With 36 straight sellouts and counting at Q2 Stadium, Austin FC have been a hot ticket since they entered MLS last year. Demand for spots in their supporters’ section – for both home and away games – runs even hotter, though.
“We call it the Hunger Games,” joked Rigoberto Rodriguez Lira, vice president of the Los Verdes supporters group, in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week. “Especially the home games, like, they don't last a minute. They go through 200 tickets in seconds.”
That will be the case again this weekend when ATX visit Banc of California Stadium for Sunday’s Western Conference Final showdown with LAFC (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN3 in Spanish). Rodriguez Lira expects “at least 500, hopefully more” Verde faithful to travel to Los Angeles. Some have had their flights booked for weeks, having purchased refundable fares to every potential Austin postseason destination.
Though their club is barely two years old, the passion runs deep in Texas’ capital city.
In scenes reminiscent of far older and more established cultures like Portland’s and Seattle’s, spots in Austin’s safe-standing supporters' section are so prized that it usually fills up an hour or more before kickoff, well before the rest of the venue. That’s often preceded by a march to the match from a nearby brewery that serves as a pregame gathering spot. When the whistle blows, a constant ruckus is raised by Los Verdes, Austin Anthem, La Murga de Austin – the band whose drums and horns undergird the wall of noise – and their fellow SGs.
Even through a painfully frustrating inaugural season, a booming region with limited professional sports history has happily embraced its first top-flight pro team, paced by a core of devoted supporters who’ve made it a priority to reach out to casuals and soccer newcomers.
“I've brought friends who have no interest in soccer at all, and they show up here and watch a game and they're like, ‘I don’t know the sport, but this was awesome, I had a blast, this was so much fun, everybody's so into it, there's so much cool stuff going on,’” said supporter Aaron Conrado.
A day-one diehard who now lives in Washington, D.C. but travels regularly to cheer on his team – he also led the process of creating a home bar for ATXFC expatriates back in the District – Conrado made the trip back to Austin for last weekend's Western Conference Semifinal against FC Dallas and planned to do the same for the LAFC clash. He was among those who stopped by Q2 the day before, as fans were offered a chance to pose for photos with the Copa Tejas, the trophy awarded to the winner of the three-way rivalry between Austin, Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC, which ATX captured from FCD this season.
“This woman who was just here, she drove from San Antonio just to take a picture with the cup, and she doesn't even have tickets for tomorrow, because they're so expensive,” related Los Verdes board member Katie Ensign as she snapped trophy pics. “So it's just unbelievable, the passion that people have and what they're willing to do for this. I think as supporters, group leaders, all we do is just try to facilitate events for people to come out and do their thing.”
"Keep Austin Weird"
Austin’s hardcores already have a host of shared experiences. Like the draw at FCD earlier this year which clinched Copa Tejas for Austin, only for Toyota Stadium staff to insist the trophy lift take place in the parking lot, where ATX players took exception to security separating them from the fans they wanted to celebrate with.
“There was a security guard that was getting rough with one of our fans and Alex Ring came over and got in the security guard’s face and was yelling at him and had to be held back by his teammates,” recalled Conrado. “He was standing up not just for his teammates, he was standing up for us too, and I remember that moment as being like, ‘Wow, that's my captain.’”
Or the time ‘Pollo FC,’ the bright green rubber chicken that’s become a talisman and unofficial mascot, was confiscated by Audi Field staff during Austin’s visit to D.C. United. It was returned to the away supporters just as the Verdes began a thrilling late comeback from 2-0 behind to 3-2 winners – which only added to Pollo’s mystique while harking back to a treasured old city motto: “Keep Austin Weird.”
“We're really solid and we're really intense and really serious when we're singing full 90 and that experience,” said Rodriguez Lira, better known as ‘Rigo,’ who previously headed a Tigres UANL supporters’ club in Austin and was a leading figure in the process of building out Austin’s songbook and traditions.
“But our community also knows how to not take things so seriously. I believe the harsh environment of other supporter groups is more like, ‘you have to be this really macho culture’ or whatever, right? But at the end of the day in Austin, we’re people who know when to joke around and not take this stuff so seriously.”
