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The Austin Aztex Project - Back on Track

On May 5th, 2012 a soccer ball was kicked again by a semi-professional soccer club from Austin, Texas. On a high school field in East Texas the Austin Aztex recorded a convincing 4-0 victory signally their return to the American soccer scene.

Abandoned by its owner for Orlando in 2010, the city was left with few live, local soccer options. Less than one year later, the Austin Aztex, the same as the previous departed team, announced it's formation. Under new ownership the Aztex would begin their journey in the United Soccer League's Professional Development League (PDL).

The building of soccer in the United States is not without dangers and pitfalls, but with great risk comes the potential for reward. The Free Beer Movement will follow the trials and tribulations as the Austin Aztex try to re-weave themselves into the city's fabric and win over the hearts and minds of the soccer, and larger, community.

We present... 'Building American Soccer: The Austin Aztex Project".

The project will follow the team from three different perspectives and check back several times throughout the season:

Introduction

1. The Ownership/Front Office

2. Coaching/ Tactics

3. Fans/ Supporters Groups/ Game Day

4. Mid-Season Report

5. Back on Track (today)

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

With precious few games left in the United Soccer League Professional Development Mid-South Division (say that three times fast), the race for playoff spots (the top two) is going down to the wire. When we last checked in with the Austin Aztex the side hit a rough patch. Missing key players like midfielder Dillon Powers and striker Kekuta Manneh hurt the momentum the team had built in the beginning of the season. Their return, some new faces, and a new formation signaled the return of the Aztex and a down-to-the-wire finish for the season is now upon us. A 6-1 win over the New Orleans Jesters have the Aztex sitting in second place, one point behind leaders the Laredo Heat.

By Eric Betts / The Other 87 Minutes

In hindsight, the solution the Austin Aztex used to claim a 1-0 victory Friday June 22 against division-leading Laredo was perhaps the simplest one available to coach Paul Dalglish.

In all the games I’ve seen them play up until the one last Friday, the team has played its 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders and one attacking midfielder, in the center of the band of three. Against Laredo at House Park, they instead played a 4-3-3, or a 4-1-2-3 if you prefer, with two wingers and a center forward, a dedicated holder dropped right in front of the defense – Zach Garcia and then two center midfielders committed both to supporting the attack and helping in defense – James Martin and William Morse. All Dalglish did, in other words, was flip his midfield triangle, what your ninth- or tenth-grade geometry teacher told you was called reflection. The change, and the Aztex stellar play in their new system, gave the team its first win in six matches, broke a three-game losing streak and turned the PDL’s Mid-South division from a runaway into a contest again.

Consequences of the New Look

Photo by Kris Tyrpack (Aztex's Facebook)

Their formational change benefited the Aztex in two ways right from the opening minutes. For one, it allowed them to press Laredo’s own three-man midfield a little more aggressively than normal, particularly by getting Martin, who’s spent more minutes than Morse in the center midfield “2” band, higher up. Second, it let them compete better for knockdowns from long passes out of the defense, something they needed because their tactical plan for this game called for far less attacking from fullbacks Matt Boultt and James Elder (and eventually Zach Pope after Elder went off injured in the first half) than it has in the past. With the fullbacks staying home on Laredo’s wingers, the Aztex had fewer options to shuttle the ball forward and receive short outlet passes necessary for a possession-based offense.

Fortunately for them, the Aztex brought in the weapon they needed to play a more direct game, forward Khiry Shelton. Shelton brought a different aspect to the Aztex attack, namely size. Seventeen-year-old Kekuta Manneh, who had previously been starting as the Aztex’ lone forward in a 4-2-3-1 and began the game on the left wing here, is pretty good at holding the ball up considering his lack of height and slight frame, but what Shelton offers is the ability to win the 50-50 ball up the field, making him the first real target man the Aztex have had in their lineup.

On defense, the problem the team ran into by flipping their triangle was how and when the two higher players, Morse and Martin, would drop back to cover the zone in front of the defense. Laredo created a couple of chances for themselves by drawing Garcia out of position to the flanks and playing the ball back into the center to a late-arriving player while Morse and Martin were too high up to do anything about it. The Heat played with a very fluid midfield trio, and they were better throughout the game than the Aztex at timing late runs into the gaps left by defenders engaging with their three forwards. But by the 20th minute the team had adjusted, flattening that line while Laredo was on the attack, giving them plenty of bodies ready to win the ball in danger areas. At times they went too flat, hesitating to put a body on players some distance out and allowing Laredo’s long-range shooting to test Aztex goalkeeper Devin Cook at times.

Aztex Score

Of course, by that point they were also a goal ahead. It took 194 minutes of play this season, but a member of Laredo’s defense finally made a fatal mistake against the Austin team. Martin – who almost certainly wouldn’t have been as high up the field as he was in the old system – moved away from pressure slipped a pass through the gap between Laredo’s right and center backs for left winger Kekuta Manneh to chase with a well-timed run. Manneh reached the ball at the same instant as Heat keeper Emmanuel Frias, and his kick managed to knock the ball out of the grasp and past Frias, where he finished from a narrow angle.

The Aztex got the goal before they even had an opportunity to spring their second tactical surprise on the Heat: the fluid interchanges of their front three. Manneh, Shelton and right winger Kristopher Tyrpak each spent time on both flanks and in the center, making Laredo’s defenders switch on the fly between pressing hard and sitting back depending on their direct opponent. One opportunity the Aztex didn’t really take advantage of was using Shelton’s size as a target for high crosses into the box in an attempt to exploit Laredo’s lack of height all across their back line. Trailing Laredo 1-0 in Laredo on June 19, the Aztex used centerback Ross Kelly as an auxiliary forward to do just that, but without an attacking midfielder or the passing ability of Chuy Cortes on the field for much of the game, the Aztex forwards would sometimes find themselves starved of service.

