The Austin Aztex start their 2014 season this week with home games in two different competitions: hosting the Houston Dutch Lions in the Premier Development League season opener Saturday at 7:30pm, then taking on the NTX Rayados in a U.S. Open Cup second-round match Wednesday at 7:30pm. Here's what you need to know to be prepared:
We're the Defending Champs. The 2013 Aztex went 11-1-2, then swept through the four-round PDL playoffs to win the national championship (well, international, actually; we beat Thunder Bay, Ontario in the final).
PDL? This 64-team league is the highest amateur league in the country, and the fourth division overall, just below the three pro leagues. The Aztex will play a 15-game regular season in the PDL Mid-South, against Houston, Laredo, Midland/Odessa, and Mississippi.
U.S. Open Cup? One of the oldest annual sports tournaments in the world, the 101st Open Cup features 80 teams from across the country, including all 38 pro teams, plus select amateurs from the Aztex's level, down to the very best of the rec leagues. Wednesday's Rayados game is a rematch of last year's Cup opener, which the Aztex won, 3-0; the winner is one win away from a date with an MLS club.
Our House. All home games are at 7:30pm at House Park, that cozy little Thirties-era stadium Downtown at Lamar and Shoal Creek. Crowds have been healthy and enthusiastic, and the Aztex have played spectacularly for them: Last season they were 11-0 at home, outscoring opponents 33-4 – including the four straight playoff wins.
New Coaches. Paul Dalglish, a fantastic head coach for the Aztex' first two seasons, is in MLS now, and he'll be missed. But former assistant Manuel Buentello, who has a long history in Austin, moves up to provide consistency, and the rest of the PDL "Organization of the Year" remains intact. Plus they've added popular former defender Zack Pope, who's been a coach on the field for the last few years anyway.
Local Talent. The Aztex have local talent development a primary mission: The preliminary 21-man roster includes seven native Austinites, plus another five Texans, and others with local college ties. That's not necessarily common in any sport, and it's one of the things I love about this team.
Familiar Faces. There's a lot of offensive firepower back from last year: Sito Seoane, the PDL playoff MVP last year, and the Aztex's leading scorer in all competitions, just missed making the Houston Dynamo roster this spring. And Andres Cuero, Tony Rocha, and Chuy Cortes comprise a very quick, effective, and attack-minded midfield – it could be a break-out year for Rocha, who's just 20. Also 20 are the 6'5" twins out of Westlake: Walker Hume in central defense, and Tucker Hume, an inviting target at striker. Local fan favorite Josh Alcala will return in an outside back role, after taking a year off from the game.
Newcomers. Two guys I'm really looking forward to seeing: Bubacarr Jobe, a 19-year old forward who's still in high school in the Woodlands, arrived in the U.S. from Gambia alongside former Aztex star Kekuta Manneh, who's now in MLS; he was MVP of the recent 2013 Super-20 Championships. And Adam Black, 21, from Liverpool, England, was an all-conference striker, and the leading scorer for Oklahoma City last year, with 11 goals in 12 games, (including two goals against the Aztex). Danny Frid, another Englishman coming to us from OKC, will be asked to provide some grit as a defensive, or holding midfielder.
Goals. I think you're going to see a lot of them. Look at that list above.
But Defense. Wins championships, yes. And this is an area where the team is far less settled. But Devin Cook is a pro-level goalkeeper, Walker Hume is a stud in central D, and if Frid or Justin Franz (Vista Ridge) can control the defensive midfield, that's strength up the middle. Add in legitimate prospects Travis Golden (Bowie) and Mikey Ambrose, and you see why goalie coach Ric Granryd says their team objective is to allow the fewest goals in the 64-team league. (Last year they allowed nine in 18 games.)
The Houston Dutch Lions are an outpost of a whole Dutch development network, sister club to Dayton Dutch Lions and Dutch power FC Twente. The Aztex kick their ass, though: we beat them four times last year, winning 1-0, 2-1, 3-0, and 4-0. I'm liking that trajectory. Shall we aim for 5-0?
Eberly's Army. They're the very loud people just behind the home bench. Meet them down the street at the Tavern, 5-7pm, where there are food and drink specials if you wear Aztex gear. Then join the march to the stadium. www.eberlysarmy.com for more info.
Not Pro Yet. You may have heard rumors. They are not false. But neither are they real ... yet.
Season Tickets. They're on sale at www.austinaztex.com or at the games: a package of eight flex tickets (good for any game, including the U.S. Open Cup) is $50 through May 10, before the price goes up to $60. Single admissions are $10. Always free for kids 10 and under.
Meanwhile, this Sunday, May 11, is the last day of the English Premier League season. All 10 games – being played simultaneously – will be shown live across 10 NBC networks, starting at 9am.
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