Austinites pride themselves on doing things a little differently.
After all, “Keep Austin Weird” – coined by a community college librarian to celebrate the city’s quirky ethos – is an unofficial slogan locals use to explain their ventures or whatever it is they geek out on.
A good number of the core fans – those who have been connecting each other through social media, developing elaborate musical chants for matchdays and securing partnerships with seven local breweries and a cidery – first met each other while providing testimony in support of a new soccer stadium during a series of 2018 City Council meetings.
The successful effort allowed Austin FC CEO and majority owner Anthony Precourt to enter into a public-private partnership with the city, in which the team funded and built a stadium on a plot of dormant city-owned land. It’s now memorialized in a chant that fans wrote to the tune of “Yellow Submarine" by The Beatles.
The group responsible for that and other chants, the Mexican-inspired La Murga de Austin, helped bring fans out of a year of pandemic isolation with two different practices at the Zilker Park moontower, reminiscent of the theme central to "Dazed and Confused." That 1993 movie, filmed in Austin and directed native son Richard Linklater, was notably a launchpad for Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey, Austin FC’s co-owner and minister of culture.
More recently, supporters have secured permission from the front office to hold two practices inside Q2 Stadium, each drawing at least 500 fans to the safe standing section. One featured McConaughey making a surprise appearance, leading fans in the “Verde” and “Listos” call and response that's a nod to the “Texas! Fight!” call and response from University of Texas football.
'Organized chaos': The heartbeat of Austin FC
Austin FC fandom will look and sound different, with songs and chants in Spanish reflecting Austin’s significant Latino population.
Rigoberto Rodriguez Lira, a 31-year-old soccer store manager involved in La Murga’s leadership, described the concept of the all-volunteer band (complete with trumpet players and drummers) as “organized chaos,” presenting a series of rehearsed songs that the capos lead, determining the order based on which ones best fit the stadium’s mood.
“For the voices in the stadium, which we call the most important instrument, we want it to be easy to follow," he said of the band that dubs itself "The Heartbeat of Austin FC."
"We also want to keep them on their toes," he adds. "We don’t want it to go into a small random chant that loses that feeling we’re trying to create for the players on the pitch.”
Jay Torres, a 43-year-old data analyst from Dell who runs a tile and flooring company on the side, is stepping up as one of the capos, and one of his sons, 13-year-old Jaxson, plays snare drum in the Murga. “It's something I've always wanted to do,” he said of leading fans in chants. “It's just in my nature to be loud.”
He sees capoing as a way to “help push other people who are maybe a little more timid, but it's in there, they have that passion in there … and 20 minutes into the match, they’re full throttle and singing and dancing.”
Imani Williams, an Austin-based capo (and 30-year-old search engine optimizer) who has led chants for the American Outlaws at the 2014 World Cup, hinted that song sheets may circulate via QR codes and be paired with conventional song sheets to help fans learn the chants. They range from a relatively simple “Dale! A-T-X!” – loudly transformed into “Dale! U-S-A!” for the US women’s national team friendly against Nigeria that officially opened Q2 Stadium – to more involved songs.
“Everyone can get involved, and pretty soon, you'll be singing them in the shower or as you're making your breakfast in the morning,” she laughs. “I think my roommates have heard ‘Matador’ about a thousand times by now.”
Supporters' Groups: Bringing Fans Together
Torres and Williams are both part of the Los Verdes supporters’ group, created a little more than a year ago. Initially launched with a focus on the matchday experience, its “futbol y comunidad” mindset has helped grow it into a 1,400-member group with an animated, open-to-all-members Slack channel and a penchant for fundraising.
“Los Verdes to me has always been familia y comunidad from the very start,” said Los Verdes president Gaby Navarro, a 28-year-old who works in transportation, riffing on the group’s motto. “It’s a movement that brought all sorts of people together, no matter their ethnicity, color, or what team jersey they wore on their backs.”
Josh Babetski, 47, a program manager for a technology consulting firm, started the MLS in Austin group in 2013 to bring together soccer fans who wanted to see the league bring a third team to Texas. That group has since morphed into Austin Anthem, the supporters’ group whose distinctive grackle logo is on the jocktag for the club’s inaugural white away kits.
Even he admits some surprise by “just the way that the city has embraced the club. I think all of us that were soccer fans knew we would embrace it. But I think just seeing the city as a whole really get behind it, just going random places and seeing Austin FC gear on people … it's taken on this whole life of its own that's far beyond just the soccer sphere in Austin.”
