Divergent Paths of Soccer in Austin
By Brendan Long
The 2015 Memorial Day floods caused dramatic damage throughout Austin and perhaps the most lasting image of the event was House Park overrun by water from Shoal Creek.
The high waters were so bad that rescue boats were deployed on Lamar Boulevard to save stranded citizens. That event was also the catalyst behind why Austin Bold FC may leave town after only three seasons of play.
“This was like death by a thousand blows,” said Mark Bay, writer for the local soccer website The Striker Texas. “There were so many different things that happened that screwed the club.”
In 2015, House Park was home to the Austin Aztex, a soccer team in the second-tier United Soccer League, also known as the USL. When flooding damaged the field, the team was forced to move to a high school stadium in Round Rock.
“They couldn’t sell alcohol,” Bay said. “They couldn’t do a lot of the things that they needed to do to make money with the soccer team.”
Because of that, the club stopped operations. However the ownership group which included Bobby Epstein, a founding partner of Circuit of the Americas, was allowed to keep the franchise license. This was important because the initial goal of the franchise, like many others in the USL was to move up to Major League Soccer, the top American league.
That wasn’t how it played out. Anthony Precourt, former owner of MLS team The Columbus Crew, acquired the MLS license for Austin and found a home for the team in north Austin at Q2 Stadium. Despite his best efforts, including a failed ballot measure attempting to stop Q2 from being built, Epstein was left with his USL team to play at Circuit of the Americas in south Austin. A rift between the two teams started as a result.
“Earlier in the season Austin Bold FC put out a press release challenging Austin FC to a preseason match and Austin FC literally just ignored it,” Bay said.
The same can’t be said on the fan side of things. Austin Bold’s fanbase is largely composed of Austin FC fans who simply enjoy local soccer. One of those is Zaira Perez, a member of supporter groups for both teams.
“I don’t see a huge difference because the passion I feel is the same,” Perez said.
As a drummer for both Austin Bold’s La Cinco Doce and Austin FC’s La Murga, Perez is a vocal supporter of both clubs. Her role in the stands has served as a source of joy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With everything going on just being able to play the drum and release all the stress you feel on a day-by-day basis really helped me,” Perez said.
As Austin FC enjoyed the successes of its inaugural season, Austin Bold has had a much rockier path this year.
“You could tell that they really weren’t trying to make that model of a second division club competing in the same city with the MLS,” Bay said.
Coming out of the pandemic-shortened season, it was clear things weren’t the same. The team spent less money on its roster and gave out no multi-year contracts. General Manager Roberto Silva, who had been with the club from its start, was let go as well. On Aug. 12th, the same day The Striker Texas posted an article saying Austin Bold was moving to Fort Worth, the club confirmed it was exploring other options besides staying in Austin.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Perez said.
While Austin Bold’s tenure in the city may be short-lived, it paved the way for Austin FC for some local soccer fans. Because of that, supporter groups at Austin FC say they’ll welcome all, no matter their past allegiances.
“We’ve been able to connect with a lot of the hardcore Bold supporters,” said Derek Ensign, the treasurer for supporter group Los Verdes. “There’s a delegation of people that said, I’m just here to support local soccer, and I’m not worried about the owner’s politics.”
Ensign says the MLS team has united what was once a fragmented soccer culture in Austin. Before the club came to the city, the extent of fandom was watch parties for foreign leagues. Now Ensign believes there’s a centralizing force everyone can rally around.
“Whatever team they follow, whatever league they follow, it doesn’t matter,” Ensign said. “They feel at home in our community.”