By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 7, 2019) US Soccer Players - The USL Championship postseason is down to its final four as the Conference Finals play out this weekend ahead of the league’s cup final on November 17. Back-to-back defending league champions Louisville City are in the mix, as are familiar names like 2017 regular-season winners Real Monarchs SLC and Indy Eleven. Then there's the unexpected gate crasher.
Expansion side El Paso Locomotive has upended expectations to mount a deep postseason run in their first year of play, knocking off higher-seeded Fresno FC and MLS-bound Sacramento Republic to reach this point. The new club has also been fairly successful in the stands, averaging just over 6500 at Southwest University Park, a downtown minor-league baseball venue.
They've also made for an interesting story on the field and in the locker room. Head coach and technical director Mark Lowry has assembled a diverse squad with a global character as well as several names which will be familiar to longtime USMNT observers. That includes German-American striker Jerome Kiesewetter, former US youth international and 2011 MLS No. 1 draft pick Omar Salgado, and onetime Real Salt Lake talent Sebastian Velasquez.
"We've had a pretty good season all in all," Lowry told USSoccerPlayers in a phone conversation this week. "Our goal, our objective from day 1 was to make the playoffs. We thought that was a realistic objective in the USL, with 10 of the 18 teams in the conference making it. And we felt we could put together a team with the quality to do that.... Now we find ourselves in the Western Conference final, which at the start of the season, I don't think that would've been anybody's thoughts." "Even though we're an expansion team with some growing pains," he added, "I wanted to make sure that we had players who've been there and done it before. So on a daily basis, on the field, in the training sessions, during games, we haven't felt like a first-year team, because look at some of the names that we have. Not just guys like Velasquez who have done it in this country at a high level, but guys from around the world that have played. Yuma, my No. 6, has played in La Liga for Rayo Vallecano, Chiro N'Toko, my captain and center back, has played at the highest levels in Germany and Belgium."
After turning heads with his possession-oriented philosophy while in charge of NASL club Jacksonville Armada, Lowry was among those who found their careers put on hold by legal squabbles between that upstart league and the US Soccer Federation. After various twists and turns and months in a holding pattern of sorts, he finally had to walk away from that project last summer when El Paso's ownership group came calling.
"It was a tough time emotionally, building something in Jacksonville, to have that taken away when it felt like all those things were really out of your control, as a coach, as a player, you're just doing your job every day and the powers that be above you are deciding the league structure where you'll be, how much that costs, all that type of stuff," Lowry recalled. "It was a little unnerving. It was disappointing at the time when we found out that the NASL, for whatever reason, wasn't going to play next year over the number of teams, whether it was sanctioning, whatever that was. I believe it could've been worked out, I believe there was a way to find a happy medium, but that's always easier said than done when you've got owners who've put a lot of money on the line."
One of the USL Championship's youngest coaches at age 34, he's worked to bring Armada's pass-and-move approach to El Paso, albeit with some bumps and sidetracks along the way. It's been a season-long process of evolution for him and his squad. They were stylish in their 3-0 dispatching of Sacramento in front of a delirious home crowd last weekend, underlining the huge soccer potential of the combined El Paso-Juarez borderland metropolis.
"We're still a team that likes to keep possession of the ball and build from the back. That will always, every single game, be a feature of us, no matter if it be the last minute of a semifinal or a final, we're going to build from the back," explained Lowry. "But I think throughout the season we've had to find ways to at times score more goals – being very possession-oriented at times, that can actually have a negative effect on chance creation because you tend to be a bit too patient with the ball. And we went through a spell of that."
Locomotive was streaky in their first year of play, with a nine-game unbeaten run followed by an eight-match winless skid in midsummer. They ventually found their way to the 6th-seed in the West side of the USL Championship playoff bracket. Lowry's search for the right tactical balance had added pressure piled on by the need to lure fans out to give the new team in town a chance.
"I know how important it is to be successful in the US, to keep crowds coming. El Paso is no different to that," said Lowry, an Englishman who began his North American coaching adventure as an understudy to Adrian Heath in Orlando City's early days. "The guys in the front office have done a great job of putting bums in seats. I like to think we've done a decent job of entertaining and bringing some success, which is always important for the crowd. The fans, they want to see a successful team."
"Without sacrificing or compromising on our beliefs, you do have to find a way to bring some success to validate what you're doing. If you can do both, when it is possible, then fans give you that more time and they have a little bit more patience. They start to see things differently… early on in a project, it is so important to bring some success, some wins here and there, which buys you that time to go and continue on the project, implementing a style of play."
Lowry found a way to maintain a proactive style while fielding two strikers for a punch of directness.
"USL provides a lot of different challenges for me, a lot of different problems to solve," he said, "and I think the way I've evolved as a coach and the way that the team has evolved throughout the season is that we're definitely more attack-minded now, and that's just me tweaking the system a little bit in terms of the positioning of players – not so much the style but the positioning, finding ways to get players further forward, closer to goal."
When asked to draw parallels in what Gregg Berhalter is experiencing with the USMNT, Lowry offered some interesting perspective.
"The US Soccer Federation is going in the right direction on how to play or wanting to play a certain way and have a philosophy," said Lowry. "This is where I've had to grow as a coach: You can get too wrapped up in that sometimes and forget how to win games or how to compete, and what those things look like. I think the US right now is going through that transition phase of finding that balance between the philosophy of possession and positional play and making sure that we're dominating those things but also finding ways to win the game. That doesn't always mean changing your beliefs, it might mean tweaking the system here or there, getting two up top, those type of things..... We've had to evolve and I think you'll see the US over the next few months go that way and figure it out."
More from Charles Boehm:
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- USMNT ready to "do the business" in Concacaf Nations League
- The Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri dilemma
Logo courtesy of El Paso Locomotive