Jimmy Villagomez, Edwin Villarreal, Harrison Shaw and Joel Maldonado (L to R) are the first four USL Academy signings in El Paso Locomotive FC's history, having been part of the Locomotive Youth Soccer Club for the past year.
It’s coming up on one year since the launch of the Locomotive Youth Soccer Club in June 2020, and the young talent present in the Borderlands region is already coming to the fore.
On Wednesday, the early returns from El Paso Locomotive FC’s Academy program arrived as the first USL Academy signings in the Championship club’s history, with Joel Maldonado, Jimmy Villagomez, Edwin Villareal, and Harrison Shaw all joining the First Team roster for the remainder of the 2021 Championship season.
The contracts open up a new world for the hopefuls with the potential to be called upon to the First Team to earn professional minutes in the USL Championship regular season. Though these young players have only been with Locomotive Youth Soccer for a short time, they highlight the talent that exists in the Sun City.
“The hard work feels like it’s paying off,” said Maldonado after a few weeks into training with the First Team. “Just like [El Paso Head Coach] Mark [Lowry] says, you have to keep working hard, be the best at the top and keep chasing the dream. In the beginning, I was nervous, but as soon I touch the ball, I know I have to show what I’ve learned here with Locomotive. It has been an honor to play in both games.”
El Paso has long been a hotbed for soccer, and Locomotive FC’s arrival has offered a chance for more of that talent to be uncovered and given an opportunity to move into the professional levels. Among them is Chapa Herrera, a local El Pasoan, who has gone on to become a mainstay in the Locomotive squad. Memo Diaz got his professional start with Locomotive as well, having since moved on to play for fellow Championship club Oakland Roots SC. Diaz scored his first professional goal – Root SC’s second in a 3-2 win against the LA Galaxy II – this past weekend.
Other El Pasoans are also thriving in the professional ranks, too, with players like Santos Laguna’s Santi Munoz and Necaxa’s Alejandro Zendejas both competing in Liga MX and others like FC Dallas’ Ricardo Pepi now featuring in Major League Soccer.
While in the past, the path to the professional ranks might have taken players away from El Paso, the introduction of Locomotive Youth Soccer now means the pathway to pro has never been easier for aspiring soccer players in the Southwest region, as evidenced by the arrival of Maldonado, Villagomez, Villareal and Shaw with the club’s First Team.
Of the four, Maldonado, Villagomez, and Villareal are all local, growing up in the El Paso soccer scene with various youth clubs in the region. Shaw, born in England, found his way into the Orlando City developmental academy, making connections with Locomotive Head Coach Mark Lowry that led his path to El Paso.
These four will continue to learn under the Locomotive banner, playing on the U-18 squad and playing in the USL Academy League against some of the top youth teams in the United States. However, they will also have the unique opportunity of training alongside the First Team throughout the week, an opportunity they have been enjoying since the start of preseason in March.
Through their hard work and commitment, the first USL Academy signings have already experienced professional training sessions and have earned minutes alongside the first team in preseason games. Coming in as substitutes, the four made appearances against teams like USL Championship sides New Mexico United and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, as well as Liga MX club FC Juarez.
“Having the chance to play in preseason games aren’t token gestures of two or three minutes in a game,” said Locomotive FC Head Coach Mark Lowry, following the preseason game against New Mexico United. “They have had to go out there and compete in difficult environments. We are just trying to win a game and play well. All three of the youth kids went in and did fantastic. It just means that El Paso, the community, and the Youth Soccer in El Paso has a bright future.”
To sign USL Academy contracts after showing up in preseason and training sessions since March, it’s a proud moment for not only Locomotive as a club, but also for the parents who have watched their kids grow and work hard in the sport.
“I’m really proud,” said Paul Shaw, father of Harrison. “I think for any parent that has a son or daughter that wants to go into any field, it’s just the next step. This is the next step for him. We’re really proud as parents to see him here in El Paso. He has been here for two or three months now already and he has started to develop and learn about now just soccer but life and living on his own. That’s part of the next development for him, living on his own and being able to navigate through that. It’s good to be here and see him for a few days and seeing how much he is enjoying himself.”