Link to Top 10 2018 Stories #10-6:
#5: UPSL Builds Significant Momentum in Inaugural Season
It is hard not to be impressed with the start-up of the United Professional Soccer League (UPSL) in Texas during 2018. This high level amateur league, since the first Texas teams were announced late in 2017, has rapidly expanded into a full fledged competition today. Successful Spring and Fall seasons were played during 2018 and the Conference is already planning to implement a promotion/relegation system in part of their Central Conference in 2019. A team in El Paso also began play in the Southwest Conference in 2018. The separate Conference for West Texas teams smartly reflects the challenge of travel time and expense to other Central Conference teams.
One of the most intriguing facets of the UPSL is the divergent backgrounds of the wide-range of clubs that have joined. As examples, there are clubs who played in other statewide leagues previously (FC Knights/Killeen), those who are extensions of youth setups (FC Boerne), clubs moving up from regional competition and leagues (Dallas Elite FC) and University club programs who use the UPSL as a partial replacement for the lack of NCAA Division I programs in Texas (San Antonio Runners-who play on the campus of UTSA).
The national UPSL was founded in 2011 and currently includes more than 300 teams across the United States. The league says that they are targeting 400-plus teams for the 2019/20 Season. Each UPSL team is individually owned and operated, and is responsible for maintaining UPSL minimum standards at all tier levels.
The rapid growth of the league has created some issues, as would be expected. The recent announcement by Keene FC that they will skip the Spring season to relocate, re-brand and build their soccer program is an example of the challenges faced by lower division soccer clubs in general, not just the UPSL. To their credit, the UPSL has recently added experienced soccer executives like Paul Lapointe and Paul Caliguri to assist in the future growth of the league.
The league will begin the Spring 2019 season with 20+ teams announced in the Central Conference and 3 in the Southwest Conference, after the addition of two teams from Amarillo. The rest of the Central Conference will be chasing Ft. Worth based Inocentes FC in 2019 (image above), who were the winners of both the Spring and Fall UPSL playoffs, and are the undisputed inaugural season Champion. The league will also begin a Central Conference Women’s Conference in 2019, with San Antonio based owner John Rexroat, serving as Conference Commissioner.
#4: Professional Soccer Returns to El Paso
In February the United Soccer League (USL) announced that an El Paso expansion team had been awarded to an investment group led by MountainStar Sports Group, to begin play in the 2019 season. When the El Paso Locomotive open the season against OKC Energy FC in March 2019, it will mark the first professional soccer in West Texas since the El Paso Patriots, a club that played in the USL’s predecessor from the early 1990’s through 2003. The Patriots were only the second Texas team to make the finals of a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and the first to host (1995).
MountainStar Sports Group also owns and operates the El Paso Chihuahuas, a minor league baseball team, and has a minority stake in FC Juaréz of Mexico’s Liga Ascenso.
The Locomotive have begun to build their front office, technical staff and team. Andrew Forrest, who previously worked for the NASL San Antonio Scorpions, joined as General Manager, Business Operations. Mark Lowry came from the Jacksonville Armada to take the reigns as the first Head Coach. El Paso native Omar Salgado was the first player announced. Salgado has played professionally in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico since 2011. He is the only Texas-native who has been selected as the Number One selection in the annual MLS Super Draft.
As mentioned earlier, El Paso also added UPSL side Southwest FC last year. This new club has already experienced some initial success, recently winning its three amateur qualifying round matches this fall. Southwest FC remains in contention for a slot in the full Open Cup qualification stages next year.
#3: Houston Dynamo Win First U.S. Open Cup
The Houston Dynamo experienced a tough MLS regular season. After reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2017, the team regressed significantly in 2018. Holding midfielder Juan David Cabezas missed most of the season after a leg injury in the opener and the defense was never the same after his loss. Despite a record number of goals, the team also conceded as many, most distressingly late in games. The result was a 9th place finish-11 points out of a playoff spot.
The highlight of the season, however, was the first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy in team history. This helped to offset the disappointing regression during the regular season. As Matt Doyle stated on the MLS Soccer website, ‘”progress isn’t linear and trophies are forever”.
The Dynamo certainly benefited from a fortuitous series of blind draws leading up to the Final. To start, all four of the matches ended up scheduled at BBVA Compass Stadium. In the Cup fourth (their opening) round, Houston secured a dominating 5-0 victory over an amateur side, NTX Rayados, instead of facing USL’s San Antonio FC. In the Round of 16, the Dynamo had a favorable home matchup against Minnesota United which they won 1-0…avoiding possible difficult games against either FC Dallas or Sporting Kansas City. In the quarterfinals, the Dynamo came from behind to deliver a decisive 4-2 win over defending champions, Sporting KC. Finally, Houston won a penalty shootout over Los Angeles FC, after blowing a 2-goal lead and conceding the equalizer deep in AET.