The Last Twenty Minutes

Photo by Kris Tyrpack (Aztex's Facebook)

This game, they were able to take the opposite tact, starting by subbing on central defender Scott Luedtke to move, briefly, to a very direct, 5-2-3. The subs after that  were designed to pare the team back into a 5-4-1, something Dalglish achieved shortly after the 70th minute. Their bunker assembled, the Aztex held it well, keeping bodies in front of the Laredo players and blocking shot after shot. The midfield four shuffled back and forth across, while the back line pulsed outward to deny time and space. With all 5’5” of Chuy Cortes as the 1, the Aztex would just kick it long, hoping he could find space to run onto it and kill time. It was parking the bus, sure, and while we tend to have a gut-level negative reaction to teams who try to grind out results too early and too often, we also have to respect the discipline and defensive chops of the team who pulls it off and successfully stands in the face of twenty minutes of opposition pressure without blinking.

It’s a different kind of viewing experience when it’s the home team who’s hanging on, the tension and excitement in the stands makes the three points they’re fighting for feel like nine.

All credit goes to the Aztex for this one. Despite missing starters, introducing still more new faces to the team and shifting between a pair of new systems they held on for their first win in five games. Five days later, they’d travel down to Laredo and beat the Heat again 2-1, finishing a split of the season series that looked like a pipe dream a week before.

The four-pack of games against Laredo may have been the toughest part of their schedule, but now they face the most grueling portion to close the regular season: away games 17.5 hours apart, in New Orleans, El Paso and New Orleans again in the span of two weeks, with a final last home game at House Park against West Texas thrown in for good measure. Will they keep the system that helped them best Laredo or return to the way they used to play?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI".

Tags: Austin Aztex Project

The Austin Aztex Project: A Soaring Start, Then a Mid-Season Slump

On May 5th, 2012 a soccer ball was kicked again by a semi-professional soccer club from Austin, Texas. On a high school field in East Texas the Austin Aztex recorded a convincing 4-0 victory signally their return to the American soccer scene.

Abandoned by its owner for Orlando in 2010, the city was left with few live, local soccer options. Less than one year later, the Austin Aztex, the same as the previous departed team, announced it's formation. Under new ownership the Aztex would begin their journey in the United Soccer League's Professional Development League (PDL).

The building of soccer in the United States is not without dangers and pitfalls, but with great risk comes the potential for reward. The Free Beer Movement will follow the trials and tribulations as the Austin Aztex try to re-weave themselves into the city's fabric and win over the hearts and minds of the soccer, and larger, community.

We present... 'Building American Soccer: The Austin Aztex Project".

The project will follow the team from three different perspectives and check back several times throughout the season:

Introduction

1. The Ownership/Front Office

2. Coaching/ Tactics

3. Fans/ Supporters Groups/ Game Day

4. Mid-Season Report. (today)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

By Eric Betts / The Other 87 Minutes

The easiest place to start in order to discuss what has been going wrong with the Austin Aztex – winless in five games in the USL PDL’s Mid-South Division before last Friday’s 1-0 victory – is with when everything was still all right. Incredibly all right. Absolutely A-OK, dizzying, in-the-best-possible-way-all-right.

The Aztex won their first game of the season against the East Texas Dutch Lions 4-0, and it wasn’t even that close. They won one then lost by one on the second night of a back-to-back road trip in West Texas and El Paso, then came back to House Park in Austin to avenge the loss to El Paso to the tune of 6-1 and continue their sumo pogo curbstomping of East Texas 7-0. They were the fourth-best team in Texas (and given FC Dallas’ struggles maybe even the third-best), and had already convinced many of their fans they were going to run away with the division.

 
Happy Days. Photo Credit: Jillian Jacobs, Austin Chronicle

The system implemented by head coach Paul Dalglish worked. The fullbacks got forward as advertised – at one point during the second East Texas game, left back Matt BoultTK spent four or five straight minutes in the offensive half of the field. The ball stayed generally on the ground – but the team wasn’t afraid to uncork long diagonals when it saw its wingers had a speed advantage over the opposing fullbacks. They were defensively sound, with a pair of holders who never looked outmatched and good high pressing from the wide attackers and fullbacks to win the ball back early.

The 4-2-3-1 formation promised by Dalglish – the one used by most of the teams in world soccer today, including some half of the Euro 2012 qualifiers – had its own personality, something between that formation and an asymmetric 4-3-3. The lines of the team bent, fitting together like Tetris blocks and neatly broken into those who would deliver the ball and those who would finish it. The front line – forward Kekuta Manneh, center attacking midfielder William Morse and right attacking midfielder Kristopher Tyrpak – was a triangle set up across one side of the field; the midfield – left attacking midfielder Jesus “Chuy” Cortes and holders Dillon Powers and Tony Rocha, formed another behind them. Morse’s tendency to drift forward balanced Manneh’s habit of dropping deep to receive the ball. Tyrpak’s aerial ability coming in off the right side met well with Cortes’ quality deliveries from the left.

Finding the proper role for Cortes at the season’s beginning set the Aztex on their rampaging ways. Cortes is a proper playmaker, someone who rarely looks towards goal himself, but instead for the pass that leads to the goal. A week before their first game, the team scrimmaged the men’s team of Division II St. Edward’s University. With Cortes playing in the center of the three-band, the Aztex could easily work the ball into the box, particularly by giving it to Chuy in the center and letting him spray it out wide. But when their crosses came in, they’d often find just one target waiting in the box to meet them. The Aztex ended up winning 1-0, but it wasn’t the most convincing performance. (Granted, they were playing without Tyrpak, Manneh, Morse and Powers. But of those only Morse started the game the next week against East Texas, the 4-0 win. Manneh came on as a substitute, scoring a sensational goal in the process.)

