For basically forever, the U.S. has been awaiting professional soccer’s ascension to the mainstream of American sports fandom. The so-called Sport Of The Future always seems to be just a few more years away from officially joining the ranks of our core four sports: football, baseball, basketball, and hockey (yes, really). But America’s interest in soccer is steadily on the rise, and the future of the sport, whenever it may arrive, looks to be particularly bright in Texas.
That much was clear at the South By Southwest festival in Austin in March, when Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, America’s middling but decent pro league, sat down with Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl.
The key takeaway for our purposes here in Texas was Garber’s comment about Austin as a potential expansion site for an MLS team. When asked by an audience member what the path for a MLS team coming to Austin would look like, Garber didn’t quite provide an answer, but he definitely had some gushing things to say about the city as a potential expansion location. “Austin is a special place, and in many ways it mirrors the incredible value and dynamic that exists in soccer in America,” Garber said. “It’s what’s driving MLS—this young, this diverse, this energetic, this tech focus, this globally connected group of people living in a city. That’s what we’re trying to capture in our country. So it ought to be a pretty good MLS market. It’s got a lot of time between now and delivering on what that means, but this is a special city, sure.”
Austin has already established an impassioned and organized grassroots movement focused on bringing in a pro team, but some really big questions remain unanswered, like where the team would play and who would actually finance the franchise. At the moment, San Antonio seems to be better situated to join Texas cities Dallas and Houston in MLS. In February, Spurs Sports and Entertainment, the management group that runs several professional sports franchises in the Alamo City, filed an application for MLS’s expansion process.
The biggest thing going for a potential MLS team in San Antonio right now is the ownership situation. The Spurs group is widely recognized as one of the best franchise owners in professional sports, and they’ve shown that they’re committed to the MLS bid. In 2015, Spurs Sports and Entertainment secured a soccer-specific stadium, Toyota Field, and in March the management group inked a deal with FOX Sports Southwest to broadcast six matches of the low-level soccer club San Antonio FC this season.
But competition is steep. Eleven other cities—San Diego, Sacramento, St. Louis, Charlotte, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Phoenix, and Raleigh—are also vying to land the league’s latest expansion sites, and MLS is expected to choose just two of those cities to kick off in time for the 2020 season. If San Antonio does get a team, that would likely spell the end of Austin’s MLS hopes. Austin profiles pretty similarly to San Antonio, and the two cities are too close geographically to warrant separate franchises. But regardless of what happens with MLS, Austin is still guaranteed to get some level of big-time soccer.
Spain’s FC Barcelona, the world’s most successful professional soccer team, is not wasting any time establishing roots in Texas. In early March, the franchise announced plans to set up a youth academy in Austin, where they’ll build state-of-the-art training facilities as part of its push to glean talent from the United States. “It’s an exciting opportunity to come to Austin,” Arno Trabesinger, manager of FC Barcelona’s North American arm, told the Austin American-Statesman after speaking at a panel discussion at SXSW. “For us, it’s a chance to engage with a dynamic city that has characteristics we look for like a young population and a large Hispanic population.”
Once it’s completed, the Barcelona training facility will be Austin’s first-ever purpose-built, soccer-specific stadium, according to the Statesman. Even if a new MLS team doesn’t arrive in either San Antonio or Austin anytime soon, the fact that the world’s most storied soccer franchise is targeting Texas seems like a pretty solid testament to the potential of soccer in this state.