The Austin Aztex Project - “A Coach’s Dilemma”
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Check out all the great FBM gear in our "Swag Store".blog comments powered by Disqus