What stood out during this period is how difficult the Aztex were to defend. Against teams who retreated into their own half, they could keep the ball for as long as they wanted (I doubt anyone’s keeping these stats, but I’ll be shocked if the most common passing combination on the team isn’t one center back to the other). Against teams who tried to press, they had in Powers the ultimate release valve. He’s a former U20 national teamer and a rated MLS prospect as a central midfielder, and it shows. The segment of his skill set I was most impressed with was his ability receive and get rid of the ball while under pressure. Powers was an expert at keeping his body between the pressure and the ball and using his strength to hold them off; I literally saw opposing midfielders bounce off of him as they tried to barge or tackle him. He could receive a pass with an opponent draped over him like he was an NFL wide receiver and still retain possession.

Because of this, the Aztex always had an out ball; even with players close to him, Powers could receive it and keep it moving and remain in the center of the field to rinse and repeat. He broke opposing pressure not by passing through it – generally he played simple, short balls to his other holder or the advancing fullbacks – but by absorbing it. When the first man failed to win the ball and the second came, he could pass out of trouble knowing that space had opened up elsewhere on the field.

It was a groin injury suffered by Powers that knocked the first dent in Aztex’ aura of irresistibility. Suddenly those outlet balls weren’t as easy. They had to be hit more precisely to players with more time and space, and to find that space the holders had to drift around the field and out of the center. Once they did receive the ball, if the pressure got to them fast enough, they’d have to recycle possession even further back to the center defenders, starting the whole possession process over again and once more giving the team three or four successive lines to break through to get to goal.

The position has been anything but settled since Powers went down. An injury to Rocha as well has meant that the team has added two new players to slot into that position and started four different combinations of players in the two spots since they last won, five matches ago. The team has good holding players now, but Powers will literally be on a different level after next year’s MLS draft, and he has been missed.

 
Kekuta Manneh on the break. Photo Credit: Jillian Jacobs, The Austin Chronicle

The second setback has been the absence and nullification of the team’s starting forward, Kekuta Manneh. Manneh’s a tremendous player, fast and a wondrous dribbler who you wish would pass just a little more, the kind of player who you watch and think he should give the ball right there to a better-placed teammate seconds before he goes by the two defenders standing in his way and scores himself. He’s also 17, and just finished his junior year of high school, so it’s easy to forgive those moments when he makes a silly mistake and looks like a 17-year-old because of all the moments when he makes you realize that he’s better at soccer than you will be at anything you do ever.

I’m still upset that Manneh’s first goal for the Aztex, scored after coming on as a substitute in the first East Texas game mere hours after he joined the team isn’t on YouTube somewhere. He beat three defenders and the keeper with a series of shuffle steps and left foot right foor crossovers, a set of moves merely good players would struggle to complete against four orange cones. He scored once in the second El Paso game, this goal, though the video seems to have been taken for tactical purposes rather than video highlights, and also earned a penalty and got their keeper thrown out of the game some sixteen minutes in. In the East Texas rematch he scored four, showing off his instincts for making well-timed runs through the back of the defense. 

But Manneh missed three games during the Aztex’ five game skid, and the two he has played have been against Laredo, who have not just the best defense of any of the Aztex’ division opponents but also by far the best suited  to stifle him, loaded with quick but small, technically sound defenders comfortable coming out and denying him the space to get a running start, and robbing the Aztex of their most dangerous forward option.

Or at least, they were able to do so until last Friday, when Manneh and the Aztex finally got a goal and a win against Laredo. They did so by altering the system that they had used to build their impressive early lead in the standings, and stuck to as that series of draws and losses saw them drop points in five straight games.

NEXT on the "Austin Aztex Project": "Aztex Resurgence?" A tactical breakdown of the Aztex 1-0 win over Laredo.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI".

Tags: Austin Aztex Project

The Austin Aztex Project - “Home Sweet Home”

On May 5th, 2012 a soccer ball was kicked again by a semi-professional soccer club from Austin, Texas. On a high school field in East Texas the Austin Aztex recorded a convincing 4-0 victory signally their return to the American soccer scene.

Abandoned by its owner for Orlando in 2010, the city was left with few live, local soccer options. Less than one year later, the Austin Aztex, the same as the previous departed team, announced it's formation. Under new ownership the Aztex would begin their journey in the United Soccer League's Professional Development League (PDL).

The building of soccer in the United States is not without dangers and pitfalls, but with great risk comes the potential for reward. The Free Beer Movement will follow the trials and tribulations as the Austin Aztex try to re-weave themselves into the city's fabric and win over the hearts and minds of the soccer, and larger, community.

We present... 'Building American Soccer: The Austin Aztex Project".

The project will follow the team from three different perspectives and check back several times throughout the season:

Introduction

1. The Ownership/Front Office

2. Coaching/ Tactics

3. Fans/ Supporters Groups/ Game Day (today)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It was all very surreal. They weren't supposed to be there. There weren't supposed to be eleven men on the field. Or fans in the stands. Or even that damn bouncy castle.

The Austin Aztex were gone.

But there they were, right in front of your eyes. You could rub them and do that cartoonish shaking of the head, but they were still there; the Austin Aztex... in the flesh.

There were goals on either end of House Park (although only one would really get used at all). Benches with substitutes and trainers on them. A pair of coaches roaming the sidelines. And fans. The fans came back.

They weren't supposed to be there.

***

Arriving 30 minutes before the game there were zero expectations to have walking towards the stadium. The re-birthed Aztex were playing at home for the first time in nearly a year and a half. When the 2010 season ended with a playoff loss, the members of Chantico's Army (the first Aztex's largest supporters group) bid their game day friends adieu with reassurances, like all sports fans, that next year "was the year" and "they'd win it all". They had no inkling that it would be the last night the red and white stripes of the original Aztex would out in a full 90. 

Would anyone even know that a new team was here? Being a United Soccer Leagues Professional Developmental League team doesn't afford you a massive marketing budget. The Aztex 2.0 had social media, word-of-mouth, and a handful of public events (mostly a local British pub) to push into Austin's busy public consciousness. How would the soccer community and the large community respond?

A line of cars went around the block as they waited to park in the garage next to House Park. There was a buzz of anticipation among the crowd. Just like before moms and dad with kids in town. Couples in matching soccer jerseys. Youth players decked out in club gear. 

