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How Austin FC Prepared for Its Debut Season in a Pandemic

The league’s newest franchise plays its season opener on Saturday after months of preparation and planning amid challenging constraints

Michael Weinstein

Austin FC’s team crest depicts Treaty Oak, a more-than-500-year-old tree located in central Austin. Only about a third of the tree remains after it was poisoned in 1989, but its gnarled canopy maintains a formidable presence. According to Austin’s founding lore, Stephen F. Austin signed the city’s first boundary agreement with the Tonkawa tribe under Treaty Oak in the early 19th century, making the city landmark a fitting—if aspirational—emblem for a fledgling professional sports franchise that hopes to become a central and enduring part of Austin’s identity. Austin FC’s design features four of the tree’s thick roots extending down and outward, symbolizing “all of Austin—north, south, east, and west—coming together to create a powerful foundation for our club,” a team statement reads.

Austin FC seems intent on taking this directive literally. Major League Soccer’s newest franchise, which begins its inaugural season on April 17, has been limited in its community outreach efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stadium tours, watch parties, and tailgates were canceled or significantly scaled back. Instead, team officials have taken Austin FC to the people—north, east, south, and west—by repurposing a 1983 Chevy Barth into a merch shop on wheels.

The “Verde Van” debuted last November at the South Austin location of Easy Tiger, a breezy bake shop and beer garden that will also be a vendor in Austin FC’s brand-new Q2 Stadium. Fans lined up—masked and socially distanced—to purchase Austin FC’s newly released black-and-green-striped primary jersey and other exclusive merch from the side window. Imposing and clad with Austin imagery, the van is even equipped with a heat press to create personalized jerseys on the spot. Online sign-ups accumulated so quickly that the team added two new locations to its first-week itinerary.

The day after Easy Tiger, the van posted up downtown, in a parking lot at Fourth and Congress, blocks from the state capitol; then it traveled south across the river, to trendy South Congress, before making its way to Cedar Park, a suburb about 15 miles north, where Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff chopped it up and posed for pictures with fans. Later that day, it ventured back toward downtown Austin and across I-35 to Hotel Vegas, a popular dive and music venue on Austin’s east side.

In the past few months, the Verde Van has continued its trek around the city, building hype ahead of Austin FC’s season opener at LAFC. From the University of Texas campus to the hills in Westlake; from the Plaza de Mexico farther south, where the rodeo takes place, to Pflugerville, a north Austin suburb whose population has exploded in recent years; from the Domain, where Q2 Stadium shines in the spring sun, to the Fairmont Hotel downtown, where many of Austin FC’s players stayed upon arriving in town. Everywhere the van goes, it’s the same story: Park it and the supporters will come. Or maybe they were already there.

Austin FC’s origin story begins in 2013 when California investor Anthony Precourt bought the Columbus Crew. As part of the purchase agreement, Precourt and MLS negotiated an escape clause that allowed the team to be relocated, if certain conditions were met, to just one market: Austin. “When he made that acquisition, all teams have the opportunity in all leagues to come to the league and say, ‘I can’t succeed. I need some help. Are there options for me in another market?’” MLS commissioner Don Garber told soccer writer Grant Wahl. “In his case, when he said that, upon purchase, we said, ‘We’ll agree that all teams have that with league approval, but we’re going to limit you to only one market.’ And that one market was Austin.” In 2017, Wahl reported that Precourt intended to move the franchise to Austin unless a new stadium was built in Columbus.

In response, passionate Crew fans mobilized to keep the team in Columbus. Spurred on by a grassroots #SaveTheCrew movement, then Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine sued Precourt, citing a 1996 state law preventing the relocation of a professional sports franchise without a six-month notice and an attempt to sell the team to local ownership. (The bill was originally passed after the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995.) In Austin, stadium sites were debated and scrapped, and some local leaders believed that the city would be better off without a soccer team at all. By the end of what Garber called “one of the most complicated projects in our league’s history,” Precourt sold the Crew to a local ownership group including Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslem, which committed to keeping the team in Columbus, and MLS granted Precourt the ability to launch an expansion team in Austin.

This result has proved to be something of a win for all parties: Austin FC will launch without the stigma of a “stolen” franchise (though the stage is set for a Columbus-Austin rivalry); the Crew, one of the league’s founding members, stayed in Columbus under new ownership and won last year’s MLS Cup; and MLS avoided a contentious split while adding a franchise in a desirable market.

MLS officially announced Austin FC as the league’s 27th team in January 2019. The team’s challenge has been to create a professional organization from scratch in a city with virtually no major professional sports history. For much of that time, it’s done so amid a global pandemic. Somehow, Q2 Stadium is on track to host its first game on June 19. The roster has ballooned from two to 24 players in the past several months. There are already multiple supporters groups, including a brass and drum band called “La Murga de Austin.”

