After a busy offseason, San Antonio FC (SAFC) begins their fourth season in the United Soccer League Championship (USL) this weekend. Since the 2018 season ended (with Louisville City FC crowned as USL champions), the league has launched a new division to provide opportunities for professional soccer in cities that are not big enough to support a USL or MLS team (USL League One). They also rebranded the entire league and its top level is now called USL Championship. The league added seven expansion teams, saw four teams move to either MLS or League One and will begin 2019 regular9 season play with 36 teams in two conferences.
Tim Holt has been the Managing Director at San Antonio FC since its inception in 2016. Holt is a veteran soccer executive who began his career in the predecessor to the USL in the 1990’s. He advanced through that organization, gaining increasing responsibility in a rapidly changing league and eventually led the USL from 2009-2015. Holt joined San Antonio FC after a short stint at MLS side Orlando City FC during their inaugural season.
I had a chance to spend time with Tim at Toyota Field last week and below are the highlights of our wide ranging conversation.
2019 United Soccer League Schedule:
The 36-team league remains organized into two conferences, with SAFC still playing in the West. A previously discussed restructuring to a three conference format has been deferred for at least another year. SAFC’s regular season schedule runs from this Saturday to October 19. The USL playoffs, which have expanded to include ten teams from each conference, will begin on October 23, with USL Cup taking place on a TBA date between November 14-18.
Holt mentioned that the 34-game schedule means each of the 17 other Western Conference teams will visit San Antonio once this season. He added that a 34 game schedule is where the league clubs seem to be comfortable, so continued USL expansion means this may be the last time a balanced schedule like this is possible. Holt also commented on how pleased he is with the addition of new teams in Austin, El Paso and New Mexico and is looking forward to continuing to build a strong Southwestern presence in the league. Finally he revealed that there will be an 18th home game again this summer against an international opponent…and teased that 2019’s match will feature an opponent from outside of North America.
2019 Roster Construction Process:
I asked Holt if the trickle down effect of higher MLS spending on international players using Targeted Acquisition Money (TAM) changed the landscape for SAFC’s roster building strategy this year. A growing trend in the offseason was the addition of former MLS players to USL rosters, who in prior years would likely still be competing in MLS. In general he thought the process was more competitive this year among clubs, but not radically different. Holt commented, “Yes it was different that maybe there were some more higher end domestic free agents available out of MLS than there have been in the past, but I wouldn’t say it was a radically different market.” He added, however, that the market for the elite level players was extremely competitive this year, pointing out that the addition of the new USL expansion teams, USL League One and Cincinnati FC’s jump to MLS, created upwards of 300 new professional soccer roster slots to fill this year.
Holt then spent time further discussing the process SAFC used in the offseason to build the 2019 roster.
“Most of it is driven internally by what your needs are. At the end of the season [Head Coach] Darren [Powell] and his staff were very honest about what we needed to be a team that can be in the championship conversation..not incrementally better than 2018…in the championship conversation. At each position, how do we want to play, what is the profile for each one of those players and then who are the potential players and are they playing domestically now, are they in college or they playing in USL or MLS or playing abroad.” He continued, “Then coming up with a target list and aggressively trying to bring those players in. We were really pleased because we hit almost all of our targets in terms of who it is we wanted to bring in here.”
Holt then briefly discussed the importance the Academy plays in the overall roster strategy, despite the limited time the program has existed. At this early stage of development he noted that the goal was not to produce volume, but instead to add of a handful of special players (like Ethan Bryant and Leo Torres) to balance the roster. He finished by discussing the detailed due diligence process the club uses to determine if potential players are a good character fit. Holt and all members of the technical staff were involved in this vetting process, using relationships they have individually built in their careers.
Impact of the MLS Expansion Process on SAFC:
Holt admitted that for a lot of 2018 the MLS saga was a distraction around the club, commenting that it was a relevant topical issue for both staff and players at SAFC. Though the near-term opportunities for MLS expansion in San Antonio have likely disappeared, he pointed out that the club is still working to that end, commenting, “We still have an application in and our ambition is still is to bring Major League soccer to San Antonio. That hasn’t changed.”