The final victory over Philadelphia Union was well earned. Houston implemented a masterful game plan at BBVA Compass Stadium and Dynamo stars, Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis, took over the match. Manotas scored twice off assists from Elis, securing the Open Cup Golden Boot with 8 goals over the course of the tournament. A 65th minute Philadelphia own goal secured the 3-0 win.
The Open Cup trophy also sends the Dynamo back to the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time since the 2012-23 tournament. Houston will open with a two-leg quarterfinal series against Guatemala’s CD Guastatoya in February of 2019.
#2: FC Dallas Season of Change
There probably could have been a separate Top 10 list to document all of the ups and downs and change at FC Dallas (FCD) during and after the 2018 season. A season that showed promise, after remaking the defense in the offseason, immediately ran into turbulence when FCD was surprisingly eliminated in the first round of the CONCACAF Champions League by Panamanian side Tauro FC on away goals. The regular season then got off to a remarkable start as FC Dallas lost only one of their first 14 matches. During the course of the regular season the team was able to overcome adversity. They had to replace their left back who, after only a few months in Dallas, decided to return to Europe. They also moved on from two of their best central midfielders, Mauro Diaz and Kellyn Acosta. Acosta’s trade was particularly surprising since he was the poster child success story of the Academy system. Things were not as successful in the second half of the season. FC Dallas, who were in first place late into the season, lost their last three matches and ended up in a mid-week play in game against Portland Timbers, which they lost in disappointing fashion.
After the season was over, the drama actually ramped up. The first of numerous significant moves that shook up the club came in November when long time head coach Oscar Pareja resigned to take a job in LigaMX. Over the course of a few weeks in December, FCD traded 3 midfield/ forward regulars and lost a fourth in the expansion draft. Then General Manager Luis Muzzi, who was promoted only a few months ago to replace Fernando Clavijo, left the club to take a similar job at Orlando City FC. The positive news in the offseason so far includes the roll-out of their new USL League One club, North Texas S.C., the promotion of Academy Director Luchi Gonzalez to replace Pareja and the club’s first steps to restock the team. Czech Forward Zdenek Ondrasek arrives from his latest club in Krakow, Poland and defender Bressan from Brazilian first division side Gremio.
The FC Dallas media seems to believe that this will be the start of a significant reboot that will feature young Academy products integrated regularly into the lineup. The 2019 season promises to be an interesting one.
#1: Austin Began 2018 with Zero Pro Soccer Teams and Ended with Two
A book would be needed (and probably should be written) about the soap opera year in Austin professional soccer. After Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt announced late last year that he was exploring a relocation of his team to Austin, it set off a sequence of events that created front page news in both Austin and Columbus throughout the year.
The first two stadium sites preferred by Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV) never got off the ground because of negative community reaction to the use of Austin parkland for a stadium. When the City and PSV eventually settled on city owned land (McKalla Place) in the Domain area, it immediately started a months long fight that deteriorated into histrionics by the time the city council approved the term sheet for the stadium in August. Councilwoman Leslie Pool, who was the lead council opponent of the stadium, made a grandstanding visit to Columbus to meet with Crew supporters and visit their stadium shortly before the final council approval. Even after the term sheet was approved by the council, an Austin group began a petition drive to force a citywide vote on the stadium. This effort ended up in controversy when paid canvassers were caught on camera providing false information to citizens whose signature they were soliciting.
Near the end of the year, the entire situation seem to be resolved when a buyer was found to keep the Crew in Columbus, the lawsuit against MLS and the Crew by the State of Ohio was dropped and PSV and the City of Austin finalized a formal agreement to build the new stadium at McKalla Place on December 19. Groundbreaking is expected next year and the new MLS expansion team, Austin FC, will begin play in either 2020 or 2021. MLS approval of the new team is expected soon.
Meanwhile while all of this was playing out, Bobby Epstein, the owner of Circuit of the Americas (COTA) raceway in South Austin, was awarded a second division USL franchise to begin play next year. Named Austin Bold, the team moved ahead with groundbreaking on a new stadium of its own on the grounds of the COTA. A new head coach has been named (Marcelo Serrano) and the team is beginning to assemble a veteran team that seems capable of competing for a USL playoff spot from day one. The long term implications of the new MLS team on the future of Austin Bold are yet to be determined. Circuit of Americas created some controversy of their own when they announced support for the petition to force a stadium vote on McKalla Place. This move could impact support for the Bold from Austin FC and other local soccer fans, who needless to say, were not happy with this development.
Regardless of the turmoil, professional soccer is back in Austin and, in my opinion, is the number one story on the 2018 Texas soccer landscape.
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