Rivalry Week

Lone Stars: How Austin FC are putting their Texas counterparts in the shade

Texas is now home to three proud MLS clubs. One, FC Dallas, are founding members of the league and a renowned incubator of young talent. Another, Houston Dynamo FC, are one of a select few teams to have won multiple MLS Cup titles. It’s the youngest of the trio, however, who have been hogging the headlines and accolades lately.

Austin FC are presently the Lone Star State’s frontrunners on several metrics, chief among them the standings, of course. With 37 points from an 11W-4L-4D start to 2022, Josh Wolff and his squad are presently the only team within touching distance of league leaders LAFC, spearheaded by a legit Golden Boot and MVP candidate in Sebastian Driussi.

But it’s also in terms of the size and passion of their home crowds (they currently boast MLS’s longest-running sellout streak), ticket demand (there’s a lengthy waiting list), stadium amenities, merchandise sales – where the Verde have ranked tops in the league since their 2021 launch – and the much more intangible category of buzz and relevance, both in their metropolitan area and beyond. That’s fueled in no small measure by part-owner, “minister of culture” and occasional pregame bongo-drummer Matthew McConaughey, though he’s merely one part of the equation.

“It's fair to say that we kind of encountered this early-stage skepticism from various national soccer experts who weren't necessarily convinced that professional soccer success could exist in Austin, whether that be on the team side or the business side,” noted club president Andy Loughnane to MLSsoccer.com on Monday afternoon. 

“That skepticism is just fine by us, because it's probably even played a small role in allowing our group to cultivate a bit of our own esprit de corps. But it's been rewarding for our ownership, for our players and our staff to prove out the strength of our launch plan, prove out the strength of our staff’s fortitude to build a strong foundation, and of course prove out and showcase the strengths of our incredible city and our fan base.”

Hold your horses, H-town residents and DFW denizens. This isn’t a takedown of your team or your town. MLS wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t a soccer hotbed. But take it from this Metroplex native: The new kids on the block are doing a lot right. And like it or not, that’s put them in the catbird seat as they prepare to host the Dynamo in Tuesday night’s nationally-televised Heineken Rivalry Week showdown at Q2 Stadium (9 pm ET | TUDN, UniMas, Twitter).

While it’s still early in their existence, ATX have surpassed everyone’s expectations both on and off the field – in some ways, even those of the club’s leadership. For Loughnane, that starts with bricks and mortar, both on gamedays at Q2 and at their training ground, the bespoke St. David’s Performance Center on the city’s northeast side. 

“One of our difference-makers is that we have world-class facilities,” he said. “I think it's starting to become fairly well known in MLS circles that Q2 Stadium is one of, if not the best stadium experience and crowd atmosphere in the league. I certainly think it's the best in the state of Texas. And I mean that across all sports. I just think there's something very unique about the stadium atmosphere at Q2 Stadium that is not replicated anywhere else, in either major league, minor league or collegiate sports, across the state.”

Here’s where expansion clubs like ATX enjoy a significant asset over their 1.0 and 2.0 elders: Learning from the latter’s hard-earned lessons. From supporter relations to seat design, Austin applied the experiences of FCD and the Dynamo, whose venues opened in 2005 and 2012 in very different contexts, to their home.

“We have the benefit of being able to study all pre-existing markets,” said Loughnane. “Certainly one of the things that is important in terms of trying to accumulate data and insights is infrastructure, and so not just our in-state rivals, but just around the league … we had the chance to take a look at what Houston and Dallas had both already built when they went through that process. I'd say that's a distinct advantage. 

“We had a chance to study, in particular, how they both addressed the impact of the Texas climate inside of their stadium. And those were some key takeaways that we were able to generate to help build out what is a very fan-friendly stadium inside of a similar climate.”

Q2 is designed to foster air circulation and nearly every seat is shaded by its signature swooping roof. A blend of indoor and outdoor spaces and other features offer spectators respite from the infamous Lone Star heat. It all added up to a markedly higher overall cost than the stadiums in Frisco and Houston, but ask those who’ve been to a game there: It makes a real difference.

Today those lessons are being applied in the other direction.

“Houston has now announced that they're going to install what we call these breathable mesh seat products,” noted Loughnane. “It's outstanding to see that they're going to be adding what are more fan-friendly seats inside of their stadium. So I think that's an interesting insight as to kind of how we each drive the competition forward.”

It’s a reminder that newborn organizations have the luxury of building from scratch, rather than innovating or overhauling what’s already been done. That applies to the roster-building process, where initial tranches of allocation money and the expansion draft help with the task of crafting a competitive squad, as well as in terms of introducing oneself to the community.

While the University of Texas is an NCAA behemoth, the Verde arrived in a less crowded marketplace in one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States, especially compared to DFW and Houston, where NFL, NBA and MLB cast long shadows.

“We're unique in the sense that we're the only MLS club that operates as the only major league team in its respective market,” said Loughnane. “The working theory was that Austin would always perform well from a corporate perspective, given the corporate growth trajectory of Austin, and we've been extremely fortunate.

“The working theory was also that Austin would perform very well in terms of being able to launch a team with a strong fan base, a fan base that would unite behind the city's first and only major league team and fortunately, with the help of a growing number of passionate supporters, Austin FC’s fan base is engaged, it's energetic, it's growing. And it's clearly a point of pride for the entire Austin soccer community.”

A town with precious little professional soccer history, whose past was pockmarked with hardscrabble lower-division strugglers and even a possible case of fraud, the Austin Posse episode of the early 2000s, has wholeheartedly embraced the beautiful game. In the process, it is showcasing its own explosive growth and transformation into a world city, or at least one with aspirations of that magnitude, with a quirky, hip identity that made ATXFC’s branding process easier.

Loughnane and his Verde colleagues are leery of anything that could be interpreted as trash talk. They recognize in many ways they stood on the shoulders of FCD and Houston to reach their current status, and must prove their viability over the long run. They’ve steered clear of their predecessors’ existing “Texas Derby” rivalry, happily targeting the newer “Copa Tejas” three-way derby trophy instead.

Yet the events of the past 18 months have vindicated the ATX vision, and in the process challenged Dallas and Houston to elevate their own games to keep pace, much like the births of New York City FC and LAFC forced their crosstown counterparts to evolve and compete. That’s good for everyone in the long run.

“Austin is a city that is growing in its stature, both nationally and internationally. There's a lot to love about Austin,” said Loughnane. “We're honored that we get to represent Austin week in, week out.”