Major League Soccer’s 2021 regular season ended Sunday with the three Texas teams—FC Dallas, Austin FC, and Houston Dynamo FC—occupying the bottom three spots of the Western Conference. With a win over Austin FC on October 30, FC Dallas secured the Copa Tejas trophy, an award given to the team with the most points from intrastate matches throughout the season. But this year, the trophy feels like a hollow honor for a team that could be called the best of the worst.
Fans of these three teams will be quick to remind you that none of them received the wooden spoon (the anti-honor given to the overall last-place team). That mark of shame goes to FC Cincinnati, which finished last in the Eastern Conference with just twenty points, substantially less than Houston, which finished last in the Western with thirty points. But no matter how you spin it, Texas MLS teams were abysmal this year. So what’s behind the failures in Austin, Dallas, and Houston?
The poor performances can be linked, in part, to spending. None of the franchises in Texas were in the top half of the 30 MLS teams in player salary expenditures. Although contract data can be more opaque in the MLS than in other major American sports leagues, recent data on player salaries released by the MLS Players Association shows that Austin spends $12.58 million, placing them fifteenth in the league. Dallas falls one spot behind, spending $11.99 million, and Houston ranks twenty-second with $11.15 million. The league’s highest spender, the Los Angeles Galaxy, coughed up $20.32 million on salaries this year.
Austin was among the teams with the greatest in-season increase to player salary expenditures, largely because of the signing of Russian Premier League player Sebastián Driussi. That move provided the team with some immediate returns, as Driussi quickly tallied five goals and three assists in about half a season. He’s among a handful of players who are certain to return to the club next season on a multiyear deal. Driussi is an example of how paying top dollar for established players can translate to success on the field. But that solution has its limits. Only half of the clubs among the MLS’s top-ten spenders will secure one of the fourteen playoff berths this year, proof that even if money buys talent, it can’t buy wins.
The exact amount a player’s pay counts against an MLS team’s salary cap is determined by a complex system of rules. Teams can keep expenditures under set thresholds by buying down salaries with a given allotment of money, and certain players do not count against the cap at all. Such methods of diminishing a player’s cost against the cap have been introduced so teams can acquire more expensive players who deepen the league’s talent pool. But not everyone is sold on bringing more costly players to the MLS. FC Dallas owners Clark and Dan Hunt have worked with other owners to ensure that spending doesn’t inflate too quickly.
Budgetary concerns alone, however, don’t explain the struggles of Texas MLS clubs. Each team is dealing with a separate set of constraints, most of which trace back to development academies. Each club’s attention—or lack thereof—to player development has an effect on its overall success. In the case of FC Dallas, the club has staked its future on developing outstanding young players. Former FC Dallas academy players like Reggie Cannon, Bryan Reynolds, and Chris Richards are playing today at the highest levels of European soccer. The club made millions off of those players’ transfer fees.
According to Buzz Carrick, who has covered professional soccer in Dallas for more than twenty years, “That’s the model here—if you’re talking about the profitable operations of this franchise, it’s the selling of these academy players that makes it all work.” The team isn’t necessarily trying to win, Carrick says; instead, it’s focused on financial stability and long-term growth. Still, the club has managed to field competitive teams throughout most of its existence. FC Dallas has never won a league title, but it has made the playoffs eighteen times, more than all but two other teams. Without the renown of some of the league’s superstar names, FC Dallas has quietly been a perennial contender, and this year’s struggles are out of the ordinary.
Still, that doesn’t mean that FC Dallas’s game plan has been perfect. This season, the franchise’s front office signed Argentine player Franco Jara to a $2.9 million contract, only for Jara to woefully underperform. Making matters worse, eighteen-year-old Ricardo Pepi rapidly developed into one of the country’s most exciting players, earning a call-up to the U.S. men’s national team this summer, after spending much of the season entering MLS games as a substitute behind Jara. And after less than a full season of utilizing Pepi’s skills, the team is expected to sell his rights to a European club in the off season.
