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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)

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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".

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