Austin FC has faced unprecedented challenges, but it has successful models to draw upon. It will be the seventh MLS team to play its inaugural season since 2017, joining the likes of successful newcomers like LAFC and Atlanta United FC, and more recent entrants FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC. “We have consulted clubs who have gone through this because we can learn a lot from a team that has made a similar investment, a similar decision, or they’ve been at a point where they’ve had to make a decision,” Austin FC president Andy Loughnane says. Similarly, Wolff has talked with players who were part of past expansion teams to hear what went well and what didn’t.

The team also has plenty of expansion experience within its own ranks, including Wolff and Loughnane. In 1998, as an MLS rookie, Wolff scored eight goals in the Chicago Fire’s inaugural season. The Fire, coached by now-LAFC coach Bob Bradley, won the MLS Cup in their first campaign, which no expansion team has managed since (though the league had only 12 teams at the time). Loughnane worked in sales during the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first season in the NHL, in 2000. He vividly remembers the team’s home opener, from the smell of beer and hot dogs to the flurry of scoring to open the game. “It actually gives me goose bumps even now,” he says. For Loughnane, even as a sales rep, building a team from scratch was one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of his career and something he’s wanted to replicate ever since. “To be able to do it again in a city like Austin, this is special.”

Austin FC’s sporting director, Claudio Reyna, also has experience launching a new franchise. The former U.S. men’s national team captain was New York City FC’s first employee and one of the primary architects of its launch. The team brought in Al Raitt from LAFC to head up fan experience and events, trainers and sports medicine analysts from the NBA, and broadcaster Adrian Healey from ESPN to call games.

Austin FC has also taken lessons from past expansion teams about building a successful roster, relying on a blend of veteran experience and young talent, particularly from South America. Paraguayan duo Rodney Redes and Cecilio Domínguez were the team’s first signings, and Domínguez and Argentine Tomás Pochettino occupy two of its designated player slots. Flanking those two are MLS veterans, including Matt Besler, Alex Ring, Nick Lima, and Diego Fagúndez, and young players on the rise, like MLS SuperDraft no. 1 pick Daniel Pereira from Virginia Tech and the 21-year-old Redes.

From the sidelines to the front office, Austin FC has amassed an impressive amount of institutional knowledge. The challenge is connecting to a city during a pandemic that has upended preparations. Precourt and MLS singled out Austin nearly a decade ago, in large part due to its demographics, a lack of competition in the market, and rapid population growth (which hasn’t slowed during the pandemic). But there’s no guarantee that these factors will translate to popularity or recognition throughout the city, or that a rapidly transforming Austin will have a long-term appetite for or interest in professional soccer.

In 2013, the same year that Precourt purchased the Crew, Josh Babetski created a Twitter account called “MLS in Austin” and eventually founded a supporters group with the same name. Babetski believed Austin could be a great market for professional soccer. He could see that the sport was popular, but the audience was fragmented—fans of different English Premier League teams packed into certain bars for matches, Liga MX fans gathered at others, and locals met for pickup games at Zilker Park every day of the week. Babetski imagined that a local MLS team could coalesce these disparate fandoms.

Babetksi’s enthusiasm attracted some like-minded dreamers on Twitter and at soccer bars, but mostly, he was met with skepticism. “I was a tin-foil-hat guy running around going, ‘Hey, we can do this!’ for many years,” he recalls.

There was a nascent professional soccer scene in Austin at the time, just not at the MLS level. The Austin Aztex played in various tiers of the USL before folding in 2015. Austin Bold FC made its debut in the USL Championship—the division just below MLS—in 2019 and plays on the much more modest grounds at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, which hosts Formula One events, in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000, a far cry from the $240 million Q2 Stadium, which seats 20,500. Part of the challenge in gaining a foothold in Austin is the outsize presence of the University of Texas, whose massive alumni base is a major reason Austin has never had a major professional team, even if most newcomers to Austin have no connection to the burnt orange. “The lack of a major league sports team in this city has very much shaped our world view,” Michael Barnes, who’s been a columnist at the Austin American Statesman since 1989 and hosts the Austin Found history podcast, told me over email. “We’ve had the breathing room to develop other parts of our culture.”

From another vantage point, the pro sports vacuum in Austin represented a unique opportunity. “The market was carefully selected and studied, and clearly has market strengths that don’t exist in other places,” says Loughnane, who came over with Precourt from Columbus. He points out that Nashville, to which Austin is often compared, is smaller than Austin and whose population is growing at a slower rate, yet it is home to an NFL team, an NHL team, an MLS team that played its first season last year, and a strong push for a baseball team that was gaining momentum before COVID-19 put MLB’s expansion plans on hold.

