Chapter One: A Team Is Born
Pro soccer arrives in Austin Saturday (who are these guys?)
It's not easy building a top-level professional soccer team from scratch. But make no mistake about it, the Austin Aztex, under owner Phil Rawlins and head coach Adrian Heath – and unlike perhaps any other sports franchise in Austin's recent history – aspires to be a top-level franchise.
The United Soccer Leagues may not be Major League Soccer, but they've held their own in head-to-head competitions over the last few years and even outpaced their more well-funded rivals in this year's continental club championships. The top USL First Division teams have to be competitive not just with MLS but with Mexican teams and other national leagues, as well.
So Rawlins and company had a successful "training" year with a team in the USL's amateur Premier Development League and then had a scant six months to put together a whole organization, plus a roster that could compete at the highest level – with no player draft, scouting reports that are pretty hit-and-miss, and a whole universe of football players out there to look at.
For a long time the "team" was just a goalkeeper: Miguel Gallardo (No. 1 on his back, No. 1 signing), all-league goalkeeper last year, the one guy everyone knew was going to get signed off of the PDL Aztex. It was a great start, but it was, like, him and the two coaches, alone.
Players added one or two at a time, seemingly randomly. For a while there was just one goalie, one defender, one midfielder, and one forward; I envisioned a scrimmage utilizing some sort of strange "I" formation. Then there were 10, and you could see a few likely starters begin to emerge. Maybe 25 or 30 players saw action during the five preseason games, and the number of roster signings gradually grew to 17 ... 19 ... 20 ....
And suddenly, that was it. It's a team. There's the official roster, printed in the season program.
A few months ago these 20 young men were spread out around the country and overseas – many of them more or less unemployed – and now they are the Austin Aztex. Here they are, sitting in a hotel bar watching the Champions League together after Media Day. There they are, having a meet-and-greet with fans at Cuatro's as we go to press. Not 20 guys fighting for jobs anymore, but a team – our team. Part of our community but also their own community.
It's a young team – younger, perhaps, than last year's PDL squad. Well-traveled English striker Gifton Noel-Williams is the old man at 27. On the other hand, there's a good bit of top-level experience in the clubhouse, from manager Adrian Heath on down. And there seems to be a level of maturity as well. There are no teens, no prima donnas, just about every player has had some life experiences to speak of – all in all, they seem like a really good group of guys. Here are a few facts and figures.
There are five local boys: Miguel Gallardo, Wes Allen, Zach Pope, Josh Alcala, and A.J. Godbolt. They, plus Jamaican defender Kieron Bernard, are the six holdovers from last year's PDL Aztex (including an entire five-man back line). USL rules allow seven internationals; the Aztex have nine foreign-born players, but three of those are naturalized. There are four UK natives: defender Gareth Evans, midfielder Alex Tapp, and the strike pair of Gifton Noel-Williams and Eddie Johnson.
The defense has good size in the middle and two quick, aggressive wing defenders in Alcala and Pope. Gallardo could be strong enough to play every game, but backup keeper (and that's gotta be one of the weirdest jobs in sports, to stay among the best in the country at your demanding, specialized position, yet perhaps not actually play in a game for an entire season) Sam Reynolds showed major shot-stopping skills in 45 minutes plus a penalty-kick shootout against the Puerto Rico Islanders in the last preseason game. The midfield is a nice mix of tough scrappers and nimble playmakers; lots of tactical options for Heath to field very different lineups. And I could see this strike force producing a lot of goals when they get the chance to play together full time and learn to feed one anothers' strengths.
Or not, of course. It's hard to tell how players are going to work together until it happens, but so far, the signs are good. The guys seem to get along well, seem happy to be here – seem happy to be a team.
Follow the Aztex throughout the season at austinchronicle.com/soccerwatch.
Aztex Season at a GlanceUnited Soccer Leagues First Division (USL-1)
In predicted order of finish (details here):
1) Puerto Rico Islanders (first last year)
2) Montreal Impact (third)
3) Vancouver Whitecaps (second)
4) Carolina RailHawks (eighth)
5) Austin Aztex (new)
6) Charleston Battery (fifth)
7) Rochester Rhinos (fourth)
8) Minnesota Thunder (seventh)
9) Miami FC Blues (ninth)
10) Portland Timbers (11th)
11) Cleveland City Stars (new, up from USL-2)
Gone from last year: the Atlanta Silverbacks ("suspended" for a year) and Seattle Sounders (made way for an MLS team in Seattle).
As for the Aztex: How do you rank a brand-new team? For now, I believe coach Heath when he says that they'll surprise some teams around the league. I see them battling Vancouver and the two Carolina clubs for the last couple of home playoff spots. We should know if that ambition is in reach after the next week. Do they have the depth for a 30-game season? See you in September.
Aztex Season: April 18 through Sept. 13
• Thirty games; three against every other team in USL-1.
• Fifteen home games.
• Top seven teams make the playoffs.
• Regular-season winner gets a first-round bye.
• U.S. Open Cup games TBA.
• All games will be broadcast live on AM 1300 the Zone.
• The first three home games are in the next eight days:
Saturday, April 18, 7:30pm vs. Minnesota Thunder
Tuesday, April 21, 7:30pm vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
Saturday, April 25, 7:30pm vs. Cleveland City StarsU-23 Aztex begin their second year in the Premier Development League, the USL's amateur division, on May 7.
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