There may have been a brief moment of delight for soccer fans waiting for the USL season to kick off this Sunday. A goal from Mix Diskerud and a “That’s So Aurelien” tackle made it look like Orlando’s inaugural crowd would be going home disappointed. Soccer fans in Austin may have even felt like they were going to see their ex get jilted by someone else, but Orlando salvaged a draw with a late Kaka freekick.
While a number of Austin Aztex fans will hold on to hard feelings from the old franchise leaving town, it’s hard not to see 62,000 fans in a purple-saturated Citrus Bowl and understand why Phil Rawlins took his Austin Aztex FC organization to Florida in 2010. Seeing a successful inaugural game adds another wrinkle to the “MLS to Austin” movement that springs up every now and again.
That movement had an interest test as Austin hosted a pre-season tournament, The ATX Pro Challenge. Despite some inclement weather on Sunday, turnout was strong, with some 12,000 fans coming to see the hometown Aztex, their MLS affiliate Columbus Crew SC, FC Dallas, and the eventual winners DC United. While the Aztex were shut out in both games, they performed admirably against two of the Eastern Conference’s better teams from 2014.
The tournament also provided Austin a chance to briefly become part of the wider conversation about US Soccer. First off, the trophy placed Austin’s vibe more firmly in the public consciousness, as pictures of a bipedal armadillo packing heat spread across Twitter. The trophy was a nice nod to the small-town weirdness of Austin, a weirdness that has been fading as the city grows from a tiny liberal enclave into a major metropolitan area.
Secondly, the week provided another footnote for Jurgen Klinsmann supporters to cite in the wake of his comments regarding the fitness levels of MLS players. A group of DC United players took a camera crew into downtown Austin. Amusing locker room “bantz” aside, the high point was the delivery of a lunch order, including hush puppies and a chili cheese dog for captain Bobby Boswell. While there are a number of European based players at top clubs who are known to indulge in deleterious substances during the season, Boswell’s dietary excess came at an interesting time in the wake of Fitnessgate and the ensuing discussion about the professionalism of US soccer players.
Did the test run provide any signposts that Austin is on the path to being home to an MLS team? Frankly, it’s hard to tell what the event means for expansion possibilities, though it did show that people will come out to support soccer in Austin. Turnout for the event was good, and Eberly’s Army certainly has the lungs to support at the highest level. The uncertainty comes from MLS’s flexible criteria in awarding expansion franchises, but stadiums and ownership groups seem to be key criteria, so let’s take a brief look at those.
The tournament was held on The University of Texas campus at a track & field/soccer stadium. The closest analogue I can think of from personal experience is the Stadio Artemio Franchi, home of Fiorentina in the Serie A. Both stadiums exist in this strange space where they are in the city, but certainly outside of the city center, which is where MLS has struck gold in the past. However, the stadium issue is one that looms large for the Aztex. Currently they play at House Park, an artificial turf, multi-purpose facility that serves as home field for four high schools and the Aztex. The location is fantastic, downtown and within walking distance of soccer friendly bars. However, since the facility is owned by the Austin Independent School District and has a number of tenants, improving the stadium to MLS standards may prove too great of a challenge.
The ownership group thus far has remained committed to improving the House Park experience, working on growing the game through increased involvement in the community and improving the matchday experience while providing enough of an umbrella to accommodate the usual American mix of supporters groups like Eberly’s Army, young adults, and the families that make up a sizeable chunk of the fan base. Founder David Markley and CEO Rene van de Zande moved quickly to fill the void left by the previous ownership group’s move to Florida. Since then, they’ve continued reaching out to local clubs and companies to enmesh the Aztex in the Austin community. While lacking someone with the pull of a David Beckham, there are enough roots and influence within the city for them to seriously explore the possibility of a new stadium and a MLS franchise.
One of the prime reasons that Austin is mentioned as a future MLS city is the city’s rate of growth. Something like 110 people move to Austin every day, which is phenomenal, except when it isn’t. Adding another franchise in the 11th largest metro area would be a boost for MLS’s TV numbers, but the city’s current transportation infrastructure is best described as overwhelmed. Finding a space that is relatively accessible, central, and reasonable in a city that seems determined to turn every lot into high-end apartment buildings won’t be easy.
These stadium challenges aren’t insurmountable, but when considered in light of some of the issues that are beyond the club’s control, it can seems like an awfully tall mountain to climb. The presence of two MLS teams in Texas already pushes Austin down the expansion list for a league that is still very much concerned with annexing new areas to to boost TV ratings. In addition, San Antonio’s NASL team has been very upfront about joining MLS. I would say that normally each big and city could be considered on their own merits. However, the continued emergence of the NASL as a challenger to MLS on some levels could make it more likely that MLS may try to undercut the usurper by poaching one of their stronger organizations.
Austin may be ready for a MLS franchise, but serious obstacles still remain. Despite the ownership’s best efforts, many of those obstacles will remain out of their sphere of influence, meaning that an extra helping of patience will be needed as the myriad of factors get sorted out.