There’s a well-known bumper sticker that dates back decades, but can still be spotted around Texas’ capital city:
“On Earth as it is in Austin.”
The River City turned into soccer heaven on Saturday night, as a loud, proud and knowledgeable 20,738 spectators packed into Q2 Stadium for Austin FC’s inaugural home match – and gave their new team everything they had, filling the pretty new building with noise, rhythm and even a sweeping pregame tifo paying tribute to the city’s history and culture.
And the Verde responded in kind, matching wits with the San Jose Earthquakes in an open, ebb-and-flow affair that gave the capacity crowd just about everything it could have wished for on a warm Saturday night.
“It was electric tonight,” said lively winger Jon Gallagher, who experienced a few footballing temples in a 2019-20 season spent on loan with Scottish side Aberdeen. “It was amazing. From every chance, every little pass, every good moment, you could feel them.”
Except goals, alas, and the home win that would’ve pushed the euphoria levels to 11.
“When I stepped out right before the game started, I got the chills,” said ATX midfielder Diego Fagundez after the 0-0 draw, noting that the atmosphere posed the welcome problem of teammates’ commands being inaudible in the din. “That’s something special. I know they've been working so hard for it. I know the whole team is ready for it, and it's kind of sad that we're leaving with a tie, because we pushed so hard, they were singing so hard and we wanted to give them more.
“But like we’ve said, this is just the beginning. We're going to make this a fortress, we're going to make this a place that no one wants to play here.”
Even Quakes boss Matias Almeyda, who played in La Liga, Serie A and two World Cups, had to tip his cap.
By now Austin’s rapturous reception of their new team – Saturday also marked the debut of top-flight professional sports in the city – is well known. There’s a lengthy season-ticket waiting list, the Verde’s striped home jerseys are flying off the shelves like few in MLS and players and staff have shared stories of the startling extent of the person-to-person hospitality shown to them since arrival.
They've even got a globally-recognized celebrity figurehead: minority owner, “Minister of Culture” and high priest of Keep It Weird-ness Matthew McConaughey, who lived up to Saturday’s big occasion with a luminous green suit and pregame cheerleading session with a bongo drum – a winking callback to his infamous 1999 arrest for disturbing the peace as he played the same instrument in his birthday suit in the wee hours at his Austin home.
But all the buzz and good business took a back seat to the work required on the pitch when referee Ismail Elfath blew the opening whistle. Josh Wolff’s side threw themselves into the task with full commitment against an opponent who lives and dies on doing exactly that, matching the Quakes in duels, uncorking 19 shots and creating enough good looks for the likes of Cecilio Dominguez and Tomas Pochettino to produce an expected goals number of 1.7, nearly double San Jose’s.
It was a performance to inspire the newly gathered faithful, and also a result that should remind them of the heavy lifting of an expansion year even with the initial surge of excitement still flowing.
Sitting just one point ahead of Austin in the Western Conference standings and badly in need of results themselves, Almeyda & Co. made clear that they wouldn’t roll over and play opening-day pushovers. They opened up their hosts repeatedly, particularly in transition, and forced Brad Stuver to make nine saves on the night, several of them top-shelf stops.
“We had a difficult game, difficult opponent. Give a lot of credit to San Jose, they make it difficult, it's a unique way of playing, very physical, very combative one-v-one all over the field,” said Wolff, who also praised Stuver’s “calmness” and “growing stature within the group” postgame.
“You’ve got to be careful not to disorganize yourself trying to disorganize them and move them around.”
The night encapsulated Austin’s start to life in MLS – ambition, promise and the nagging frustration of breakthroughs yet to be made. Achieving their initial goal of playoff qualification will hinge on whether they can push that last bit to fruition.
“The energy that our players felt and received was incredible,” said Wolff. “In return, it's about competing and putting forth the effort, and really showing what the essence of their club is about, the hard working, the determination, and hopefully the quality will continue to come. But we play a way that we believe is entertaining and now we’ve just got to shore some things up in front of goal.”