David Walding-President and GM-Central Texas Lobos and Hornets

David Walding has built one of the genuinely unique lower league soccer clubs in America.  Over five short years, the Central Texas Lobos, centered in South Austin and Hays County, has organized a complete integrated soccer program serving the Central Texas region.  Adult Men’s and Women’s teams, a comprehensive Youth Academy for both Boys and Girls, an indoor side (Arena Wolves), and a growing international program comprise the program’s current structure. Club President and GM Walding came to Austin for college in the 1990s after growing up in small-town Louisiana.  He has utilized skills developed in a non-profit career and Spanish fluency to build a distinctive non-Pay-to Play soccer organization open to all, regardless of financial means or background.

Texas Soccer Journal (TSJ):  How did you get started in soccer?  Was this a sport you followed when you were growing up?

David Walding:  I played organized soccer in the 1970s at the youth level from about six until I was twelve.  When I advanced into the next age category, there were no organized leagues in my area and nothing in the school system. So, basically, at age 12, I gave up on formal soccer at that point. They did start a team at my high school the year I graduated, but they began with freshmen and sophomores, and I wasn’t eligible.  My soccer background from Louisiana was not extensive until I got here to Austin and started playing in the local adult leagues.

When I got to Austin, I found 60-70 Men’s teams.  You could go out to Zilker Park and join pickup soccer games, something I never experienced coming from Louisiana.  It was just amazing for me to see all the opportunities there were in Austin to play.  So I got back into it and started playing again.

David Walding youth soccer in 1970’s Louisiana

TSJ:  How did you start building a soccer program in Austin?  Did you initially believe it would be as deep and wide-ranging a soccer project as it has turned out to be?

Walding:  Back when I was still at St Edward’s University, I became a volunteer with a local organization called the Political Asylum Project of Austin. I would work with area residents from Central America because my program dealt specifically with immigrants from there.  I also began to work with kids from the Gary Job Corps Center in San Marcos, Texas.  Many kids in their late teens or early 20’s at the Center were soccer players, so we decided to launch a team with them and others I knew who were interested.  I would go every weekend and pick the players up on Saturday.  They would usually sleep in my living room, and then I take them back to San Marcos on Sunday after our games.  This was 1996, if I remember correctly.  We were part of the Austin Men’s Soccer Association, playing as, kind of, a communal team.

TSJ:  So how did the soccer program progress after that into the Lobos?

Walding:   After that, I launched an Austin non-profit in 2000 focused on immigration services for unaccompanied minors.  So, most of my work has been the kids under 18 who were here without parents or any family support.  It was a perfect fit for them to join us, play soccer and begin to integrate into the community.  

We stayed as a recreational team for many years.  Then we noticed that there was a lack of opportunities for kids who did not go through the established youth club track.  Some kids went to college, but many didn’t for a variety of reasons.  We found no path for those who didn’t attend college to join semi-pro or professional soccer clubs.  So, we decided to start a club focused on providing opportunities for everyone to advance in the soccer landscape, regardless of their finances or background.  That was the start of the Central Texas Lobos five years ago.

TSJ:  The Lobos have both Men’s and Women’s programs, extending from youth to outdoor and indoor adult semi-pro levels.  Can you discuss the club’s elements and how it all fits together in an integrated vision?

Walding:  After we started the Lobos, we started getting more requests to expand the program.  The players had friends and relatives who wanted to play on indoor, women’s, and youth teams.  So, we decided that the interest was there to grow.  Honestly, the pyramid is a little messy now, coming out of a tough 2020, heading into this year.  The concept is for us to have a Youth Academy from age five up to 18 years old.  We have a club coaching director who has established a system we will teach to the kids as they progress.  We want them to be aware of how we play in our Premier teams so the terminology, practice procedures, etc., won’t be completely foreign when they get to that level.  We intend to establish a pipeline from the Youth Academy into either the Men’s or Women’s programs. 

