National Writer: Charles Boehm

Austin FC's Brad Stuver is "one of the old-school stories" in evolving MLS

Brad Stuver ATX close

Whatever happens in Sunday’s Western Conference Final at LAFC (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN3) and beyond, Brad Stuver already ranks as one of the first fan favorites in Austin FC’s brief history.

The 31-year-old made sure of that by donning the hero’s cape in the club’s first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs match, saving two penalty kicks in the Verde’s Round One shootout win over Real Salt Lake to cap a dramatic comeback from 2-0 down. He declines to accept the label of PK specialist, however.

“No,” Stuver deadpanned to in an extended one-on-one conversation last weekend. “Luck. It’s all luck.”

That degree of humility sounds a bit absurd compared to the stats — he’s saved three of the 11 penalties he’s faced in the run of play in his MLS career — and the scale of the veteran’s success in central Texas.

Stuver is indeed a Cinderella story, considering he’s played more games (66 and counting) during two Austin seasons than he did in the eight previous years of his career combined (9), and how warmly he and his adopted city have embraced one another.

Finding a home

Earlier this year local brewery Hopsquad produced a beer in his honor, a black IPA dubbed “Brad Stuver's Verde & Black.” Proceeds benefit The Laundry Project, a non-profit that assists lower-income families with costs and access issues around laundering clothes, one of several charitable initiatives Stuver and his wife Ashley are heavily involved in.

That work earned Brad a place on the shortlist for ESPN’s 2022 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award, alongside Anthony Barr of the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Cardinals icon Albert Pujols and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I'm very fortunate that this community and this fan base welcomed me with open arms and kind of made me an honorary Austinite very quickly,” he said of the supporters who greet his every save by bellowing “STUUUUUV” at Q2 Stadium. “And we are very thankful for the support.

“It feels like Austin FC is just an extension of the Austin community. And you see that just from the support that we have from the fans, the fan events that we have in the city, the businesses that are flying flags, everybody around town rocking jerseys no matter what,” he added. “The city was waiting for a professional team, and when Austin FC came here, everything was so intentional and the community here just jumped on board 110%.”

Ask Stuver about his River City lifestyle, and he sounds like a well-established local. Like many of the millions of transplants who’ve migrated there over the past few decades, more than doubling its population since the turn of the century, he and his wife Ashley started out in the city’s northwestern reaches, then found themselves drawn towards its core, crossing the Colorado River to funky South Austin when they decided to buy a home.

“We love it. We're about 10 minutes from downtown. We're five, six minutes from South Lamar, South First, South Congress [streets],” Stuver explained. “So we love it here; we get to enjoy downtown a lot. Like on our off days, we'll go to brunch or we'll explore the coffee shops, that type of stuff. The weather is always nice, it’s coming into fall weather, so we get to enjoy the outdoors a little bit more now.”

Navigating the abyss

It was a difficult, meandering road to reach this point. For eight long years, Stuver lived the life of a backup — starting with the humblest form of backup imaginable.

The Cleveland, Ohio native began his professional career as a ‘pool goalkeeper,’ a small and dwindling fraternity in MLS history, the ‘keepers who stand on call to join, on short notice, clubs that find themselves extremely shorthanded in that position in emergency situations due to injuries, suspensions and the like. This was back in 2013, and Stuver helped now-defunct Chivas USA, New England, Columbus and Real Salt Lake fill out their gameday squads that season; he never saw so much as a second of match action.

While Columbus added him to their permanent roster the following season, he would play just seven competitive matches in four years with the Crew and spent time on loan with the Dayton Dutch Lions and Wilmington Hammerheads of what was then known as USL Pro. Traded to New York City FC in 2017, he made just 12 appearances across all competitions in three years with the Pigeons, and had reason to fear he’d be written off after so much time on the bench.

“I was getting older and I’m American and I've been in the MLS a long time. I went on loan in the USL, I was [a] college [player], so a lot of those stigmas around my career,” he recalled. “I'm one of the old-school stories. Now you have kids coming through academies, your homegrowns, they're going to Europe playing there, coming back. … It was weighing on me that if I didn't get a chance soon, I didn't think too many other people would give me that opportunity.”

It would have been natural for his devotion to dim, to begin to contemplate another chapter in life, perhaps something more lucrative and less draining. Yet he says he never lost the love, never thought about doing something different.

“No, not once,” Stuver said. “I'm addicted to the game and we’re very fortunate to do what we do. And I've been playing this game since I was four. There was never an alternative for me.

“When I said I was going to be a pro soccer player, I jumped in, and I'm very thankful that my wife understands that, and has followed me everywhere I go. She knows that this is my passion and she's right there with me supporting me every step of the way.”

Stuver found “inspiration and motivation to keep going” from case studies like Stefan Frei, Tim Melia and Luis Robles, late-blooming starters and second acts who finally attained MLS prosperity. His 30th birthday was looming when he finally caught the break he needed to prove himself as one of the league’s best shot-stoppers.

In 2020, Austin FC were building their inaugural roster, led by a coach (Josh Wolff) and sporting director (Claudio Reyna) who’d both worked with him at previous stops. Though he was the third goalkeeper they signed, one of whom (Andrew Tarbell) had logged far more MLS minutes at that point, they told Stuver he’d get a fair chance to earn the starting job.

That’s exactly what he did.

“I needed a club and a coach and a GM to trust me in a way that I could go out and perform and show them why I deserve to be a starting goalkeeper in this league,” Stuver said. “The eight years that I was backing up guys like Sean Johnson and Zack Steffen, I was just waiting for that opportunity.”

MLS Cup next?

With that underdog backdrop, it’s easy to envision Stuver spearheading the defiant, pundit-baiting attitude ATX have ridden on this deep postseason run. Yet he insists that’s not his style, pointing with a grin to the tubthumping efforts of a fellow Verde veteran.

“I mean, Felipe’s Felipe,” wisecracked Stuver of the Brazilian midfielder whose “keep doubting us” mantra has been adopted as a rallying cry by Austin fans over the past few weeks. “I've known him for a long time in this league and he is very, very energetic and very emotional and he's great to have in the locker room.

“I definitely think that played a role early on in the year. [But] as we progressed – this is a nine-, 10-month season, so what we've been able to accomplish this year, it's not out of spite. It's not fueled by like this underdog story,” he continued. “It's a testament to the hard work that this team has put in … and that self-belief and that drive to prove people wrong, but in the same sense moreso proving ourselves right. … You don't get to the Conference Semifinals out of luck. You don't get to the Conference Semifinals just out of spite.”

Now he and his teammates have 90, perhaps 180 more minutes to make the most of before the curtain drops on their season. LAFC’s high-powered attack is likely to test Stuver repeatedly this weekend, and surviving that test would send Austin along to another one in the MLS Cup Final (they can even host on Nov. 5).

He hasn’t had much time to take wider stock of his journey yet, though he finds satisfaction in the simple joy of young Verde fans inspired to pick up the gloves because of him.

“It's hard for me to detach from the current moment,” he said. “There's just so much more that I want to accomplish.

“I've heard so many stories of kids coming to games and then switching positions because they want to be the goalkeeper after watching one of our games. … That's the coolest thing for me to hear. It's like, being a goalkeeper, we’re all crazy. And for a kid that chooses to be a goalkeeper is the craziest thing I've ever heard. But that's what hits me.”