Having lost their latest home to flood damage, the Austin Aztex are hoping that Nancy Sinatra was wrong and soccer clubs don’t only live twice.
By Wes Burdine | Image via Austin Aztex
[W]hen Phil Rawlins announced on October 25th, 2010 that the offices of the Austin Aztex would be boxed up and shipped to Orlando, it was only the team’s first death. After a second birth in 2012, the team suffered another death as its offices lay empty once again. Last month, the team announced that it would be on hiatus for the 2016 season as it searched for a new home stadium after House Park (the Austin Independent School District’s high school stadium) had been damaged by severe flooding.
But if this is a second death of the Austin Aztex, owner Rene Van de Zande is adamant that the team will have its third birth in 2017 and play in a brand-new, soccer-specific stadium. The future of the Aztex lies in the ability to get a new stadium built in a year’s time and Van de Zande knows the clock is ticking. In the meanwhile, however, all staff and players have been laid off except for General Manager Roberto Pinto da Silva, Jr.
The Aztex’s first death was a product of simple math. At the time, Rawlins and the team’s other owners surveyed the Austin landscape and couldn’t see an avenue to financial success. They were playing in a high school stadium (the same House Park) at the height of the Great Recession and were unable to find big-pocketed sponsors to help make a profitable (or even near-floating) business model.
The Austin Statesman quoted Rawlins at the time as saying “Our first and overriding preference was always to keep the Aztex in Austin. But after we exhausted all our options, this has not proven possible.”
The 2010 move was devastating for Austin fans like Matthew Gray, who served as president of the two different supporters groups that witnessed Aztex deaths: Chantico’s Army and the current Eberly’s Army. “Anger is not a strong enough word,” Gray says as he reflects on fans reactions in 2010. “Supporters felt betrayed and that they’d been blindsided.”
“Our first and overriding preference was always to keep the Aztex in Austin. But after we exhausted all our options, this has not proven possible.”
Supporters first learned of the move to Orlando in the team’s press release. Brian Quarstad, then writing for Inside Minnesota Soccer, had days earlier clued them into the possibility of a move, but there had been no communication from the club to its fans. Not until they saw the press release.
That bitterness, Gray says, has waned. “From a business perspective, I can’t disagree with the decision [to move the team to Orlando],” he says and he points to the success Rawlins and the club have had with Orlando City’s move to MLS.
What still irks Gray and many other supporters, though, is the lack of communication with the supporters about the move. “The irony of the announcement that the team would sit out the 2016 season was that it occurred about five days before the 5th anniversary of Aztex 1.0 (as supporters now call it) moving to Orlando,” he says. This time around, he adds, the Aztex did right by the supporters. Three hours before the team announced they would have to sit out the 2016 season, Gray received a call from Rene Van de Zande. This personal call assured Gray and other supporters that they were an important part of the decision and the club’s future.
The second life of the Austin Aztex began modestly, playing in the amateur USL-PDL league before moving up to the USL in 2015. With the jump to USL, Van de Zande and the Aztex were also courting the specter of MLS expansion. But just as the Aztex were getting their sea legs, heavy rains and flooding in May forced the team to move to the Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex in northwest suburbs. Van de Zande is perhaps understating it a bit when he says, “We had a rough first year [in USL].”
But the loss of House Park was just one domino. As with Aztex 1.0, the problem of financial stability for Austin soccer remains. Van de Zande points out that “USL has changed tremendously,” gaining quality but also making playing and competing more expensive. “For us to play in a high school venue [without the possibility of alcohol sales], it’s extremely difficult to be profitable.” He also mentions that with the USL’s looming push to be sanctioned as Division 2 by the USSF, the league is looking to make its clubs more professional.
In American soccer, ‘professional’ and ‘quality’ are almost always synonymous with ownership of a soccer specific stadium. But Van de Zande does not think that means a big stadium battle for public funds. The Aztex’s first target is a “temporary” stadium. The team is looking to build a 4–5k person stadium for $4–6 million. It is modest, but Van de Zande insists he wants to build a team for the USL.
He wants the small stadium to be temporary. He imagines it as something that could serve as a training ground or reserves stadium for an MLS team that would live in a bigger, more professional venue.
But the prospect of MLS expansion continues to haunt the club. The eventual goal is MLS. “We believe Austin is a perfect venue for MLS,” Van de Zande says. And when he says he wants the small stadium to be temporary, he imagines it as something that could serve as a training ground or reserves stadium for an MLS team that would live in a bigger, more professional venue.
The team is also working under a deadline. They have until 2017 to find a location for their new stadium and have it built. It’s unclear what will happen if the team can’t make the 2017 deadline, but the team has no other venue options. Van de Zande says the design has been made and the cost analysis completed. All they need now is to find a home and some partners. That home will likely be in one of the suburbs; Austin land prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
Should the Aztex reemerge from their hiatus in 2017, it will be a stronger, more stable presence for professional soccer in Austin. It will also prove to not be a second death after all.
Matthew Gray’s already seen his team die once. Does he believe it will really reemerge after a brief hiatus in 2017?
“I personally think that this is the death of the Austin Aztex. I don’t think we’ll ever see an Austin Aztex team take the field again” he says, but without a breath he adds that he doesn’t doubt Van de Zande’s ability to build a stadium and put a team back on the pitch. “I think the brand itself is dead.” Thinking of both the past (the pain involved with the teams called “Aztex”) and the future (MLS), Gray says the team needs a clean break. “It’s the perfect time to go and do a rebrand.”
If Gray is right and Van de Zande’s team will reemerge as a new entity, then perhaps this is the death of the Austin Aztex. He hopes — and this sentiment is likely shared by his fellow soccer fans in Austin — that this is the Aztex’s final death and that its successor team will live and never die again.