SAFC Organizational Focus for 2019:
Holt also discussed how recent MLS expansion decisions create an opportunity for the club to refocus on becoming one of the top USL franchises in all aspects of club operations. “The focus of this season is very different for everyone [in the organization].” adding that the club is driving to become “an exceptional performing elite USL club” As an aside he noted that this level of excellence is what is needed to eventually get into MLS anyway. Holt added further detail to the elite performing club goal by stating that he believes the club is good to very good in almost every category of their operations-top ten, and in some cases, top five in the league. Holt then went on to describe how invigorated he personally is by the challenge this year, “I personally have never been more enthusiastic than I am now. We feel that this could be a special year for us.”
Holt shared examples of adaptations SAFC is making on the business, marketing and other off-the-field operations in the club. We started talking about these changes walking into the stadium, as Holt pointed out improvements now underway to update the VIP gate entrance area. During the conversation he noted how important it is for soccer clubs to deliver fresh programs and promotions each year. He admitted that the club may have been a bit stale last year as a successful 2017 created a bit of a feeling that improving programs already in place would be sufficient for further growth.
As a result, SAFC’s staff are experimenting with multiple new programs this year. Recent additions include a new Mobile App and club produced Podcast. To further illustrate the spirit of experimentation present in the organization, he commented that the successful Graffiti Party the club held at Toyota Field recently probably isn’t something the club would have done in the past. Holt did go out of his way to say that one thing that will not change is the focus the club has had since day one…to be “Authentically about soccer, especially on game days.“
2019 Media Plans:
In addition to the new podcasts described previously, the club plans to release details on match-day television coverage shortly. He noted that the TV/streaming packages will be similar to what the club has done in the past, a combination of over-the-air matches on FOX Sports Southwest and streaming on ESPN Plus. He noted that Fox Sports Southwest will be showing more games this year and that the league is happy with the first year of the relationship with ESPN. He pointed out that the ESPN relationship allowed SAFC to feature in a national broadcast on an ESPN over-the-air channel last year, which will happen again this season when SAFC’s June 26 home match against El Paso is televised on ESPNews.
The Future of Soccer in the United States:
Because of Tim Holt’s extensive background in the sport I took advantage of the opportunity to get his thoughts on the impact the 2026 World Cup could have on the growth of soccer in the United States. He answered by talking about how much the sport has grown and his belief that almost anything is possible in the future, stating, “I am at the point where [I believe] there is no never in [the future of] soccer. Holt added that any range of major structural changes could happen before and after the World Cup and then pointed to Atlanta United as an example of how far the sport has come. “If you sat in 1999 or 2009 and tried to project what is happening right now in this country in this sport in 2019, you never would have. You wouldn’t believe some of it in 1999, like [what happened with] Atlanta United last year.”
Holt finished the interview by doubling-down on the intense focus that all components of the club, both on and off the field, will have for the 2019 season.
“This year is an important year for us. I think we have never been more prepared or enthusiastic and we are focused. We want to be in the conversation of who are the elite clubs in USL. We are very good, but we want to be in the top 2 or 3 in everything. That is what we are focused on and nothing else.”
It is easy to become complacent about the presence of professional soccer in Texas. We now have multiple stable and well financed professional clubs, playing in a number of new stadiums (with more on the way), who don’t appear to be going anywhere. That said, it was nice to hear Tim Holt’s laser focus on excellence as the overriding benchmark for year four of the franchise. SAFC’s sense of urgency to continuously improve should be highly appreciated by soccer fans invested in the long-term success of the game. There are no guarantees of long-term professional soccer stability. The bar for relevance of the sport in South Texas is high and it is important to remember how recent the growth of professional soccer is here. When SAFC starts the 2020 season, they and Rio Grande Valley FC will jointly become the second longest surviving professional soccer teams in South Texas history.
Four Texas teams in USL for 2019 is something to be celebrated and I personally eagerly await the start of the season this weekend. San Antonio FC opens with 2018 USL Cup finalist, Phoenix Rising, on Saturday night at Toyota Field.