If there is one story that is wholly and uniquely American soccer from the business end – complete with the troubling effects of the franchise system, the strange machinations of the disjointed North American “pyramid” and the heartwarming charm of a fan base that will not be kept down – it might be that of Austin, Texas and its team, the Austin Aztex.
In the course of three short years, Austin – the capital of Texas, 20th largest metropolitan area in the country and progressive outpost in the heart of the country’s largest red state – has bounced between the extremes of the birth of a new club, its heart-wrenching theft (of a sort), and the eventual rebirth of a new club with the same name as the old one.
Back in 2008, a new dawn of professional soccer in Austin brought with it a myriad of possibilities. A new club, owned by English businessman and Stoke City board member Phil Rawlins, entered the second level of American soccer; Austin wasn’t on Major League Soccer’s radar yet, but dreams of the big time floated around the edges. A fan base immediately coalesced (led by a group called Chantico’s Army), forgave/ignored/didn’t care about the high school gridiron stadium (complete with those garish yard lines and the artificial grass taking hold as surface of choice for Texas high schools) and fully bought that this was their team, for better or worse. Despite the manufactured nature – this is the US, after all, where “club” and “franchise” are used interchangeably – Austin’s team had all the look and feel of a grassroots affair.
In 2008, Austin competed in the USL PDL division, at the time an amateur league that mostly served as a place for out-of-season college players to develop during the summer months.
The 2009 season was the Aztex’s first as a fully professional outfit. The club finished 10th in the USL First Division, then the second tier of American and Canadian soccer, and averaged nearly 3,000 spectators a match. Their attendance record included two games with more than 5,000 in the stands; anywhere below MLS, 5,000 is a magical mark that puts clubs in rare company. By all appearances, pro soccer in Austin was finally taking hold in a meaningful way, and the future was bright. There was even tentative talk that a purpose-built stadium might be on its way.
2010 brought a large improvement on the field and an improvement in the stands. While the Aztex themselves qualified for the playoffs under English manager Adrian Heath, the club’s roots penetrated a little deeper into the central Texas soccer scene. A shift to another high school football stadium didn’t prevent the Aztex from getting better, in the ways it’s important for a young American club to get better. Too many had come and gone over the years, especially in the divisions below MLS; any progress that indicated the Aztex would be around for awhile was welcomed.
F*&%#d by the Franchise
Orlando is a natural place for some kind of professional soccer team. In addition to a large Latino population, Orlando is a regular destination for vacationing Brits hitting town for Disney World or SeaWorld or Universal Studios. You can pick them out on the tourist-laden buses, their football shirts in the colors of United or Chelsea or Liverpool marking them clearly in a country where that type of thing isn’t commonplace, or by their out-of-place accents in the land of “y’all” and “ain’t.” Between the futbol crazy Latino community and the Brits passing through, not to mention the possibility that some real live native-born American types might make it out to a game or two, minor league soccer makes as much sense in central Florida as it does in a lot of places.
And why start a team from scratch – as the Aztex had done back in 2009 – when the American system lets clubs – pardon, franchises – pick up and move at the drop of a hat? Phil Rawlins is a businessman, after all, English football sensibilities or not.
So Rawlins, who had been hunting for additional investment since the Aztex began, was convinced that Orlando was a better place for his club to be and smothered the Aztex in their proverbial crib. Two years and gone; the club formerly known as the Austin Aztex, the team that seemed destined to grow and grow in central Texas to perhaps one day have their own stadium or – dream of dreams – enter Major League Soccer the way Seattle and Portland and Vancouver had done, was now Orlando City SC, plopped down in the middle of Florida without any certainty that the town would actually support the team – not that it mattered, it wouldn’t justify anything – and all in the blink of an eye.
The business concerns (Rawlins reportedly sold some of his stake, and the club’s operating costs were to drop with a shift in leagues, which is a thing possible in American soccer, believe it or not) didn’t salve the pain felt by fans left behind in Texas, because why would they. Whatever Rawlins claimed now, there were never any signs that the Aztex were in dire straights because of their situation in Austin. It never appeared as though the team was struggling to get by, or that a move was the only way to save them from dissolution. There wasn’t a hint or a whiff of warning, the kind of thing that would have at least let the Aztex faithful prepare emotionally. Relocation might as well be dissolution. It’s all the same to Austin.