Born in Mexico and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Rodriguez Lira is a Tigres fan by birthright; his mother attended Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. As an adult he made Austin his home, however, and when MLS arrived, he felt called to go all-in on his new local team.
“That's our kind of our thing – Los Verdes: Futbol y Comunidad [soccer and community],” said Rodriguez Lira, whose hair sports an ATX-green streak. “We have to think about all these communities, and what really Austin is, and all those people coming that don't rally around UT [the University of Texas]. How do we get all these people together?
“Austin's a great place to have kind of like a pilot of what a supporter group can be, just because of its nature of being inclusive and having caring people, and being able to just be so diverse, and everybody wanting to be a part of something.”
Increasingly populated by transplants from across Texas and beyond, grappling with gentrification and other effects of that explosive growth, the River City was ripe for a unifying experience that could transcend those fault lines.
“It was a really good thing that the [Columbus] Crew didn't get moved here, and we had more time to prepare and build from scratch,” said La Murga member Mateo Clarke. “Because I think that allowed us to have a really authentic supporter culture that started with people that were involved before we had a coach, involved before we had a DP [Designated Player]. And so kind of buying into that tree metaphor, planting the seed, letting it grow, letting it mature, I think it's really important, vs. something that's just transplanted and expected to do well.
“The south section is all the supporters, and I feel like that's the most authentic cross-section of Austin culture you'll find at any event in the city right now, truly,” he added. “But then on the west side, you have the suites, and a lot of corporate sponsorship, and that reflects this thing that exists in Austin, a lot of new tech influence, a lot of new money. And then I think on the east side, you have a lot of the more passionate soccer fans, supporters that want to watch the game from good seats. So you have it within the stadium, I think it represents the cross-section of Austin.”
A cultural phenomenon
The SGs sought to center themselves around Latino culture, music and language, with songs and chants in both English and Spanish, and the adoption and customization of a range of Latin American soccer traditions.
"I do think we're very lucky this is the only major professional sport in Austin, and I’ve met a lot of people who are excited about it, who knew nothing about soccer before – new soccer fans and learning along the way,” said Ensign’s husband Derek, Los Verdes’ treasurer.
“Part of the inclusivity culture is being mindful of that and saying, ‘you don't have to prove that you know anything about soccer to be a part of our group, or sing the songs and chants.’ It's also pretty special to me as a Latino person to see a lot of ways the movement is Latino-led, and there's a diverse group of people who said, ‘I don't really know Spanish, but I'm willing to learn the songs in Spanish that are pretty complicated songs sometimes.’ And be like, ‘hey, I'm willing to be led by people that have a very different cultural experience to me.’”
Supporters groups have also led community service events and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the victims of the tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
“A lot of people that have joined Los Verdes haven't joined for soccer. They just see what's happening, They see the fundraising – we have over almost 2,500 members, and so we can throw human resources at an event and really make things happen,” said board member Peter Dolan, pointing to a recent drive to plant 1,000 trees along trails downtown, a nod to the Austin FC’s oak tree crest and ‘grow the legend’ motto.
“People are drawn to that, not necessarily soccer. So we have people on Los Verdes who don't have tickets. Maybe they'll catch a game or two, but they're here to help.”
Add in ATX’s dramatic year-two resurgence on the field, and you have something like a perfect storm. Anyone watching their conference semifinal win over FC Dallas last weekend could see and hear the results, starting with the constant din created in Q2’s south stand.
“Someone was messaging us, like, ‘hey, they just said on the broadcast that the Dallas coach can’t communicate with the players, they can't hear each other.’ I just messaged everyone, ‘keep f*ing going, we’re getting the job done,’” laughed Rodriguez Lira.
“If you mess up the [opponent’s] game plan, that’s home-field advantage right there.”
The Austin faithful hope to gather at Q2 one more time this season. Defeating LAFC, combined with a New York City FC win over the Philadelphia Union in the East final, would site the MLS Cup final in northwest Austin. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, those centrally involved with this blossoming soccer mecca believe a sturdy foundation has already been laid for a bright future – or a Bright Verde future, perhaps.
“I don't think anyone can take credit for it,” said Katie Ensing. “It's just like the right thing at the right time and just took off like wildfire. Just to be present for it has been so cool.”