Sprinkled in the Manchester United jersey here or the Club American shirt was an unexpected sight: Aztex red. The original Aztex may have left town, but Austin's soccer community had not completely rid itself of the old team. They dug deep into their closets and pulled out something that said Austin's soccer team. No matter that the shirt of the team they were repping didn't want to be Austin's team, but these fans wanted to be Austin's soccer fans.

A double-decker bus caring Eberly's Army pulled up through the arriving fans. Flags waving and cowbells ringing the Aztex supporters group had barely survived the "long winter" without a professional sports team to cheer on. After the Aztex left town, the group abandoned it's name, crest, and colors owing to the fact it was too closely associated with the previous regime. Without a team (and barely a whisper if one was to return) they went about re-constructing their supporters group from the ground up.

Under the old Aztex, Chantico's Army had carved out a respectable niche in the American soccer community. Visiting teams were often surprised and frustrated at how boisterous a small team's supporters section could be. Placed directly behind the opposing team's bench, coaches often complained at how difficult it was to instruct their players when 50 people banged on drums (or for one person an empty keg), sung out, and generally ridiculed whatever was in front of them.

With no team to support it was to be a tough go for Austin's soccer supporters. In was a new name, "Ebery's Army" (named after defiant woman in Austin's history), new colors, purple and black, a new crest, and a new mission to advocate for soccer in Austin. It's memebership shrunk and meetings were few and far inbetween. The waiting game for soccer in the city to return had begun.

When David Markley announced that a professional soccer team was to return to Austin, Eberly's Army emerged from its slumber. The team and its most loyal supporters (Right? The definition of loyalty is supporting the idea of a team even when there's no team.) By gameday the drums, cow bells, and witty chants had returned (to a prematurly graying forward on the El Paso Patriots they belted out, "Number 10.. Just For Men!")

And they weren't alone. Over 2,500 people would flow into the stadium that night putting their attendance close to the original Aztex's season average before they departed.

Like before, there was soccer in Austin. This team of navy and gold felt like this team belonged in Austin more than the previous one. The teams starting lineups ran out to the beloved, late Stevie Ray Vaughan. There were Austin's trademark food trailers parked next to the field. Live bands perform pre-and post-game.

Certainly this was a different soccer, too. Gone was the over-the-top, defensive tactics of the Adrian Heath-led side and in its place a high-tempo, counter-attacking (the "Liverpool-way" as Dalglish describes it) soccer. A style that will hopefully put, and keep, the butts in the House Park seats (or up frequently for goals).

After a handful of game it is still open to whether Austin will make this their team (attendance for the team's second home match, a Thursday right before the Memorial day holiday weekend was just above 800 people).

It's a team that feels like that it is still getting it's feet underneath itself. The on-field play has been stellar as the Aztex hold the top spot in the PDL's Mid-South Division with a 4-1-0 record. The game day experience is coming around. Fans are slowly replacing their red and white for the team's new colors.

There's optimism in Austin's soccer community where there was only despair before. In their two first home games, the Aztex scored 13 goals and conceeded only one (19 in all matches with only two given up). Dalglish has found some exciting personnel in 17-year old Gambian Kekuta Manneh (who bagged four goals last Thursday) and Under-20 U.S. National Team member Dillion Powers marshalling the midfield.

No matter what the future holds soccer has returned to Austin for now. David Markley, his front office, coach Dalglish, and the players now have to make sure they make the right moves to keep it here.

 

All photos courtsey of the Austin Aztex's Facebook page.

Editor's Note: This concludes the opening act of our "Austin Aztex Project" series. We'll be checking back with all three parts, the FO, the on-field, and the fans as the season progresses.

Tags: Austin Aztex Project

The Austin Aztex Project - “A Coach’s Dilemma”

On May 5th, 2012 a soccer ball was kicked again by a semi-professional soccer club from Austin, Texas. On a high school field in East Texas the Austin Aztex recorded a convincing 4-0 victory signally their return to the American soccer scene.

Abandoned by its owner for Orlando in 2010, the city was left with few live, local soccer options. Less than one year later, the Austin Aztex, the same as the previous departed team, announced it's formation. Under new ownership the Aztex would begin their journey in the United Soccer League's Professional Development League (PDL).

The building of soccer in the United States is not without dangers and pitfalls, but with great risk comes the potential for reward. The Free Beer Movement will follow the trials and tribulations as the Austin Aztex try to re-weave themselves into the city's fabric and win over the hearts and minds of the soccer, and larger, community.

We present... 'Building American Soccer: The Austin Aztex Project".

The project will follow the team from three different perspectives and several times throughout the season:

Introduction

1. The Ownership/Front Office (yesterday)

2. Coaching/ Tactics (today) 

3. Fans/ Supporters Groups/ Game Day (next week)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

By Eric Betts / "The Other 87 Minutes"

It must be terrifying, having to create something out of nothing.

I see it as the manager’s equivalent of that cliché about writer’s block: the terror of the blank pitch. What name goes first on the team sheet when there are no names to choose from?

This is not a common problem in the managerial world. No manager of Arsenal or Barcelona have ever faced it; the teams existed for some eleven years before their first manager, Thomas Mitchell and Jack Greenwell, respectively, were ever hired. At Liverpool, it hasn’t happened since 1892, when the club split from Everton and director John McKenna traveled to Scotland to sign 13 players to put on the field for the new club’s first season. That’s how the game works, when a manager is hired, he finds at least some resources waiting for him, whether they be a veritable dream team he’s stumbling on to or the last remnants after a full-on, rubber gloves and mask and cups of bleach mixed into buckets of water-style house cleaning. Even in MLS, with its rapid growth rate necessitating the generation of new teams yearly, the blank slate is supplemented by long lists of players left unprotected and potential amateur draft picks, any one of whom can be had by the team at the top of the order.

