ever in a four-year period. It’s a testament to the support we have received from this community.
It’s too early to say for Locomotive. We haven’t seen any comparative figures from the league yet. We’ll know more by the end of the year.
Q: Any lessons learned from the development of the ballpark and Chihuahuas you are applying to the development of a soccer stadium and the Locomotive club?
On the team side, one of the things we’ve learned is the baseball scenario is different from soccer. Even those who don’t consider themselves big sports fans or baseball fans, knew what minor league baseball was and that Triple-A baseball was a big deal. Minor league baseball has been around for more than a century.
The USL in its current form is a young organization. Even though many El Pasoans are avid soccer fans, they aren’t necessarily USL fans. There is a much more significant educational challenge to tell people what USL is all about.
Next to major league soccer, these are the best players in this country.
On the stadium side, it’s really too early to answer that question. Our objective to build a soccer-specific stadium in or near Downtown remains unchanged.
Q: How hard is it to find a location in the Downtown area?
Because of all the development in Downtown and all of the excitement and momentum that has been created, it has become more of a challenge. That’s good news, but it does make it more challenging to find a site.
Our focus over the course of the last nine months has been on the startup of the team because we literally started from scratch. But the stadium is certainly on our radar.
Q: I know you can’t say where specifically you are looking, but does MountainStar have any possible sites in mind?
It really is too early to specify any number of sites.
Q: Will the stadium be entirely privately financed, or will it require tax dollars like the ballpark?
There are a myriad of combinations that will work. I think the public-private partnership is a model that has continued to work extremely well, and we’ll just have to see how it evolves. It’s a multivariable equation and something that needs to be worked through with the public sector and our ownership.
Q: How big will it be?
One of the best things we did here at the ballpark is we were conservative about the size of the facility. We are big fans of less is more. Could we have added more seats? Yes. Are we very happy with the size we ended up with? Yes.
The same thing would apply on the soccer side. I’ll give you a range of somewhere between 6,500 and, say, 7,500 seats or so. But that is early speculation, and we need to study it more.
Q: Are you looking to build something that would accommodate other events and, someday, MLS?
We think having other events is an important part of any facility like this. They could come in all sorts of different forms, including youth soccer, high school soccer, high school football – that type of thing.
The main focus will be to build the best soccer-specific stadium we can for the USL franchise. MLS is going to be down the road quite a ways, which is what seems clear now.
We have a lot to demonstrate and to prove as a USL team before we really focus on the next level.
Q: Has the drive to someday bring MLS to El Paso changed?
It’s always in the back of our mind, but the focus now is USL and the first match in a few days.
Q: How did the USL deal come together?
It evolved over time. But if I were to point to a particular circumstance that led us here, it was probably the meeting with the MLS commissioner.
Q: Back in 2014 when MountainStar was pursuing MLS.
There’s a certain courting period that goes on when they need to come and get to know El Paso and our ownership needs to get to know MLS.
What we found is there are a number of major league team owners who are getting involved in USL soccer – people with the experience and capital to do it right. It is a league that is operated by folks who are passionate about soccer and making it successful.
They were impressed by the market, the Chihuahuas success, the success of the venue and the level of support and the ownership.
We’ve invested another $3.25 million to $3.5 million into the ballpark as a result partly of the soccer team and partly to continue to upgrade and innovate.
Q: How are tickets selling?
Ticket sales have gone well. Opening night is standing room only. We have good tickets available for upcoming matches. We think demand will continue to build as more people learn about USL.
Q: What about Chihuahua’s attendance?
Last year was our fifth year. We continue to be at a consistent level. There is a predictable dynamic in minor league baseball where you have a honeymoon – ours lasted longer than anyone expected – and then there is a leveling off. The challenge and fun in our business is to maintain that level and grow it slightly.
All in all, we have been very pleased with attendance and ticket sales.
Q: The ballpark, which is owned by the city, doesn’t support itself. It is subsidized by the city’s general fund – $2.2 million over the last four years. How long will that continue?
The original financial model, I believe, projected taxpayer money would be needed for at least six or seven years to subsidize debt payments. And then things would flip, and by the end of a 30-year term, there would be a surplus of about $18 million.
The plan approved by the city is the reality that is unfolding here.
In addition, MountainStar has invested more than $19 million in this city-owned venue. Beyond that, this is accomplishing the two underlying objectives we all had, which are to improve the quality of life and to promote economic development for El Paso as a whole.