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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)

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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".

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