Coach Paul Daglish address potential players at a tryout.The Premier Development League doesn’t have either of these resources. In selecting a squad, all you get is a set of rough guidelines: You can’t have more than eight players over the age of 23, and you must have at least three under the age of 18. Practically, most of the guys on most of the teams will be NCAA athletes on their offseason, looking to improve or at least not regress during the summer so they can go back ready for the fall season. A handful of teams, including Aztex division rivals Laredo and New Orleans, as well as last year’s PDL champions, the Kitsap Pumas, actually pay some of their players, which means anyone on an NCAA team isn’t allowed to play on that team or they’ll forfeit their eligibility, per NCAA regulation. Instead, the PDL-Pro teams – Wikipedia’s phrase, as I can find no mention of the term on the USL website – forsake the largest pool of eligible talent in favor of attracting other players to the team through regular paychecks. Considering Laredo and Kitsap were the league’s two finalists last year, it’s probably worth it competitively, if not from a business standpoint.

Point is that the possibilities for roster stocking are nearly limitless; the Aztex could start a game with you, me and Zinedine Zidane if they could convince the three of us to play for them for free (There may be some bylaw in the PDL agreements that prevents former World Cup and Ballon d’Or winners from playing in the league. I didn’t go through them and check).

The challenge with assembling a roster comes not from knowing where to start in on that limitless pool of talent but where to finish. The chaff is presumably easy to separate from the wheal – no one’s letting you or I anywhere near a PDL field. Similarly, the top-grade stuff, the otherworldly talents, the kind of people you see on television for being really exceptional at their chosen pursuit, be it athletics or interior design or alligator hunting, have already been snapped up and are off being exceptional for money someplace else, or else are at least incredibly rare.

The PDL does boast some pretty impressive alumni, including the likes of Brian Ching, Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream, Jay DeMerit, Heath Pearce, CJ Sapong, Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and, no joke, both Eric Wynalda and Jurgen Klinsmann, though not during the same years. (I guess Zidane could play in the PDL. Does anyone have his agent’s number?) But considering there are 73 PDL teams listed on the USL website, it’s safe to say they aren’t all packing a roster filled with, or even containing any, future professional players.

Potential?So with the top and bottom sifted out, choosing players for a PDL team becomes about separating the really good from the very good, or the very good from the pretty good, or in Aztex coach Paul Dalglish’s designation, those who are “decent” players from the rest. Decent sounds lower on the value scale than most of the guys at tryouts deserve, e.g. “How was the movie?” “Meh, it was decent”, but I gather it’s a compliment from him, since he uses it not just when talking to me but also when confirming the other coach’s favorable impressions of players.

Or he could just mean they’re holistically decent. Dalglish had plenty of opportunity to see players at higher levels than this one while he was playing for teams like Newcastle, Hibernian and eventually the Houston Dynamo. Despite these stops, Dalglish’s Twitter feed is filled with jokes about how awful he was when he played, (Recent sample from the day of the incident between Genoa and their ultras: “Good job I never played in Italy or I would have had the shirt taken off my back every week! In fact I could've just played in skins!”).

It also has plenty of still-optimistic banter on the trials and tribulations of being a Liverpool supporter in the year 2011-2012, which I can imagine are somewhat magnified when the manager and one-time talisman of the team you love and grew up supporting is also your father. When Paul Dalglish finds out via smartphone that Liverpool lost 1-0 to Sunderland on the day of the tryouts, he looks rather glum for a while, which makes me wish for a moment that I had taken more interest in my own father’s line of work growing up.

With that familial and sporting connection in mind, you can actually take seriously his Twitter bio’s declaration that he’s “an unofficial ambassador from LFC,” and unless I’m imagining things, it’s been changed recently too, from something about spreading the Liverpool way over here.

Tactically, that means playing attacking, possession-based soccer. Here too remember that the possibilities of the blank pitch are limitless – he could play 3-4-3 or 5-3-2 or 2-3-5 if so desired, though his chances of success with any of these out of a typical American player pool would be about the same. But Dalglish says during the team’s first day-long tryout that he already knows how he wants the team to play, and is looking on day one for players who can fit that system from day one. As one of the assistants explained it to the tryout team he’s shepherding, it will likely be an offensive 4-2-3-1 with fullbacks who push high up the pitch and a striker who remains as a central focal point.

Where this gets complicated is that all the teams in the first tryout day are playing 4-4-2, the better to get a look at all the forwards they’ve brought in for the day. Since they’ve been coached to stay central, sometimes the forwards hesitate to provide support to the wide midfielders on the flanks, instead forcing them to beat their fullback and cross or run down a blind alley and either lose the ball or check it back to the fullback, if he’s followed his orders and is high enough to provide support. You see people trying to fill that vacant center attacking midfield role either consciously or unconsciously – wingers who come centrally every time they have the ball, forwards who drop conspicuously deep on every play, center midfielders who push high (too high) up the pitch trying to make things happen.

Watching, waiting, looking for something.Because of the somewhat random nature of the way the teams are constructed, the games during that first tryout were highly disparate affairs; some wide open due to a lack of holding midfielders and fullbacks eager to show they could attack while others featured good defenders and forwards who might as well have been sitting on the sidelines.

After a time some of the players, the ones who stand out in any sort of way, take on their own brief snippet of a bio, the most obvious and defining characteristics, like they were a face on a Guess Who board or a Beatle. There was the super-fast teenager, the ideal size and speed right back, the guys with Mohawks, the ginger playmaker, the quiet one, the smart one etc. Actually, what’s it like is the way we think of characters out of a sports movie: the religious one, the quarterback from California, the fat guy, the one played by that kid who played Benny the Jet Rodriguez.

There were players I liked a lot who I feel certain won’t make the team – like one kid who played in the left back one game then turned around and played center forward in the next. His movement off the ball was absolutely splendid, and though he scored a poacher’s effort you could tell he didn’t have the size or the ability to create his own shot that you need to play by yourself up top.