TSJ:  What have you found the challenges to be in maintaining a primarily non-pay-to-play club system at all these levels?

Walding:  There have been challenges I anticipated and others that I honestly didn’t.  The first problem is financial.  If you’re not relying on players or parents of children to fund your entire program, you have to look for different avenues and ways to have an income stream to support the programs.  That was a challenge we expected; needing sponsorships, donations, fundraising, and other income sources. All those things have been much more difficult since the pandemic started.  Restoring these lost financing sources will be a key focus as we move forward. 

However, we’ve also had challenges we didn’t anticipate based on how youth soccer works in this country.  The system is pay-to-play from the time you enter to the time you leave.   We didn’t expect that building a youth program a different way and challenging the established system would upset people as much as it did.  We have seen pushback and challenges from existing programs.  I was hoping to see more collaboration and an openness to a new way of looking at soccer in Austin.  Actually, there’s been resistance instead because people who benefit from the current system don’t want to see change. So, that’s been a different problem that we’ve had to face.

The Central Texas Lobos currently play in the USASA sanctioned Gulf Coast Premier League (GCPL).  The club joined the GCPL in 2018 after two years in Texas Premier Soccer League.  The GCPL, which began in 2014 as a single-state league in Louisiana, has teams from all Gulf Coast states playing a summer schedule.  In the last few years, the league announced an expansion into the Midwest and became an affiliate amateur league of the professional National Independent Soccer Association (NISA).  A new Women’s team, the Central Texas Hornets, will begin play in the United Women’s Soccer (UWS) Southwest Conference this summer.  Like other summer amateur leagues, both the GCPL and UWS canceled their 2020 seasons but plan to resume this year.  Both the Lobos and Hornets will play their matches at Hays County ISD Bob Shelton Stadium in Kyle, a southern suburb of Austin, barring any restrictions due to COVID-19.

Gulf Coast Premier League-Central Texas Lobos

TSJ:  The Lobos are currently the only club in the GCPL club playing in Texas.  Since private jets are not in the cards for the Lobos yet, the travel required to play all road games out of state is challenging.   I suspect the pandemic had slowed plans but has the league made progress in finding other Texas clubs.

David Walding:  I wish I could give you a definitive answer. Again, 2020 has impacted the pace of expansion in the planned Texas Division.  I can say that the league has been speaking with clubs, and there are some interested in joining. I am doubtful the Texas Division will be able to launch this year, however, just because of the timing of everything.  I am very optimistic we will have multiple teams by 2022.  I am afraid that we will probably be playing all our away games this year again in Louisiana unless something changes over the next few weeks.  

TSJ:  Last August, the GCPL announced that it would become the first amateur affiliated league with the new US Soccer Third Division league-NISA.  What are your thoughts about the benefits for the Lobos of this affiliation?

Walding:  This is truly one of those agreements that I believe is a win-win situation for both sides.  I think the affiliation model can only benefit both NISA and the Gulf Coast Premier League. We’re not sure how things will work yet with the partnership, but certainly, our players will now have the opportunity to be seen by professional clubs in-house, so to speak.  We can practice and play other NISA clubs.  I don’t think it is a secret that NISA is interested in having a presence in Texas at the Premier level. We’ll see if one of these days there’s going to be promotion and relegation, something that everybody’s always interested in, from the regional leagues up to NISA. There’s also the NISA Invitational Tournament.  It would be amazing to have an opportunity for the Lobos to qualify from the GCPL into that tournament.

United Women’s Soccer National Pro-Am-CTX Hornets

TSJ:  The pandemic delayed the CTX Hornets adult Women’s team’s startup in the United Women’s Soccer League (UWS).  What is the club’s status now, and could you please share some details about the planned 2021 season?

