As happens for a brief window of time every four years, America has soccer fever! More people tuned in to watch USA play Ghana on ESPN on Monday evening than watched the Spurs topple the Heat on Sunday night on ABC—and that doesn’t include the 3.8 million who tuned in to Univision to watch the game. That means that millions of Americans saw Clint Dempsey, who is in the midst of his once-every-four-year run as Nacogdoches’ favorite son (briefly displacing former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and author Joe R. Lansdale), score the fastest goal in US World Cup history, with a quick point 32 seconds into the match.
Of course, outside of the weeks-long window that occurs during the World Cup, America’s interest in soccer is, to say the least, tame. Nonetheless, there continue to be attempts to grow the game in the US—and there are two Texas cities who have just announced that they have their eye on the MLS prize.
Those cities, unsurprisingly, are Austin and El Paso, the state’s two largest cities without major league professional sports franchises to call their own—El Paso and Austin.
Major League Soccer will be expanding in coming years. The league currently has nineteen teams, with three confirmed expansion teams on the docket—in New York City, Orlando, Florida, and Atlanta—between now and 2017, and officials say that the vision is to have 24 teams by 2020. For the past several years, San Antonio has been the frontrunner among Texas cities to claim an MLS team, but recent moves by Austin and El Paso make it clear that if Texas is going to factor into MLS’ plans, it may end up being a three-way race.
Austin took its steps to make it into MLS last week, when the Austin Aztex of the Premier Development League—roughly analogous to Minor League Baseball’s single-A ball—announced that, for the 2015 season, they’d be moving up to the USL Pro league. That means that the players will be getting paid, the competition will get stiffer, and the team will be further on the MLS radar. That includes inking an affiliate deal with an existing MLS franchise, where Aztex could serve as a feeder team to, presumably, FC Dallas or the Houston Dynamo.
“Our ambition is to turn the Austin Aztex into a ‘house of excellence’ geared towards nurturing and developing the best professional players on and off the field.”
Austin, the former home of 2015 MLS expansion club Orlando City SC before their relocation to central Florida, is one of several markets around the country which have made clear their desire for MLS membership in the future. And the Aztex ownership group made no secret of those hopes this week.
“This is a proven path to the MLS,” Aztez CEO David Markley told those present at Tuesday’s announcement. Aztex officials also said they plan to craft an affiliate partnership with an MLS club in time for their USL PRO debut campaign.
Ascending through the semi-pro leagues is a path to joining the MLS, and Austin knows that better than most cities—as the release notes, the previous incarnation of the Aztex relocated to Orlando from Austin, and that city will be entering the big league in 2015. That’s got to be bittersweet for Austin soccer fans, but it’s a step toward landing a pro sports franchise in the nation’s largest city without one.
Still, Austin also faces a serious obstacle in its quest for an MLS team—namely, there’s nowhere for the team to play.