There was a dearth of left backs even here. Before the first game, one of the coaches whose team had only ten called in to the reserves that he needed another player, preferably a left back. I told him he’d never find one in this country; we don’t believe in them.

There were three or four players with Mohawks, who each seemed some eight percent better than the players without them.

The whole team wasn’t out there, of course. The Aztex held at least three other events later searching for players, including plenty of studs who couldn’t make it to that first day.

Turns out, filling in that blank pitch doesn’t need to be an existential crisis. A tryout isn’t some Hell Week designed to weed out all but those above a certain level. It’s assembling the best prospects you can find – by talking to coaches and knowledgeable soccer folk and scouring area college teams (something we may have to come back to in a future piece) – then figuring out which ones of those are the best. There wasn’t some objective level to live up to; the players the coaches kept talking about and kept praising amongst themselves were the same ones who had caught my eye. They just looked better than the others.

Within a few weeks the team will learn if those players are up to the level of the PDL. For now, it’s a start.

It’s something.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI".

Tags: Austin Aztex Project

The Austin Aztex Project - “Healing Old Wounds, Moving Forward”

On May 5th, 2012 a soccer ball was kicked again by a semi-professional soccer club from Austin, Texas. On a high school field in East Texas the Austin Aztex recorded a convincing 4-0 victory, signaling their return to the American soccer scene.

Abandoned by its owner and his club for Orlando in 2010, the city was left with few live, local soccer options. Less than one year later, the Austin Aztex, the same as the previous departed team, announced it's formation. Under new ownership the Aztex would begin their journey in the United Soccer League's Professional Development League (PDL).

The building of soccer in the United States is not without dangers and pitfalls, but with great risk comes the potential for reward. The Free Beer Movement will follow the trials and tribulations as the Austin Aztex try to re-weave themselves into the city's fabric and win over the hearts and minds of the soccer, and larger, community.

We present... 'Building American Soccer: The Austin Aztex Project".

The project will follow the team from three different perspectives and several times throughout the season:

 

Our Introduction

1. The Ownership/Front Office (today)

2. Coaching/ Tactics (tomorrow)

3. Fans/ Supporters Groups/ Game Day (next week)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Foundations

David Markley is a man whose personality and passion make him larger than life. At any Aztex event he greets anyone that approaches him with the warmest of smiles and the sturdiest of hand shakes. His eyes, bright and beaming, like each individual is his best friend.

And that description might not be entirely misleading. Markley wants his team, the re-launched Austin Aztex, to be your team. He wants to create a relationship between his team and the city that is deep. Markley is not some slick businessman, but about as genuine as can be in conversation. He'll admit mistakes, ask for advice, and talk to you as if you're his equal. Of course, Markley is a businessman, (Vice President of Product Development at Fallbrook Technologies, an engineering firm in Austin) so he's always looking to push his product, and this time that product is live, local soccer in Central Texas, but more importantly he is someone who is deeply interested in seeing soccer succeed in this city.

In talking with Markley at a North Austin soccer bar recently, it was clear that tying soccer, the Aztex, and Austin together is his number one goal.

Markley has a lot of work to do. Launching an American soccer team in any place is difficult enough, but this new Austin team has to heal old wounds as well. This isn't a new market for professional soccer, but one recovering from its previous team picking up and skipping town with hardly any notice or evidence that there was trouble. Markley is bringing up a team under a cloud of old pain and lingering suspicion.

While Markley understood that the departure of the original Aztex was a "business decision" he made no effort to hide his disappointment that majority owner Phil Rawlins didn't do more to try and keep the team in Austin.

"I didn't know about it (the move) until slightly before Phil left," he recalled. 

Markley's task is to convince the Austin soccer community (and potential sponsors) that this time the Aztex are here to stay. That even though they had been burned before this time will be different. The first problem is that some didn't even know they even left in the first place.

"When the Aztex left town we lost a lot of momentum, but all is not lost. We gained a lot of experience in running a team."

He emphasized that the "key ingredient" going forward in re-building soccer in Austin would be "trust".

Nearly as quickly as the team had departed Markley, the only minority owner left in Austin, began to explore the possibility of bringing a team back. By the spring of 2011 Markley initiated talks with United Soccer Leagues.

The choice to stick with the name "Aztex" was an interesting one for Markley and his staff. On one hand, for many of the most passionate supporters of the previous team, the Aztex name dripped with bitterness. But for the larger Austin soccer community is was about name recognition and continuity. That being said, the red and white stripes of Aztex 1.0 (a symbol of previous owner Rawlin's seat on the Stoke City board) and the crest was out, and navy blue and gold in a new crest were in. Even the name was slightly changed. In the crest there was an emphasis placed on "ATX", the shorthand for Austin.

"We wanted to put the ATX back in the Aztex," said Markley. "We worked through over 600 different names (back in 2008) before settling on Aztex and there wasn't a lot of desire in going back and doing that again. There is a value in brand recognition with the Aztex name. We wanted to emphasize the postive, on-field aspects of the original Aztex."

Coaches' Corner

And so the "new team with the same name" was announced to the public in the summer of 2011. In November, Markley and the Aztex debuted the team's manager, Paul Dalglish.

Dalglish, the son of Liverpool legend and current manager Kenny, was a journeyman of sorts in the professional leagues of Scotland and England before signing with the Houston Dynamo where he was a part of two Major League Soccer Cup winning sides in 2006 and 2007. He then was the manager for the USL side Tampa Rowdies in 2010 before leaving the team by mutual consent after missing the playoffs in their inaugural season. He returned to Texas in 2011 taking a job as the Director of Soccer for Lake Travis Soccer Club (an arm of the Dynamo Juniors program) and then later technical director for the Central Texas youth soccer club, the Lonestars.

Markley had his sights set on Dalglish from the start as the coach for the Aztex saying, "He was in my proposal with the league".

"I felt like Paul could be a good coach for our PDL team."