Walding:  We launched in February 2020, maybe a couple of weeks before the first COVID case, and then, unfortunately, we did not get to play our inaugural season.  We entered last year intending to play in UWS Division Two.  We attempted a couple of tournaments in the summer, but the pandemic just didn’t allow us to play then.  We did play a little bit in the fall, but it was a struggle, and some of our players opted out.  In 2021 we have decided to step up to UWS National Pro-am Division and play in the Southwest Conference.  The schedule and Conference makeup will be released soon. We are excited to take this step and represent Austin and Kyle nationally.

Rendering of under development CTX Lobos South Austin Stadium

TSJ:  In 2019, you acquired land in Southeast Austin with the eventual goal of constructing your own stadium for the Lobos and Hornets.  What is the status of this project?

David Walding:  The pandemic affected this project also, but we are making progress.  As of December, the site is now owned free and clear by us. We have been working with the help of community volunteers on the actual playing surface.  Most of a new Bermuda natural grass field is in, new goalposts are up, and we have put in a synthetic combination pitch that will be unique.  Financing has held back other stadium plan elements but permitting and planning delays caused by the pandemic have also impacted us.  We are not there yet, but we’re certainly better off than we were a year ago.  Many kids in the community and a local charter school want to use it now, so a lot of work is also going into building systems to maintain the facility once it opens.

Honduras professional Third Division side-Academy Paraiso

The Lobos family includes an integrated club program in Honduras.  Three years ago, with the Honduras Soccer Federation’s support, the Lobos established a third-division soccer club in the El Paraiso Department of Honduras, an underserved rural coffee-growing region.  The program has since expanded to include a reserve team and Youth Academy.  The club is self-funded and has already established connections with bigger clubs in Honduras and Mexico.  Future international plans include programs and partnerships in El Salvador and Mexico.

TSJ:  You are a unique US lower league club since you own and operate a third division team in Honduras.  What led you to establish these programs, and what are your long-term goals there?  

David Walding:  We have several players originally from Honduras on our semi-pro team, so we have a natural connection down there.  Coaches from their national team come to Austin and help train our team and scout here locally for potential Honduran national players. So, we’ve always had a good working relationship with the Honduran Federation. An opportunity arose to start a Third Division team in their professional league pyramid in El Paraiso, where our team is now located.  The Federation worked with us financially to establish this club because they were obligated to move into some of the country’s underdeveloped and rural areas.  Things are going well there.  We started with a third division team and have since added a Reserve team.  We also now have youth teams from ages 14 to 18.  This year, we will have a complete youth program, starting at age five, all the way to age 18.

I think the progress we’ve seen with our players has been tremendous in just the two to three years we’ve been working. So I’m optimistic about the future with that program. COVID has been quite a setback in Honduras, and lower leagues have been shut down.  It has been a struggle, but we hopefully will be able to start again this summer.

Lobos Youth Academy COED team

TSJ:  Can you please describe your long-term goals for your youth soccer program.  Will it remain focused on Hays County, or do you envision building your hub in South Austin?

David Walding:  Predominantly, we are now in Austin, so most kids are in the South and Southeast Austin area now.  We have found that it is vital to be where your kids are instead of having them travel to you.  I hope we will eventually have satellite locations for younger kids in northern Hays County and east of Austin in Bastrop and other areas.  When the players grow older, we can centralize a little bit more. Again, the timing to try and do that in 2020 was difficult.  Hopefully, in the Fall, things will open up, and we’ll have multiple options for kids to train and be able to expand the program.

TSJ:  Have you been able to establish a relationship with the local MLS expansion side, Austin FC?

Walding:  Very early on, [Austin FC Academy Director] Tyson Wahl did reach out and meet with me.  We discussed the Austin FC Academy before they even began play. Last year the Lobos Academy had kids from the 2001 to 2005 birth years.  Austin FC began their Academy at the 2006 level.  It wasn’t that there was no interest in working with us; we did not have the younger ages they needed. So, we haven’t tested those waters yet.  We have a couple of 2010 kids this year that we believe are coming along quite well.  Hopefully, they might get a shot with the Austin FC Academy, but we’ll see how that works out. It’s new for us and even newer for Austin FC, so it’s a work in progress. The new Austin FC Training Center is in North Austin, a challenge for our kids who mostly live south of the City. We’ll have to see going forward how we will jointly deal with issues like this.

