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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)

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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

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