But Dalglish was just the tip of the iceberg of the new Aztex coaching staff that would span years of experience and several different countries of origin and, most importantly, not offend the delicate sensibilies of the byzantine network of youth soccer clubs in the Austin-area. Coaches were brought in from several of these youth clubs not only for their expertise, but as to not indicate any preference for one club over another. Something that plagued the Aztex 1.0.

"When you get these guys together you've got guys who've played in Europe, MLS, MLS Cup, NASL, the old Lone Stars," Markley added. "We've got Latino outreach (in our coaches), the ability to connect with youth clubs, diversity, and broad experience of playing and coaching at high levels.

In addition to the PDL Aztex side, the club will also field a Super-20 team in USL led by longtime Austinite and former U.S. Under- 20 National Team coach Wolfgang Suhnholz.

"This is Austin's soccer team."

Markley is nothing if not optimistic about the potential for success in Austin despite the false start under the original Aztex.

"I believe it can work in Austin. We just need to re-invest in Austin soccer. We can do it right. It is a professional soccer market," he said.

"This is a PDL team with pro intentions." (Editor's Note: Markley wasn't talking MLS... just looking towards getting out of the developmental league and into USL proper or NASL)

One of the first tasks in preparing for the season is connecting with a number of sponsors and companies that were left just as high and dry as Markley was himself.

His personal relationships with many Aztex fans, former staff members, and local business were a "catalyst" for him to try and bring a team back to Austin.

Already many of those business bridges burned have been rebuilt. The Aztex have inked a deal to be outfitted by Admiral Sportswear and landed a jersey sponsor in "Emergo Group", an Austin-based firm. Re-negotiating the deal with the Austin school district to play at the downtown and familiar House Park was huge as well for the organization.

Markley's goal is to make the Aztex as much a part of the city's fabric as the Texas Longhorns or its live music.

"This is Austin's soccer team," he said. "The key is the difference in understanding local markets and American sports, especially soccer."

"It's going to look and feel different than the British model," Markley said, perhaps a subtle dig at how the previous team was run and marketed.

This team has to be "accessible to everyone in Austin and emulate Austin", particularly in reaching Austin's increasingly diverse citizens.

With a little more than a week to go before the Austin Aztex make their first (home) appearance since their untimely departure two years ago, all of these issues remain on the front burner and whether or not soccer in Austin is either a pipe dream or just one waiting to be realized hangs in the balance.

David Markley has faith. It will be up to the rest of the Austin soccer community to decide if it's ready to renew its own faith.

TOMORROW: Paul Dalglish is at the helm of the Aztex, but how to do create a team out of nothing? And what do you do when there's finally a team sheet?

Photo Credits: All photos courtsey of the Austin Aztex

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Tags: Austin Aztex Project

Announcing “The Austin Aztex Project” Documenting the Building of American Soccer

Last September the Austin Aztex, under new ownership, announced their return to the American soccer fold. Almost a year earlier the first incarnation of the Aztex had packed up for greener pastures in Orlando, leaving supporters in the lurch and a bad taste in the mouth of the local soccer community.

Austin is a city with seemingly perfect demographics for success: a booming population full of young professionals with disposable incomes, a great place for raising a family, and a strong Latino community. But for all of these factors leaning in their favor former Aztex 1.0 owner, Phil Rawlins cited a lack of local  investors (in a tough, recession economy), geographic isolation from the league's other teams, and an awkward stadium situation that gave them team downtown real estate, but a place (since it was high school American football field) where no alcohol could be served or corporate suites be added..


The relocated club ditched the Aztex name and re-branded as Orlando City Soccer Club and went on to immediate success, winning the United Soccer League's PRO division title in 2011 and stoking speculation that the Central Florida team was on Major League Soccer's shortlist for expansion.

Back in Austin, the soccer community found little comfort in Orlando's on-field and off-field success. Behind the scenes, though, a former minority owner, David Markley, was working to bring some team, any team back home.
 

USL's David Winner, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell,
and Aztex owner David Markley.
Photo Credit: Austin Aztex

On a sunny late September day Markley would stand side-by-side Austin's mayor Lee Leffingwell and USL President David Winner and make the much anticipated news that soccer was indeed returning to Texas' capital city. A return to the USL, however, would be at a different level of the American soccer pyramid than the recently departed Orlando side.

Austin's American soccer journey would begin like its predecessor, in the USL's Premier Developmental League, a confederation of regional and sub-regional leagues populated by mostly local, college-aged kids trying to keep their skills sharp in the summertime. Thus, the first disappointment of this new team had emerged; any potential clash against Orlando would have to wait until Austin built strong enough local support to garner a "promotion" (not promotion in the global sense, of course) out of the PDL.

The excitement of the return of live, local soccer was, though, the overwhelming feeling of the moment, overshadowing the fading, bitter memories of last fall.

But now the main task stood front and center.

How would this Austin Aztex organization, version 2.0, be able find success where the other had not?
 

--------------------------------------------------------------------
Regular readers may or may not know this, but Free Beer Movement HQ is located in Austin, Texas so the loss of the original Aztex were quite a blow to our American soccer laboratory. With the return of live, local soccer to our community we wanted to take the opportunity to not only go out and support our local American soccer team, but to tell the story of the return of the Austin Aztex.
 
The FBM is about using the power of beer to open newbies to the idea of American soccer, but more than just that, our website has always been about documenting the culture that surrounds it and the growth of the game. With a new team beginning in our backyard it only seemed appropriate to follow this story wherever it took us.
 
Over the next few months, we'll have unprecedented access to the new Aztex ownership, coaching staff, players, and fans in order to document the highs and lows of building American soccer. 
 
At several points through the season we (FBM and Austin-based "The Other 87 Minutes" writer Eric Betts) will observe soccer in Austin from three main angles: the front office, the tactical/team side, and from the fans' perspective. Through exclusive interviews with all these parties we'll try and gather what it takes to try and build a successful soccer club in the United States.
 
Welcome to "Building American Soccer: The Austin Aztex Project".