TSJ:  Ten years from now, what criteria will you use to determine if you have successfully achieved your goals with your entire ambitious project? 

Walding:  10 years from now, I would love to see a pipeline where the kids we work with are getting opportunities to advance into college scholarships or professional careers. If not, Austin FC, maybe USL teams like San Antonio FC or even NISA. That’s what I would like to see, both for the Men and Women coming out of our programs.  Every year, I’d love to look back and say we had players signed professionally or entering college programs. But it’s also why I look abroad because I know that it might not be possible domestically. We’re trying to open those pathways to foreign clubs, foreign national teams, as well as options at NCAA schools too.

TSJ:  You have spent time in Mexico and Central America, in addition to involvement at all levels in Central Texas.  What have you found that makes Texas soccer different or unique?

Walding:  Unfortunately, from an administrative perspective, Texas is absolute chaos; it is the Wild West. It’s North Texas versus South Texas, for one thing.  Adult recreational leagues are constantly in-fighting, and they don’t belong to the same parent organizations. You go from one year having no or one Semi-Pro league to suddenly having six.  Then the teams change from one league to the other constantly, and it’s just absolute chaos at times in Texas to try and figure out the landscape.

The state’s intense competition seems to exist partially because everybody wants a piece of the significant fan base and player pool here. There’s a lot of in-fighting and jockeying for position. I can’t say the territorial battles here don’t exist elsewhere, but they certainly feel much more chaotic in Texas. So, from a player perspective, I think the talent is undeniable in Texas.  There is a wealth of talent in Texas, and I think that might be why chaos exists at the top.

TSJ:  If you could wave a magic wand, what would you have US Soccer change or adopt to help you advance your goals with your integrated soccer project? 

Walding:  If I could wave my magic wand, the first thing I would do would be to have them immediately implement a complete Solidarity Payment system, like seen in the rest of the world, for US player development.  I think that change would incentivize the identification and development of talent regardless of race or economics.  It would upend the pay-to-play system because there would be an alternative way to make your club function, other than finding upper-middle-class suburban parents who can spend $3 to 4,000 in disposable income for their children to play each year. If you could do those types of payments, it would incentivize the coaching and the teaching aspect of youth development.  Now it’s more about marketing.

TSJ:  Is there a soccer story from your work in Texas or Central America you would like to share?

Walding:  Shortly after we started our program in 96, we joined a local youth league and would have to travel for games, frequently to destinations north of Austin.  Most of the kids were involved in my non-profit program and had no transportation.  At the time, I was the coach and had a two-seater, Pontiac Fiero.  One player on our team had a small Toyota Corolla.  We usually had parent help to get the kids to the game.  When it was time to leave for one game fifty miles up north, we found that we had only these two small cars to get there.  The parents who were going to help transport us that day didn’t show up. So, I’m sitting there at the parking lot with about 16 teenage boys and a Toyota Corolla, and a Pontiac Fiero.  We had to cram 16 boys into these two cars and travel up to Cedar Park to play a youth game and come back.  Not sure how we did this.  I think somebody got in the trunk and things like that—something we obviously would never do these days.  We had to make it to the game somehow, so that’s what we got.

TSJ:  Is there anything else we have missed?

Walding: We’re looking forward to this year. We’ve got the Gulf Coast season coming up and then UWS for the Women, and I think we’re just really hoping that we get community support and get through the rest of the year without any new catastrophes.

All images courtesy of David Walding and CTX Lobos

Lobos Youth Academy players and David Walding with former MLS and Honduran International legend Amado Guevara in Dallas