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. The delays in finalizing the stadium site, concept and economic benefits created time for opposition to build against the stadium deal within Austin and also also provided further momentum to opposition in Columbus from the influential Save the Crew movement.
Among the strange sequence of events, 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. This led to salty Tweets from Austin soccer supporters announcing that the councilwoman had been traded to the Columbus City Council for MLS allocation money. After she returned, and much further debate in two meetings, the City Council finally approved the term sheet for the stadium deal on August 16th and directed city staff to negotiate the final elements of a formal contract.
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.
Finally, 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. One would assume the Columbus sale and Austin F.C. expansion award will happen, but the deals have not been completely finalized yet.
In any event, both Columbus and Austin appear that they will have MLS teams. This is the best outcome for Columbus and kudos are in order for the amazing efforts of the Save the Crew movement. The real losers in this situation are San Antonio and the fans of San Antonio F.C., who played by the rules and followed the path MLS set out for the expansion process. That, however, is a story for another day.
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.
I personally hope the launch of Austin F.C. occurs in conjunction with the opening of McKalla Place, presumably for the 2021 season. In my opinion, having the relocated Crew play in a temporary stadium in 2019, as it appeared might happen earlier in the year, would have been a mistake. Recent successful MLS teams have had at least a couple of years to prepare and educate their markets and build momentum for a strong start-up of their franchises. Austin will benefit from the time they will have to get this launch right. First impressions can only be made once. In my opinion the Houston Dynamo still suffer from not having the same opportunity before they began play in 2006.
Regardless of the soap opera like sequence of events in 2018, professional soccer is back in Austin and, in my opinion, is the number one story on the 2018 Texas soccer landscape.
Update: 2019 is already off to a good start for Austin F.C. as fans hold the first tailgate at the new stadium site.