“This is as big as it gets for us,” one U.S. Soccer representative told me as America’s best male soccer players jogged around a field in North Austin Monday.
Those players, many just hours removed from intercontinental flights, were familiarizing themselves with their office for the week: Austin FC’s brand-new training facility, the St. David’s Performance Center. Thursday evening, the U.S. Men’s National Team will take on Jamaica in a crucial World Cup qualifying match at Q2 Stadium – the first U.S. qualifier to ever take place in the state of Texas.
Between the performance center and Q2, Austin suddenly has the amenities to match what has existed for years in Central Texas: unwavering support for the Stars and Stripes. U.S. Soccer has wasted little time taking advantage of both. When the national team kicks off against Jamaica, it will be the third time Team USA has taken over Q2 Stadium in its four-month infancy, following a women’s national team friendly in June and a men’s Gold Cup semifinal against Qatar in late July.
But World Cup qualifying is a different animal. Every four years, the U.S. jockeys with its North American, Central American, and Caribbean neighbors for up to four spots in the 32-nation FIFA World Cup. Getting there involves battling tooth-and-nail for results in hostile environments across the continent, while taking full advantage of the handful of matches played on home soil. In the current format, the U.S. will host seven such matches before the Qatar-bound countries are determined.
In staging the second of those seven at Q2, U.S. Soccer has given Austin both a reward and a responsibility. National team coach Gregg Berhalter outlined both this week.
“From a training ground standpoint, Austin has been incredible. We’ve been able to take over the training ground in the morning… and really have the run of the place. It’s a first-class facility,” Berhalter said. “The second thing we look at is the stadium and the type of environment that can be created in the stadium, and we know Austin is crazy. One of the better atmospheres in Major League Soccer, and we’re hoping to have a similar type of atmosphere.”
Tickets for the match are sold out. That’s important, but it’s only half the battle. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:45pm with coverage on ESPN2 – including the National Anthem – starting at 6:30pm. That’s well within the confines of rush hour traffic in this town, something which was noticeable early on in the Gold Cup match when Q2 had a bit too many seats exposed for comfort.
“For us it’s about getting the fans there early enough. For the national team the Anthem is a really special moment,” Berhalter said.
But while so much of this experience is new for Austin, support for the national team is not. Over the last decade, Austin has routinely checked in among the top markets for television viewership of U.S. men’s and women’s matches. The city is also home to one of the largest and most active local chapters of the American Outlaws, the official supporters’ group of Team USA soccer. Today, AO Austin boasts a membership above 700, but when Daniel Wiersema started the chapter in 2009, he hustled just to recruit the minimum quota of 25.
“Any person I ever saw wearing a soccer jersey I just went up to and told them, ‘Hey, we’re starting a chapter! Watching games at Mister Tramps in North Austin. Stop on by!’”
In the pre-Q2 days, the idea of Austin hosting a national team match of any kind was pure fantasy, so the group focused on organizing watch parties. “We kind of moved around to the who’s who of soccer bars in Austin. We were at Fadó for a while, then we were at Cuatro’s near campus [both have since permanently closed], and then we ended up at our current home, which is Haymaker,” Wiersema said.
The break-neck evolution of Austin as a soccer city was on full display Wednesday night at the Manor Road gastropub. The site of hundreds of watch parties transformed into a full-on tailgate for a famous American Outlaws tradition: the NB4 (Night Before) party. Former national team players Alexi Lalas and Marcello Balboa joined Team USA fans in the Haymaker parking lot for a pep rally atmosphere in anticipation of the Jamaica match.
The pregame festivities only ramp up from there. The Outlaws plan to take over Oskar Blues in the shadow of Q2 today starting at 2pm before marching to the supporters’ section for the match.
If all goes well – the Stars and Stripes score an important victory and a packed house is there to witness it – Austin could be well on its way to establishing itself as a stronghold for U.S. Soccer, joining Columbus, Kansas City, Denver, and other soccer cities in consideration for big matches for years to come.
But there is one perceived major hurdle in the way of Austin – or any city in Texas, for that matter – becoming a true national team fortress: demographics. Most of Team USA’s biggest rivals are Latin American nations to our south, which boast massive populations in the Lone Star State. The biggest reason why Thursday will mark the only the first in history U.S. qualifier in the soccer-crazed state of Texas is that, with so much on the line, the threat of opposing fans watering down the American home field advantage with a large showing is too great to take the risk.
In theory, however, that problem is reduced significantly with a Caribbean nation like Jamaica. No excuses then, Austin. It's time to show the nation what soccer in Central Texas is about.
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