Re­vived pro soc­cer fran­chise will roll into Austin in 2019

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Lyt­tle klyt­tle@states­

Pro­fes­sional soc­cer will re­turn to Austin in 2019 af­ter a three-year ab­sence, with a re­branded USL fran­chise play­ing in a new 5,000-seat sta­dium at Cir­cuit of the Amer­i­cas.

COTA Chair­man Bobby Ep­stein will be the club’s ma­jor­ity owner in a rapidly grow­ing United Soc­cer League, which ex­pects to field at last 34 teams in 2019. Since Austin’s aborted USL startup in 2015, the USL has been el­e­vated to Divi­sion II sta­tus, one step be­low Ma­jor League Soc­cer, and gained a tele­vi­sion con­tract with ESPN.

“We’re com­ing back in a big way,” Ep­stein told the AmericanStatesman. “For the first time, we’ll have our own in­ti­mate, pur­pose-built sta­dium, an in­ter­na­tional-size field, no foot­ball lines, no track. We’ll get fans close to the ac­tion, have a true home field and al­low play­ers to play the game the way it is in­tended.”

The sta­dium, to be be­tween the Austin 360 Am­phithe­ater and the cir­cuit’s grand plaza, will rep­re­sent a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of the new FC Barcelona train­ing academy sched­uled to open this

month. Seat­ing ca­pac­ity ini­tially was 1,000. Now it will have five times that to meet USL stan­dards.

“We have worked dili­gently with Bobby over the past 18 months to se­cure a per­ma­nent home for a USL club in Austin and are pleased to have ar­rived at a so­lu­tion,” USL Pres­i­dent Jake Ed­wards said be­fore Wed­nes­day’s of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment. “This will en­sure the long-term suc­cess of the fran­chise.”

Ep­stein, who said he has a small group of in­vestors join­ing him in the project, did not dis­close a cost es­ti­mate for the sta­dium. USL venues with sim­i­lar ca­pac­i­ties have $5 mil­lion to $10 mil­lion price tags, not count­ing land ac­qui­si­tion. Ep­stein, who em­pha­sized the project will be ac­com­plished with pri­vate money, in­di­cated he can do this for less.

“We al­ready have a lot of what we need in place,” said Ep­stein, ma­jor­ity in­vestor in Austin’s for­mer USL club, the Az­tex.

“We have the in­fra­struc­ture, own the land. We have roads, park­ing, con­ces­sions. We al­ready own a lot of seat­ing that can be moved from our F1 in­ven­tory. Ob­vi­ously, we have a sales and mar­ket­ing staff, too.”

Ep­stein said he plans to sell nam­ing rights to the sta­dium. He added that the field, which will have luxury suites and light­ing for night games, also will be avail­able for lo­cal soc­cer tour­na­ments.

The USL, cur­rently a 30-team league, is ex­cited about the part­ner­ship with a For­mula One track. This will be the only Amer­i­can soc­cer sta­dium — maybe the only one in the world — on the grounds of a mo­tor­sports fa­cil­ity.

“Cir­cuit of the Amer­i­cas is an out­stand­ing venue that has been home to ma­jor events for a num­ber of years,” Ed­wards said.

The team will no longer be known as the Az­tex, who suf­fered sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial losses in 2015 while play­ing at high school foot­ball sta­di­ums.

The club was the sec­ond Az­tex fran­chise to fail in Austin; the orig­i­nal one moved to Or­lando, Fla., in 2011.

“It’s im­por­tant to get a fresh start,” Ep­stein said. “The way it was done be­fore wasn’t fair to the fans. They de­serve bet­ter.”

FC Austin is a strong can­di­date for the new fran­chise’s name, but team of­fi­cials will take sug­ges­tions in the months ahead.

For­mer Az­tex CEO Rene van de Zande is ex­pected to re­tain a fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in the new team, which aims to have a coach and gen­eral man­ager in place by next sum­mer.

In 2015, the Az­tex re­ported an av­er­age home at­ten­dance of 3,227, 11th in a 24-team league.

Roberto Pinto da Silva Jr., for­mer Az­tex busi­ness man­ager and now COTA’s spe­cial projects di­rec­tor, said the re­launch of a USL fran­chise has a much bet­ter chance of suc­ceed­ing.

“It never felt like real soc­cer be­fore, play­ing on high school fields with foot­ball lines and yard-mark­ers. So many peo­ple told us that,” said da Silva Jr., a Brazil­ian. “This time we’ll of­fer the full soc­cer ex­pe­ri­ence in one lo­ca­tion, a place ev­ery­body knows.”

Austin Sports Com­mis­sioner Lance Aldridge said Ep­stein’s com­mit­ment will al­low the city to get back on the na­tional pro soc­cer map.

“In ad­di­tion, we think the sta­dium be­ing lo­cated at COTA is an­other great step in ce­ment­ing its stand­ing as a top year-round sports and en­ter­tain­ment des­ti­na­tion,” Aldridge said.

Austin’s lat­est USL club will be a test run in the longterm push for an MLS fran­chise, whether through ex­pan­sion or re­lo­ca­tion. Austin, of­ten a top-20 TV mar­ket for in­ter­na­tional soc­cer, is the largest city in the United States with- out a ma­jor pro­fes­sional sports fran­chise.

MLS Com­mis­sioner Don Gar­ber touted Austin’s po­ten­tial dur­ing a South by South­west ap­pear­ance in March.

“If our USL fran­chise proves it­self and fans show up, it will send a mes­sage to MLS that this is a good place for soc­cer,” Ep­stein said.

In the mean­time, Ep­stein en­vi­sions a spir­ited ri­valry with San An­to­nio FC, a sec­ond-year USL team. Only 70 miles will sep­a­rate the teams’ sta­di­ums.

“It’ll be the first time there’ve been two USL teams po­si­tioned so close,” Ep­stein said. “I ex­pect their fans to come up here and our fans to go down there.”

Wher­ever they travel, Austin’s fans will want to see a win­ner, of course.

“We plan to win,” Ep­stein said. “We’re not there to put just a good team on the field. We want to do what it takes to get Austin a cham­pi­onship.”


Af­ter many years of play­ing at high school foot­ball sta­di­ums, Austin pro soc­cer will have a new home when the fran­chise re­turns in two years — a 5,000-seat fa­cil­ity that meets United Soc­cer League stan­dards.


The soc­cer sta­dium will be sit­u­ated be­tween the Austin 360 Am­phithe­ater and COTA's grand plaza. It will fea­ture light­ing and luxury suites and will be avail­able for lo­cal tour­na­ments.

COTA Chair­man Bobby Ep­stein said a small group of in­vestors is join­ing him in the soc­cer fran­chise.


Mikey Am­brose (left) played for the Az­tex dur­ing 2015, their fi­nal sea­son. Austin's new fran­chise will shed the old nick­name.

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