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Tags: Austin Aztex Project

The Frailty of American Soccer

R.I.P. 2008 - 2010
 
On Friday, upon returning home from work, I was reading up on soccer news from my Twitter feed when I started reading frantic "tweets" from many of my Austin soccer friends. Inside Minnesota Soccer had broken the news that my local club, the Austin Aztex, were packing up and moving to Orlando, Florida. Today, the news was confirmed in a press conference held by the Aztex's owner, Phil Rawlins.

The news, seemingly out of nowhere, was, need-less-to-say, a complete shock to me.

Near the end of September I attended, along with a few thousand of my closest friends, the home finale of the Aztex as they defeated AC St. Louis, 4-2. It's with bitter irony that, at the time, we members of the Austin supporters group, Chantico's Army, chanted "Happy trails to you, we'll never meet again" to the AC players, mocking their clubs' endless financial problems and the possibility that their club would fail in the off-season.

How tragic that the pie was actually on our faces.

This is the frailty of soccer in America.

To see a franchise in American soccer fail is not surprising. In Major League Soccer, the domestic top-flight went through a series of painful contractions shedding teams in weak markets (two in Florida interestingly enough) in order to save the rest of the ship. In the second division of U.S. soccer club failures are more common, even expected, as 75% of teams have failed. The story of the Aztex is not one of failure, though.

The Austin soccer community is vibrant. The metropolitan area is home to nearly 1.75 million people, the 35th largest metro-area in the nation and nearly 40,000 youth soccer players. The population boasts countless young professionals, college students, families, and Latinos all demographically strong soccer fans. In fact, Austin had the seventh largest television audience for the 2010 World Cup. A recent article in the Austin Business Journal said that the economic climate in the city was suitable for a "tier 1" sports franchise.

The support for the Aztex has been nothing short of stable and growing. The team played only two years in the second division and averaged 3,733 people per game (sixth out of twelve teams) during the 2010 season. But the real surprise was that attendance figures rose 25% from 2009 making it the team with the greatest growth in the league. The supporters group, Chantico's Army, was one of the better organized, rowdy, and sizeable in the league.

If soccer can't succeed in a city like Austin and an atmosphere of support like what was seen at House Park then is anywhere in America safe for soccer?

The truth of the matter is that owner Phil Rawlins (a man who I've met, talked to, had many beers with, and enjoyed as a human being and a great fan of the game) and the next set of partners in this Orlando endeavor made a cold, economic decision about the fate of soccer in Austin for 2011 and maybe forever. It just didn't work.

Speaking today at a press conference in Orlando Rawlins said:

“I know the new investors very well -- they are football people and have been interested in working with us for some time. They like what we have achieved on the field and in the community,” he continued. “However, they made it very clear that their investment was contingent upon the team relocating, citing Austin’s lack of a soccer specific stadium with any corporate facilities, the inability to sell alcohol at games and the geographical isolation of the team within the new USL-Pro League. In short, they didn’t see Central Texas as the right market for the team and their future plans.”

It didn't make enough money. Now anyone who's getting into the "soccer in America" business today should know that this isn't a profit-making enterprise. Even in MLS only two of the 16 clubs finished in the black. Mr. Rawlins knew that for sure. And he knew this: investing in soccer in America isn't a get-rich-quick-scheme, it is a down payment on the future of the sport.

At the founding of the team, back in 2008, he even stated he was in it for the long-haul, "My goal is to make the Aztex a community-based club that the Austin area can be proud of."

Their website stated: "The Austin Aztex mission is to help grow the beautiful game of soccer in the greater Austin area."

So where did everything go wrong? How did signing a renewing a three-year lease at House Park (the Austin school district football field the Aztex played at) turn into a jump to Orlando? How did a rumored search to build a modest soccer specific stadium lead to packing up the moving truck? How did one owner's commitment to soccer in Austin, for the long-term, end up as hollow words?

So soccer in America hangs by a thread. Major League Soccer sports many sizable and stable teams in its league. Now in it's 16th season it looks as though MLS will survive and not go the way of the original North American Soccer League and the dodo bird. But several teams hang on through the benevolence of their owners. FC Dallas and New England Revolution, despite the successes of today and yesterday, respectively, throw up pathetic attendance numbers and are most certainly hemorrhaging cash for their owners Clark Hunt and Robert Kraft. How long will they continue to lose money?

The loss of countless numbers of soccer teams and leagues in the United States throughout the sport's history in this country continued to re-enforce the idea that American soccer continues to live on the razor's edge. 

If there's one silver lining to this whole debacle it's that it makes what we do here at the Free Beer Movement all the more important. Do I consider the failure of the Aztex and indictment of our efforts here in Austin? Certainly not, but it re-enforces the idea that if we're not careful and out there constantly fighting for this sport that we all love and want to see grow in our backyards then other fans may suffer the same fate as we have.

This frailty of American soccer makes it certain that if you truly love soccer and are living in the United States YOU HAVE AN ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATION TO SUPPORT IT IN ANY FORM, ANYWHERE. If you're in a city that sports a professional franchise, a semi-pro team, or even a college squad what's you excuse, as a soccer fan in America for not supporting the game that is LIVE and LOCAL?

Buy some tickets. Drag a few friends. Make it an event. And why not follow the "Free Beer Movement philosophy" while you're at it?

We cannot sit by idle as our local clubs either fold up or pack up for (supposed) greener pastures. We cannot allow the naysayers to be proven right; that this isn't a soccer nation or that your city isn't a soccer city.

Because it is. Because it is a nation that is captivated by European soccer and Mexican soccer and South American soccer and World Cup soccer, and, over time, increasingly, American soccer.

It may be too late for Austin, but this doesn't have to be the fate of any more soccer teams in the United States.

And as much as it pains me to say this, given what transpired yesterday, for the sake of American soccer, I hope that the newly minted Orlando City Soccer Club is successful. I want Orlando and its soccer fans to prove that the game can be supported there.

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Tags: Austin Aztex Project