An expansion club’s introduction to Major League Soccer is full of landmark accomplishments: first win, first goal, first marquee signing, first playoff berth and so forth.
One of those milestone moments is in view for Austin FC, with club president Andy Loughnane telling MLSsoccer.com they’re planning for an early June opener at Q2 Stadium. Loughnane said the soccer-specific venue will be complete by “late March, early April,” putting them on schedule to reach construction completion targets that were established when Austin FC broke ground in September 2019.
How Loughnane views it, the $260 million privately-funded stadium, which has a natural grass playing surface and can fit 20,500-plus fans, will play a key role in Austin’s sports history far beyond the Texas urban hub’s relationship with soccer.
“Austin is the fastest-growing large city in the country for many years running, and it's the largest city in North America without a major league team,” Loughnane said. “Of course, that all changes here very shortly. But yes, this is league history to open a property in the city of Austin. Austin has so much going for it right now and I think Major League Soccer is equally as proud to be a part of Austin's sports history as Austin FC is.
“There's a lot of opportunity that comes with that, there's a lot of expectation that comes with that. But we've been off to a good start and are fortunate. This is a very special city and we think we've started to form a very special bond with the city. It all comes to life in Q2 Stadium here shortly.”
With an April 3 start date penciled in for the 2021 MLS season, the two-month in-between period could leave Austin FC with a lengthy road-swing before their project gets formally introduced. That situation has recent MLS precedent, with D.C. United playing a road-heavy front half of their 2018 schedule before Audi Field premiered that July. The same year, then-expansion side LAFC played their first six MLS games away before Banc of California Stadium opened in April.
Contributing to Austin FC’s situation is several internal and external factors around the 24-acre Q2 Stadium property. Even though construction will conclude by late April, they’ll still need to get their facilities operations staff up to date, integrate sponsorship elements and do onboarding for part-time gameday staff. Out of Austin FC’s control, there are traffic signals that need to be installed on private land and a road that’s being built, acting as an important artery for traffic of all kinds.
As those details get ironed out, Loughnane is confident Austin can hit the ground running when Q2 Stadium truly comes to life.
“[Sporting director] Claudio [Reyna] and I have had these conversations, and we work through various schedule simulations and scenarios,” Loughnane said. “There's a level of comfort that under any schedule scenario, including the one where we begin April 3 and are on the road, we will be successful.”
Naturally, Austin FC supporters will hope to attend Q2 Stadium’s projected June opener, though the COVID-19 pandemic introduces unpredictable elements. Hopes for an organic, unique environment certainly aren’t dashed, with current Texas law allowing sports venues to operate at 50 percent capacity.
Those guidelines, as established by Gov. Greg Abbott, allowed FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC, MLS’s two other Texas-based clubs, to welcome limited-capacity crowds late in the 2020 season. Meanwhile, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys averaged 27,377 fans per game in 2020, providing more context in the Lonestar State.
Loughnane doesn’t get into too many details when asked about this topic, but knows they’ll have to plan for a variety of possibilities. Seeing COVID-19 vaccines get rolled out nationally, he’s hopeful increased attendance is possible.
“We want to remain patient and provide solid information as opposed to speculative information that could, unfortunately, find itself as outdated as early as the next few days,” Loughnane said. “But we do think our strength is to remain patient, and in due course we'll have an MLS schedule and a first home date. From there, we can have the conversation a bit more.”
Soon enough, our first game on this pitch. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/Tch1cl91Tz— Austin FC (@AustinFC) February 8, 2021
Looking long-term, Loughnane hopes Q2 Stadium enters the legion of soccer-specific stadiums throughout MLS that actively host US men's national team games. Orlando City SC’s Exploria Stadium has emerged as a hub during our pandemic times, while others like Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park and the LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park are regular stops on the international circuit.
That “strong interest and desire” to host World Cup qualifiers, as Lougnane phrased it, is another sign of Austin FC’s ambition with Q2 Stadium. It’ll become one of 20 soccer-specific stadiums featured within MLS in 2021, with more investment pumped into infrastructure by ownership groups.
Now, Loughnane is just eager for the finished product to reach its milestone moment.
“It's awe-inspiring every time I drive by the property, and it never grows old,” Loughnane said. "There's always something that comes to life inside the stadium, a new angle I walk, a new vantage point that I haven't experienced previously. It always produces a smile.”