USL expansion team Austin Bold FC began their inaugural preseason on Monday and held the first Media Day at their Circuit of The Americas (COTA) location yesterday. A few random takeaways from the event:
The Bold Will Operate From One of the Most Unique Soccer Facilities in the World
This first becomes evident when you enter the facility grounds and try to navigate your way through the more than 30,000 onsite parking spaces to get to the proper lot, far more than will needed to handle any soccer crowd. The Bold will also be able to take advantage of the COTA infrastructure and staff to assist in the game day and day-to-day operations of the soccer stadium and team facilities. A team building has been created in the Paddock area which includes facilities for players to use on a routine basis. I can’t imagine an events center and media facility at any soccer stadium that would trump the facilities here. A training field is in place on site. The final indication that this is a pretty unique location is when visiting Head Coach Marcelo Serrano’s office which overlooks the Main Grandstand and starting grid for a Formula 1 racetrack.
A Top Class Stadium Design is a Main Focus
COTA already has an amphitheater for concerts, so the facility being constructed now is specifically for soccer, though it can be easily adapted to other similar type sporting events like rugby. Bold General Manager Ricardo Silva, who had to navigate the stadium challenges of the previous USL team in Austin (Aztex), talked effusively about how different the under construction COTA 5,000+ stadium will be from past Austin soccer team locations. The stadium will include a natural turf soccer field, individual seat back chairs for fans, first-class player locker rooms and shared COTA facilities, including concessions, available right next to the stadium.
Great attention has been paid to the turf, and Bold owner Bobby Epstein is particularly focused on providing a first class playing surface for his international roster. Silva is well versed in how difficult it is to transition natural turf surfaces in Texas before the summer heat. Professional turf experts have been retained to grow the field surface to be used this season in an offsite nursery. If the Bold face the same summer pitch challenges as other Texas professional soccer stadiums, it won’t be because of lack of trying.
The home opener against local rival San Antonio FC is March 30th and looking at the photo below it is difficult to understand how the stadium will be ready in two months, but the plans are supposedly in place.
The High Quality Roster being Assembled is like a United Nations
Silva discussed a commonly referenced German website called TransferMarkt, which assigns player values on a worldwide basis, as a way of assessing the type of roster the Bold are building. Chris Bils, from the Austin American-Statesman sent out a Tweet yesterday that summarized how the value of the current Bold roster compares to other USL sides today.
Silva when on to talk about how owner Bobby Epstein has committed to building a roster capable of competing immediately. Silva described the roster as “much more than we could expect and on the players side, is [about Epstein] accepting some things we wanted to do.” He pointed out that, unlike MLS, the USL doesn’t have a salary cap and that Epstein has been very receptive to recruiting not only great talent, but putting in place a facility that will attract these kinds of players.
A detailed breakdown of the roster is for another post, but it is safe to say the team is one of the most diverse I have ever seen. Virtually all of the Bold players I queried said it was also the most unique roster makeup they had ever experienced, but saw this diverse set of backgrounds as a positive. Serrano stated that the preseason roster is largely in place.
“We have four more players, three awaiting visa situations and one American player. When they become reality, we will be [set for] preseason.”
Two additional defenders were announced yesterday, one from Chile and one from France, which brought the number of nationalities represented on the Bold roster to at least 13. According to Silva, the Bold have used all of their seven international slots and added an eighth through trade, a mechanism introduced by USL last season.
A Roster with a Texas Flavor
A lot of local publicity has been devoted to the return home of veterans Sonny Guadarrama and Kris Tyrpak, both of whom played at least part of the season for San Antonio FC last year. I spoke with Tyrpak about his three team journey last year and he expressed how happy he was to be back in Austin. He and his family have settled back into Dripping Springs where he grew up. The Bold have also made a place on their roster for 16-year old talented local U.S. Youth International Julian Gaines. Other under the radar returning players to Texas in 2019 include:
- Jermaine Taylor, the former Houston Dynamo Jamaican defender (2011-2015). Taylor was a starter in the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup’s the Dynamo lost in Los Angeles to the Galaxy. He most recently played for Minnesota United and was called into the Jamaican National Team for CONCACAF Nation’s League qualifying a few months ago.
- London Woodberry, a McKinney-native defender, who played for the FC Dallas Academy and MLS team and most recently was part of the USL side in Nashville.
- Diego Restrepo, who along with Tyrpak and Guadarrama, played for San Antonio FC in 2018. The addition of the 2017 USL Goalkeeper of the Year will add more spice to the emerging I-35 rivalry with San Antonio.
- Marcelo Saragosa, a Brazilian midfielder, who played for FC Dallas from 2006-2010. After leaving Dallas, Saragosa’s career took him to DC United, top Greek side Panathinaikos and Tampa Bay. Saragosa shared that some of his best memories have come here, including the birth of his son and the 2005 MLS Cup victory he celebrated in Frisco during his time with the LA Galaxy.
Is Circuit of the Americas Location Too Far Away from Austin to be Successful?
All of the expansive space that creates the unique environment at Circuit of The Americas comes with a challenge….the conventional wisdom that it is in the “middle of nowhere” and too far away from Downtown Austin. There is certainly some reality to this point. I doubt there are many modern Formula 1 racetracks that could be built right next to a central city location anywhere. COTA opened in 2012 and is located near a Toll Road (SH 130) that was completed a few years before. This portion of the SH 130 is still rural and undeveloped. The kind of nearby game day atmosphere that will be possible at McKalla Place, MLS Austin FC’s (2021 opening) stadium location, is impossible at COTA, though the onsite facilities there certainly create the possibility for entertainment and dining choices for the younger demographic soccer attracts.
As for the distance issue, the reality is, according to Google Maps, that COTA is 13.9 miles and 26 minutes away from Downtown Austin-only 3.5 miles and 10 minutes farther away than McKalla Place. The distance narrative hasn’t typically been raised as an issue for the new MLS team because the McKalla location is in an urban area, readily accessible by public transportation and, probably most importantly if one believes social media, located near a number of craft beer breweries.
Austin Bold’s GM Ricardo Silva disputed the conventional distance wisdom, stating on Tuesday that the team had conducted traffic studies revealing that, without traffic (less of an issue on weekends when most games are played), 90% of residents in the Austin metro area are within 30-35 minutes of COTA. It helps that the Toll Road speed limit, depending on the direction you are traveling, is either 80 or 85 MPH.
As much conversation as there has been about public transportation, the majority of fans for current Texas professional soccer teams, and sports fans of all varieties for that matter, travel to games by car. I have been to many soccer games at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, which is right across a freeway from Downtown and has a Metro line that drops passengers off in front of the stadium. The overwhelming majority of fans still commute by auto to these matches. I understand that Austin’s population and city layout are different than Houston, but issues have also been raised by many about the lack of onsite parking at McKalla Place that have not been adequately addressed in my estimation.
All of this speculation has yet to play out and the absolute predictions being made now about what will or will not happen at either COTA or McKalla on soccer match days are likely wrong.
In any event, what is true is that Austin Bold will have two years to convince the public that their model is a better alternative for soccer fans than the new MLS team in North Austin. I have been very skeptical about whether Austin can support two professional soccer teams in the long term. In that scenario the MLS team would almost certainly be the survivor. The commitment and investments in facilities and players being made by the Bobby Epstein and the Bold have certainly made me more open minded about the whole situation. Austin soccer fans have an interesting couple of years ahead of them.