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. MLS commissioner Don Garber is clear that a downtown location is a top priority for any future expansion teams, saying that “it’s hard to imagine that we would go into a market where we don’t have that scenario.” Austin doesn’t currently have that downtown location that MLS craves (as evinced by the Round Rock Express and the fact that the Austin Toros and Texas Stars play in Cedar Park), and the option of building a stadium in the middle of the Colorado River notwithstanding, it’s hard to know where the professional Aztex might play. The current team is based out of House Park in an ideal location in downtown Austin, but the 6,000-person, no-alcohol-allowed AISD stadium wouldn’t survive the transition to the pro level.
All of that makes El Paso a less quixotic bidder in the race for MLS, despite the fact that its amateur Premier Development League team folded in 2013: the people who want to bring soccer to El Paso are the people behind the successful Chihuahuas MLB baseball franchise, and they’re optimistic that the city could step up to build the team in a stadium that would make MLS officials happy.
Recently opened MLS stadiums have cost between $65 million to $200 million depending on the venue and its amenities, and have been paid for through public-private partnerships, lease revenues, property taxes, hotel taxes and sales taxes, among others. MLS’ current expansion fee is in the $70 million to $100 million range.
Alan Ledford, president of MountainStar Sports Group, said that MLS has strict criteria that a region, or market, must meet to be considered as a viable expansion candidate.
“One of the key components that MLS looks for when considering an expansion city is the community support the prospective team would have in that area and what the city or region does to demonstrate that support,” Ledford said. “This is a highly competitive process. El Paso, Juárez, and Las Cruces would have to collectively put its best foot forward in demonstrating that it truly wants a Major League Soccer team.”
El Paso would certainly make a good deal of sense for MLS, as the region—when you include Juarez and Las Cruces—holds over 2 million people, and the proximity to soccer-mad Mexico would potentially make for a stronger entrant to the league than, say, an Austin location that secretly wishes it were getting an NBA or NFL franchise.
Of course, just because Austin and El Paso have made recent announcements about their desire to enter the MLS sweepstakes doesn’t make either city a frontrunner, exactly. San Antonio currently hosts the San Antonio Scorpions, who play in the North American Soccer League. Professional soccer in the US is divided into a four-tier system, with the PDL serving as the entry point, the USL Pro League—where the Aztex will play in 2015—as the second tier, and the NASL one step below MLS.
So the Scorpions are already a single step below MLS, which is a barrier that the Aztex would have to hope to climb in years to come, and they play in Toyota Stadium, a brand-new purpose-built soccer stadium that, in years to come, will be capable of holding as many as 18,000 people. While it’s not exactly downtown, Toyota Stadium is well within the 1604 outer loop around San Antonio, and the city’s more populous than either Austin or El Paso.
That was probably on the league’s mind when they announced five potential expansion scenarios late last year, one of which included San Antonio. As SB Nation reported at the time, it seemed like a natural fit:
San Antonio has already established itself as a strong soccer market, with the NASL’s Scorpions being among the top drawing lower-division teams in each of the past two years. They also have a brand-new stadium that is easily expanded from its current capacity of about 8,500 to a more MLS-suitable number of around 18,000.
Of course, all this jockeying back and forth between cities for the right to host a soccer team is great news for MLS—no one benefits from a bidding war more than the person who holds the goods, after all. It’s also a bit surprising, given the fact that the game is—outside of the quadrennial flare-up of interest in the sport—still just not particularly popular in this country. But the established sports in the US are unlikely to expand at any point in the near future—cities around the country (and one in Europe) are all hustling to poach an NFL franchise from a city that currently holds one, and the NBA holds resolute that an expansion isn’t in the cards (and when it is, it’s clear that the recently-robbed city of Seattle gets first dibs). Growing cities looking to add attractions like professional sports teams have limited options, and—especially in a World Cup year, when soccer fever is at an all-time high—that makes Major League Soccer the sexiest one at the party.