And it's not just in Austin: 45 minutes to the south, Oak Army New Braunfels is connecting fans who live in the German-themed town best known for Wurstfest, a 10-day "salute to sausage" that is Texas' answer to Munich's Oktoberfest, and Schlitterbahn, a sprawling water park that's a popular summer destination for people along the Austin-to-San Antonio I-35 corridor.
Podcast at the Moontower
Jeremiah Bentley, a 46-year-old marketing and community affairs VP for a regional insurance company, has found an outlet for his soccer fandom as co-host of the Moontower Soccer podcast. The podcast, which has gone through several iterations since its 2018 launch, started as a “beer and politics” podcast, covering the stadium process and birth of Austin FC from a fan perspective. Now Bentley and co-host Landon Cotham get to talk a lot more about an actual club, be it head coach Josh Wolff’s tactics or an ongoing debate about who has the best hair on the squad.
“It’s Cecilio Dominguez,” Bentley asserts, referring to the Designated Player they’ve talked plenty about since he signed with the club. “He also needs to let his hair down.”
He’s finding, as the audience for the show is growing, that they’re reaching both seasoned soccer followers and newer fans who are hungry to learn. “There are so many people in Austin who don't have a history of being soccer fans,” he explained. “We want to be there to help bring them along and support their excitement, and educate them enough to know what's going on … and not make it make you feel like you have to have been a hardcore, lifelong tactical nerd in order to enjoy this.”
"Roma's Been to Every Game"
While the front office is using “Grow the Legend” as a slogan, fans are already doing that organically in their own Austin way. Take 36-year-old bankruptcy lawyer Roma Desai, for instance. She found camaraderie with Los Verdes members, and decided to take a flyer on attending the season opener with other fans, initially just buying plane tickets and hoping they could find match tickets on the secondary market.
But now, as covered in soccer-centric online publication The Striker Texas and later on the club site, Desai’s been to all eight away matches so far, including the 300-plus who witnessed Austin’s first-ever win against Colorado. She also traveled with a smaller cohort of fans (including Jared Stroud’s parents) to Minnesota; ran into Precourt in Austin’s airport en route to the club’s match against Nashville (where fellow fans created the “Roma’s been to every game” chant); and crammed into a van with other fans for an all-night drive to see ATX's rematch with Sporting Kansas City last Saturday afternoon.
“It’s one of those things that every fan talks about, where it's the dream to just go to every single game,” Desai said, noting that, “Once the schedule dropped, it got more real."
The streak was in jeopardy for the May 30 match against Seattle, but the holiday weekend and a cache of frequent flyer miles allowed her to make the trip. The ninth away match, an upcoming Wednesday trip to Minnesota, may prove difficult before Wolff's team returns for a June 27 match against Columbus. But in the spirit that’s help define her previous eight trips, she’s not yet entirely ruling it out.
'I think it makes perfect sense here': Banking on Austin
The front office understands that Austin marches to a different beat, which is what the club’s senior vice president of marketing, 36-year-old James Ruth, had in mind when he took an unconventional approach to publicizing the club’s first verde and black striped home uniform, building around the concept of “The Uniform for Austin.”
“Austin FC elevates Austin in everything we do,” Ruth explained. “When thinking about how to present the jersey for the first time, we went back to what we wanted it to mean. It needed to connect with the identity of being an Austinite. We wanted it to feel like the uniform for Austin. That was a creative jumping-off point to present the jersey as a literal uniform – wore by all Austinites, doing what they do to make this city so legendary. From a 17-year-old female BBQ pitmaster to a muralist to a tattoo artist, we showed the jersey for the first time as though it had already been wore as a uniform. Adorned with BBQ sauce, burn marks, and paint splatters, the jersey was part of Austin’s fabric from day one.”
Roger Wallace, a veteran sports broadcaster who’s been with NBC affiliate (and new Austin FC broadcast partner) KXAN since 1995, has seen the potential for soccer in Austin grow over the years. “I guess the only surprise was it kind of came out of nowhere when the actual announcement happened,” Wallace said, referring to the October 2017 news from Precourt’s camp that resulted in MLS coming to Austin.
“I think it makes perfect sense here … so that doesn't surprise me. I think it's certainly big enough. I think it's certainly diverse enough. And I think there are plenty of fans here that have been starving for something like this.”