By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 11, 2019) US Soccer Players - On Monday in Austin, Texas, a group of luminaries from local government, soccer, and even Hollywood gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony of Austin FC's future home. The event marks the beginning of the construction process on a venue that seemed impossible as recently as 18 months ago. Back then, Austin FC didn't exist beyond a clause in an agreement between the league and the investor/operator of the Columbus Crew.
Now, the club has shovels in the ground, a head coach working to build a team for entry into MLS in 2021, and a burgeoning fan base excited to support a first division team in their city. Two months ago, Austin FC announced the club received what they called a record-setting 30,000 deposits for season tickets for its first campaign
Despite the progress on all of the various elements that make for a successful MLS expansion launch, Austin FC remains something of an enigma. Investor/operator Anthony Precourt's original plan was to move the Columbus Crew. That didn't go over well across the league.
Precourt made his power play in Columbus and willed himself into a franchise in Austin. The league's reputation for choosing successful expansion markets will turn on how successful Precourt is in Texas. An absentee owner in Columbus, Precourt looks like a man intent on proving to the world that he was right all along. It wasn't moving the Crew that ultimately mattered, after all. Instead, it was pushing MLS into giving him a fresh start in Austin without the startup costs associated with recent MLS expansion.
Austin doesn't yet have a single player on its roster, but it does have a head coach. Josh Wolff gets his shot at MLS management after his apprenticeship as an assistant with Columbus, DC United, and the USMNT.
Wolff's resume suggests he's ready for his turn as the main man, but tapping him to lead the club in MLS does represent a risk for Austin. The long lead-up to the club's first game is an interesting wrinkle for an unproven coach. Wolff will work with a clean slate. He carries no baggage from a previous job or with questions of which players to move up from a lower division of Austin FC. He also has no head coaching experience to draw from.
"Identity" is a slippery concept. It can mean a host of things, a mix of elements stemming from on- and off-the-field choices. Quite often significant parts of a club's identity are out of the club's hands. Fans can create something wholly independent of direction from owners and executives. The best case is collaborative, but it doesn't always work out that way.
Austin's vibe is unique to MLS. The situation with the proposed move of the Crew still lingers. At the same time, this is a growing region of the country known for its unique energy. That's embodied by its most famous minority owner, Matthew McConaughey.
"We've got a chance and responsibility here to keep our village values that is Austin, Texas," McConaughey said at the groundbreaking. "Keep our village values here with the experience in this stadium, in and out and all around it, quintessentially Austin. That's a challenge to all of us."
Keeping that in mind, Austin FC could be a fascinating experiment for a city known for bucking against convention in Texas. Austin was hardly in the MLS expansion picture before Precourt made his move, a departure from the usual close vetting the league does on new markets.
Sacramento is rumored to be on the verge of getting an expansion team. That city waited years for its turn before watching Austin jump the line because Precourt invoked a secret clause.
The third Texan team to enter MLS will also be devoid of anything truly organic. Two different versions of the Austin Aztex have come and gone over the years. The city has a first-year USL Championship entry playing at a makeshift stadium 25 minutes from downtown.
Wolff's ideas on playing style and philosophy will lay some groundwork for identity. It won't be clear what those thoughts mean until executed on the field. Austin must make choices in regards to player acquisition that will quickly place it in the evolving MLS spending hierarchy
Precourt has been an MLS investor/operator since 2013, but we don't know what kind of owner he wants to be. Fans in Columbus certainly have strong opinions, but everything is new again in Austin.
The city of Austin's willingness to welcome Precourt speaks to the power of a new relationship and the desire for a major professional sports team. Austin is one of several parts of the country with changing demographics and increasing population, but it's still thought of as a fun college town. That's more or less what it was when the big leagues were in expansion mode back in the late 80s and into the 90s.
Eighteen months ago, it wasn't certain there would be an MLS team in Austin. Just over a year ago ownership unveiled the name of the new club and slogan "Grow the Legend". Monday, the club broke ground on a stadium they expect to open in April of 2021.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the stadium is a nice metaphor for the groundbreaking nature of Austin FC's entry into MLS. There's a lot on the line MLS and Precourt. So far, it looks like everything is perfectly alright in Texas's capital.
More From Jason Davis:
- LAFC with and without Carlos Vela
- USMNT players and a coach in the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League
- Nashville's DP move
- Wayne Rooney and DC United's season
Logo courtesy of Austin FC