Stages of Grief
As one might imagine, the outrage over Rawlins’ decision and the relocation of the Aztex was swift and brutal. Yes, this is America, where franchise relocation has a long history; but never has team movement been accepted by the fan base scorned. Aztex fan blog The Aztexan laid it out in gut-wrenching terms in October of 2010.
Where before we had pride in the team and talked it up, now it’s an embarrassment, a shame. We’re suckers now, chumps. All the people who heard our pitch for the team and thought, either openly or themselves, “whatever, soccer’s stupid, nobody likes soccer, that will never last,” — god I hate those people — they were right. They were right! You made those hateful, ignorant bastards right!
In America, the added layer of soccer’s cultural position – one that is improving, but still sits somewhere below ice hockey but above competitive lawn darts – makes for a unique stew of angst when these things happen. Phil Rawlins didn’t just fail a group of committed, passionate soccer fans in Texas, he failed the game in America. He didn’t just take the team away from its fans, he made them out to be fools. Sins heaped upon sins, from a guy who should know better.
American soccer fans elsewhere who took notice of the happenings in Austin were just as quick to roast Rawlins and express solidarity with the Aztex faithful. This was one of those “it shouldn’t happen in soccer” moments. In a way, on a much less publicized level and minus the history, Austin/Orlando was American soccer’s Wimbledon/Milton Keynes. It was always more likely to happen here (and had before; MLS has relocation in its recent history), but it so sickening and seedy that – for a fleeting moment – the community rose up to express their collective disgust.
Then the dust settled, the furor died down and nothing changed. Phil Rawlins was gone, and Austin’s soccer team was gone with him.
You Can’t Keep Good Fans Down
For what it’s worth, Orlando City won a double in their first year in Florida. Led by coaches and players who had made the move from Austin to Orlando, the club won a regular season title and a playoff championship playing in USL-PRO, (after a reshuffling of teams and leagues over the last couple of years) the nominal third division of the stratified American soccer pyramid. They averaged just north of 5,200 fans a match while playing in the gargantuan 65,000 seat Citrus Bowl, and just over 9,000 for their championship playoff run.
This isn’t about Orlando, however. This is about Austin.
Aztex fans moved on, for the most part and as best as they could, quietly going about the lonely business of being soccer fans without a soccer team. Chantico’s Army changed their name to Eberly’s Army, and rather than dissolve, expanded their mandate to supporting other Texan teams. The shock of losing the Aztex didn’t dissuade them from remaining active. They maintained a belief that a team would come back to Austin, and they resolved to be ready when it happened.
Their reward came just this week with the announcement that a new Aztex franchise – with a new logo and color scheme – will start up in time for the 2012 USL PDL season with a former original Aztex investor leading the way, and the renamed supporter’s group playing a major part. The Premier Development League is where the original Aztex started just three years ago, though the league has evolved since then; while still predominantly a league for college players to get a game, some clubs have gone to a professional model. Still, it’s not the second division or even the third.
Even if the new Aztex choose to go the amateur route, this is something. A new start. A team where there wasn’t one, and the first step in righting the wrong of the old Aztex leaving to become else, something they were never supposed to be. A chance for the soccer fans of central Texas to show that the loss of a team won’t deter their passion for the new one. A chance to show Rawlins that he made a mistake, a big one, no matter what happens in Orlando, because he sold his soul when he turned his back on Austin. Austin, where they love their soccer, and they love their team.
Wimbledon – the shining example of relocation run amok in a country where the word “franchise” is as dirty as they come – and Austin – a town in the heart of a country full of of franchises where so many soccer clubs have lifespans measured in years, not decades – don’t have much in common except for this: when their teams were taken from them, suddenly, unjustly, and painfully, the fans left behind did what good fans always do.
They started over.