How El Paso's soccer community is turning loss into action

Christian Araos
<span>Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images

Had his career gone to plan, Sebastián Velasquez would probably not have been in El Paso last Saturday.

Velasquez showed promise in his first three seasons playing in MLS but alcoholism drove him to leave for rehab in 2015. Sober for four years, he signed for El Paso Locomotive FC of the USL Championship in June after a brief stint in South Korea. He was in the gym preparing for a game that evening when a teammate texted him about a shooting at the Walmart near the Ciela Vista Mall. He made it home to his girlfriend and two children where he learned of the mass shooting. His coach told him the game was postponed.

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“I didn’t sleep that night,” Velasquez said. “I stayed up and thought about what I would do in that situation. When you’re a father, you’re always thinking about what would I do if someone pulls out a gun. … That’s something you can expect at any moment in time.”

Usually on game days like last Saturday’s, Velasquez and his teammates would run into Larry Durbin and other members of the 8th Notch – the Locomotives’ supporters group – and have a chat. After the shooting, they messaged each other to see if everyone was OK. An 8th Notch member had been inside the Walmart, though was unscathed. By the end of the weekend, Durbin, who teaches at a local high school and coaches the girls’ soccer team as well, knew everyone in the supporters group was fine. But on the first day back in class, he saw how distraught his players were over the loss of a classmate who had been killed.

“It hit them pretty hard,” he said. “They’ve been with some counselors and they just had a memorial for that person on Monday. That was tough and they’re a little better, but you can still see it in their eyes.”

The 8th Notch were there when Durbin’s team lost to the eventual state champions last season and they will be there for a Local Legends game tentatively scheduled for Sunday at the high school. Proceeds from that game will go to victims as well as the Paso del Norte Soccer League. Four coaches of the Fusion – an independent girls’ team in the league – were wounded as they were preparing for their fall season fundraiser. One assistant coach died and a 15-year-old player for another boys’ team was killed as well. Before the shooting, Paso del Norte was an increasingly successful youth league that had overcome tight budgets and long road trips to compete at the highest levels of American youth soccer.

“We were celebrating because two weeks ago, two of our teams went to the Presidents’ Cup and came back as national champions,” board member Francoise Feliberti said. “We were planning to do all kinds of fancy stuff to honor them at the beginning of the season and … OK, we’re still going to do fancy stuff, but we’re also going to do something for the team and the player that was shot inside the Walmart.”

A group of Arsenal fans started a GoFundMe for Paso del Norte that Velasquez found and tweeted out. It has raised over $24,000 as of Friday morning. The Locomotive, together with the El Paso Chihuahuas and the MountainStar Sports Group, pledged to donate $150,000 to victims. Another GoFundMe page has been set up by the South Texas Youth Soccer Association, of which Paso del Norte is a member. That page has raised almost $19,000 as well.

“We wanted to make sure that the kids that are in El Paso can play,” Jennifer Davis, the executive director of South Texas Youth Soccer said. “We’ve seen that when kids who have been in tragedies get on the field, they forget all that. It helps them escape for a while and feel normal to just play soccer again. We want them to get back on the field so they can play the game that they love and feel that passion again.”

Davis said she also reached out to Chris Canetti, a man who by his own admission has had “too much experience” in planning responses to tragedies. Canetti, president of Houston’s 2026 World Cup Bid committee, arranged a donation to survivors of the Santa Fe shooting when he was president of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash. He also organized the Soccer Night in Newtown event after the Sandy Hook shooting. David, Canetti and Velasquez are planning a charity friendly that they hope involves current and retired American and Mexican men’s and women’s players.

Velasquez has received the Locomotive’s blessing to take the lead on organizing the event while also training for their match against top-of-the-table Phoenix Rising FC this weekend. When he was a boy, Velasquez split his time between South Carolina and Medellín, Colombia, where he was taught about ‘invisible borders’, the lines separating neighborhoods where rival drug gangs fought from where the city was safe. After last Saturday’s shooting, his friends in Medellin asked him how the United States got so dangerous.

“That just means that the people from my country think the people here are crazy, while the people here think that we’re mass murderers and drug dealers. That’s the crazy perspective that this country has come to. I got my US citizenship when I was 18 and it’s given me opportunities and safety. We think the US is so much safer but now we’re talking about 251 mass shootings and it’s become an unexpected. It’s not like in Medellin where you know where not to go. Here you go to grocery mall, you go to a grocery store or you go to a school and you don’t know if your kid is coming back or your parents or you and that’s scary.”

Velasquez and his girlfriend found El Paso to remind them of the places they grew up and are looking to find a home to raise their newborn daughter and his four-year-old son. When he asked for ideas for a date night, his teammates recommended crossing the border to Juárez, Mexico. The images of the cartel violence that plagued the city came to his head, but they told him it’s where they go for a nice dinner.

When he became a father, Velasquez vowed to stay sober.

“I don’t want my kids to grow up in this situation and I don’t want to sit at work while my kid is at school and think if something bad is going to happen,” he said. “That’s not what this country is about. This country is diverse and soccer players are diverse. You have 26 players on a team all from different places, you go to America and it’s made up of millions of people from different places and you have to figure out how to live as one and be as safe as you can. It’s the same situation with a soccer team and when times get hard you have to make change with action.”

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