When Precourt bought the Crew and negotiated the Austin clause, Forbes had just ranked Austin as the fastest-growing city in the country. (In 2020, Austin ranked as the fastest-growing big city in the country for the ninth straight year.) Now, according to some estimates, it’s the 10th-most-populous city in the United States and by far the biggest without a major pro sports team. At a more granular level, its demographics align with those of MLS’s core fans, who skew younger and tech-savvy—the exact type of transplant driving Austin’s growth and, ostensibly, looking for local culture to connect with. Austin is 34 percent Hispanic or Latinx, a community that has driven MLS’s growth and become central to the league’s fan base. The region boasts a strong youth soccer culture that the club hopes to funnel into its academy, and Austin regularly ranks near the top among U.S. cities for TV ratings for the World Cup, EPL, and Champions League.

“This is a town where pent-up demand and untapped potential intersect,” Loughnane says.

That pent-up demand owes in large part to supporters, many of whom predate the team itself. When Babetski started MLS in Austin, it operated more like a grassroots political campaign than a traditional supporters group. “We would pack City Council, and we would show up at community meetings,” Babetski told me. When Precourt and Austin mayor Steve Adler officially announced Austin FC, MLS in Austin, which had since rebranded as Austin Anthem, was there, as it has been for nearly every important event in the club’s history.

Now, Austin FC has multiple supporter groups. The Burnt Orange Brigade is made up of UT students, and the Oak Army is based in New Braunfels, a fast-growing city between Austin and San Antonio. In May 2020, some former Anthem members created Los Verdes, which has grown rapidly despite the pandemic and generated much buzz—and green smoke—around town. Balancing traditional supporter group activities with the necessary health and safety considerations has been difficult. If not for COVID-19, “we could be having tailgates at the stadium, watching the construction, and brainstorming in real life and cracking beers,” says Mateo Clarke, one of the founding members of Los Verdes. Instead, the group has hosted drive-in watch parties and found much-needed connection on Slack.

La Murga, the brass and drum band, formed in late 2018 after Austin City Council approved the stadium deal. Clarke, who is also a leader in the band, picked up a trumpet for the first time and learned to play using YouTube tutorials. Other members are veterans of the high school marching band circuit; some are local musicians. During the past two years, the group has written songs in English and Spanish, and has adapted everything from the Beatles to Selena to Matthew McConaughey. Like the Verde Van, La Murga has trekked around Austin, practicing safely at breweries, at city parades, in the Q2 Stadium parking lot, and at UT women’s soccer games, which have turned into one of the most raucous environments in college soccer.

When La Murga and the rest of Austin FC supporters will be able to unleash years of practice and preparation in Q2 Stadium remains an open question. Loughnane recently told Community Impact that the team expects to announce in mid-to-late May how many fans will be able attend the first game. After Texas governor Greg Abbott committed to “open Texas 100 percent,” the Rangers operated at full capacity for their home opener, while the Houston Dynamo will operate at 30 percent for theirs.

Even if fans are limited or absent on June 19, their presence will be felt. Fans have collaborated with the team on everything from match-day preparations to jersey design. The recently released “Legends” jersey includes a customized Austin Anthem patch and a supporter-designed neck tape that looks like a grab bag of local gift shop items: icons of the Texas Capitol, a record, a taco, a food truck, a bat, and other local signifiers.

“We came in with one objective on the brand side: that our brand would be community. Period,” Loughnane says. McConaughey, Austin’s minister of culture, signed on as a co-owner. The team’s jersey sponsor, YETI, and stadium sponsor, Q2, are both headquartered in town, as is the design team that created the Treaty Oak logo. Last week, Austin FC announced a partnership with local nonprofit Austin Pets Alive in which dogs that are up for adoption will take turns as honorary mascots for home games. The stadium’s club section patio is made of decomposed granite, just like the capitol and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. In a thoughtful nod to supporters, the team even purchased 6,000 mesh seats, more than any other pro stadium in the world, according to Loughnane, which will stay cool during Austin’s brutal summer.

The energy and appreciation flows both ways. When season tickets went on sale in June 2019 (for a season that was still two years away), Austin FC secured over 30,000 deposits in 24 hours, a single-day MLS record. When the first jersey dropped last November, it broke a 24-hour sales record as well, and outsold previous first-day expansion team jerseys “by a wide margin.”

Austin FC will kick off almost a decade after the idea of an MLS franchise in Austin began to take shape. From releasing season tickets to breaking ground on the stadium to Austin FC acquiring its first player, excitement has grown steadily in preparation for the great Austin MLS experiment. Many questions remain—will the club make the playoffs? How many fans will even be able to attend? How much of Austin will Austin FC reach, and how will professional sports impact the city? But those are questions for another time. Right now, the team and its supporters are counting down to launch. Wolff doesn’t know what the season will hold, but he can predict the environment once fans do file into Q2 Stadium: “They’re going to be rocking.”

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