On Saturday night Austin FC will play their first home game in club history, welcoming the San Jose Earthquakes for Q2 Stadium’s MLS debut in front of a sold-out crowd (and a season-ticket waiting list nearly as long).
Newly-learned songs and chants will be aired out across the 3,500-capacity safe-standing supporters end. Many tacos and much brisket will be consumed among the smorgasbord of locally-centered culinary options at the $260 million jewel, chased, if you like, by beer brewed down the street and cider crafted across town as fans cheer on a promising squad built to execute coach Josh Wolff’s meticulous possession-oriented system.
Q2’s breezeways, angles and 6,000-odd mesh seats are calculated to facilitate airflow in the Texas heat. A 2,700-ton steel canopy roof structure shades every seat in the house and the pitch boasts North American professional soccer’s first-ever Platinum TE Seashore Paspalum playing surface, carefully selected for the climate and the roof. In short, it’s another dream venue for Major League Soccer and the ambitious home team eager to hit the ground running.
You may have heard some version of this phrase in reference to other MLS stadiums, but it particularly applies in Austin: Barely anyone would have dared to dream of any of this just a few years ago.
The River City is growing so explosively and evolving so rapidly that the history will be unknown to many clad in those green-and-black striped jerseys. But rewind just to 2010, and you’ll find ATX’s professional soccer potential being spurned, not celebrated. Before Phil Rawlins, Adrian Heath & Co. built Orlando City SC into a USL powerhouse and eventually joined MLS, they tried to do the same thing in central Texas in the Lions’ original identity as the Austin Aztex – but relocated after three seasons, expressing frustration at the lack of support they encountered.
“In our two years as a pro team, we won the Chamber of Commerce community relations award for our work in the community both years, and still we weren’t getting any traction,” wrote Rawlins in “Defying Expectations,” the book he wrote with former MLSsoccer.com contributor Simon Veness about his work with Orlando City. “People would listen to us, but nobody was willing to back us.
“I had more traction with people in the UK and outside of Texas who wanted to invest in us than I did in Austin,” he added, citing seven-figure annual losses. “Several people were telling me Austin was not the right marketplace. I pushed back and tried to sell them on why Austin was a good market, but what I heard back was unequivocal. It was not where they wanted to invest their money.”
A local group brought the Aztex brand back in 2012 and competed well in the PDL (now known as USL League Two), winning the league in 2013 and blooding future MLSers like Khiry Shelton and Kekuta Manneh while the club made its own top-division ambitions clear.
Though they blessed us with the greatest sports trophy of all time as part of an ambitious preseason tournament, it all went pear-shaped when they turned fully pro in 2015. House Park, the Depression-era downtown high-school stadium where several of the city’s soccer teams have played, was damaged by severe floods when historic storms swelled nearby Shoal Creek, leaving the Aztex homeless and eventually bust.
Go back further and you can find chicanery in addition to misfortune and failure. In 2004 a group launched the Austin Posse with a slate of friendly matches and some big talk about joining the Mexican league instead of a US division. When they drew Tigres UANL (or at least some version of the Liga MX giants) to town and made notable signings like US internationals Roy Lassiter and Chad Deering, it appeared that they might actually mean business.
Then the chief principals skipped town with no warning, leaving players, sponsors and everyone else holding the bag. The Austin Chronicle's “Soccer Watch” column, an ATX soccer staple lovingly curated for decades by Nick Barbaro, rated the Posse saga the city’s top soccer story of 2004 in its January 7, 2005 edition:
“With almost no advance publicity, this start-up pro team brought in a major-league roster and announced games against top-flight teams from four different nations. Then, just as suddenly, they were gone – folded after just three exhibition games, and leaving behind an ocean of ill will, unpaid debts and a tough act to follow for the next folks brave enough to try to bring pro soccer to Austin.”
Prior attempts to establish some high-level soccer roots in the rocky Hill Country soil date back to the 1980s, with names like Sockadillos, Lone Stars, Lightning and Thunder, rarely winning much or drawing more than a couple thousand through the gates. While House Park was a central and atmospheric location, the school district barred beer sales and eventually laid down artificial turf with unsightly gridiron markings, and teams usually withered when they sought better options in the suburbs.
Like much of the rest of the United States, the youth game was exploding across the region and growing clusters of aficionados were tuning in to MLS and European league broadcasts. But the University of Texas’ sports programs cast a shadow so long and dark that many feared nothing else could grow, a college town disinclined to acknowledge its own adulthood. As a central Texas resident for five years of my young adulthood, I saw it firsthand myself.
But here we are in 2021, and both Austin and its soccer scene are transformed. Powered by a thriving technology industry and an alluringly quirky culture of cool, Austin’s population has mushroomed by a stunning 50% since the turn of the century and now approaches a million residents inside city limits, with 2.3 million across the wider metropolitan area.
Like many of the Atlanta United fans who pile up the MLS-leading attendance figures at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, many thousands of them are transplants looking for both an experience and a community in their new surroundings.
A market that had hardly ranked highly in anyone’s MLS expansion power rankings had quietly become a crown jewel, sparking a buzz that pulsates to this day, and hopefully for years to come.
The small band of diehards that for decades insisted that “Austin is a soccer city” got bigger and bigger, and have finally, emphatically been proven right – even if it didn’t quite unfold in a way that anyone would have expected. That surely makes Saturday an even sweeter milestone.
Savor it, y’all.