Diametrically opposed to Dallas’s academy fixation, Houston’s academy has been almost nonexistent. The club began as a transplant, when the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston for the 2006 season. Houston Dynamo FC won back-to-back MLS Cup championships in its first two years thanks to moves made before the team arrived in Texas. However, the Dynamo’s ownership group also owned the L.A. Galaxy, and the league pressured them to divest from Houston. The resulting vacuum was filled by an assortment of owners, including retired boxer Oscar De La Hoya and NBA player James Harden, and a revolving door of managers over several years.
That lack of consistent leadership has left the club’s development academy neglected. “I don’t think the focus has ever really been developing academy players to be MLS-ready,” says Derek Stowers, who runs SB Nation’s Dynamo blog. As he sees it, the academy has existed as an afterthought for the professional club, which has signed only a handful of players from the academy in recent years.
Amid a stretch of bad seasons, 2021 marked a true nadir for the Dynamo, which endured a sixteen-match winless streak from May 29 through September 3. Midway through this season, the club announced that Ted Segal, a New York–based businessman, had acquired a majority ownership position in both the Dynamo and in Houston’s women’s soccer team, the Dash. Head coach Tab Ramos had been with the team since 2019, but after this season’s total meltdown, he was fired last Thursday, as the team eyes progress under new ownership.
This season, Houston fans held up signs and boycotted matches until the club also fired general manager Matt Jordan, who’d failed to bring the team success in his six-plus years at the helm. Segal just announced Jordan’s replacement—the former Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who saved the penalty kick that won Houston its first championship back in 2006 and led the Columbus Crew to an MLS Cup championship in 2020. Undoubtedly, Dynamo fans are hoping Onstad can deliver a return to form for the floundering club.
Austin FC has the best excuse for its dismal record, since the club is wrapping up its inaugural year as an expansion team in the MLS. It has not yet had time to develop players and sign them from its academy system, and it was forced to assemble a roster from scratch with little knowledge about how players might blend on the field. After recognizing the team’s dire need for a striker, Austin signed Moussa Djitté from France, only to have him spend almost two months tied up in the visa paperwork process.
Even so, finishing second to last in the conference has irked an Austin FC fan base whose enthusiasm surpassed all expectations by selling out games and cultivating the league’s most fervent supporters’ section. Many fans have called for the departure of head coach Josh Wolff after just one season, using the Twitter hashtag #WolffOut. For now, though, Wolff is the lone remaining head coach among the three Texas MLS teams after this dismal year. Austin FC avoided last place thanks to a surprising 3–1 win over first-place Sporting Kansas City in the second-to-last game of the season, but it’s fair to assume the coach will be on a short leash if he’s back for another season.
If spending habits and academy approaches help explain team troubles, Texas’s geography offers another reason that the teams should, in theory, perform better. A rule in the MLS grants teams territorial rights to sign players from within set boundaries adjacent to their clubs. Because Texas is home to four of the eleven most-populous cities in the United States, these clubs have enormous pools of talent to draw from. In particular, Houston—which prides itself on being one of the most diverse cities in the nation—should be able to capitalize on soccer’s international appeal by bringing young talent into its academy.
Additionally, Texas sits adjacent to Mexico, where fútbol reigns supreme and Liga MX franchises regularly develop talent superior to that of their U.S. counterparts. With Texas home to the second largest Latino population in the country, the state should be brimming with under-eighteen talent. It’s possible that a focus on American football and the high cost of playing elite youth soccer has created obstacles for potentially great young players to flourish.
Dallas’s underwhelming season, Houston’s leadership shake-ups, and Austin’s growing pains are all factors that offer hope to Texas MLS fans that next season will be better. With the state’s three franchises finishing at the bottom of the standings, that optimism is well-founded, since there’s literally nowhere to go from here but up.