Will the Aztex cower or conquer?
The Austin Aztex are thrust into the gut-check portion of their season this week: Three home games in five days kick off a brutal month's schedule – as the USL-1 playoff race starts to shape up and the prestigious U.S. Open Cup gets under way – with its midweek games shoehorned into the regular schedule. And the Aztex go into this stretch with a drastically depleted roster and, apparently, a new offensive leader. It should be interesting.
The plus side: The Aztex are coming off perhaps their best win yet, 3-1 over the Puerto Rico Islanders last Friday night. Cuban midfielder Yordany Alvarez got two goals and an assist, plus USL Player of the Week honors. (Defender Lyle Adams got the other goal, a sharp header from Alvarez's corner kick.) But the Aztex are still missing their top three attackers in Gifton Noel-Williams (hamstring), Eddie Johnson (work permit), and Sullivan Silva (ankle); if defender Zack Pope and midfielder Alex Tapp are still out as well, the already-thin Aztex regular roster is down to 15 available players.
They got an offensive boost on Friday from forward Jean Alexandre, on a one-game loan from Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake. And they picked up attacking midfielder Ciaran O'Brien on loan from the MLS Colorado Rapids for the rest of the season. That's big, because O'Brien can provide some firepower – while at UC-Santa Barbara, he was the leading scorer in a very strong Big West conference. And gaffer Adrian Heath is high on U-23 call-up Jeff Harwell, who's playing with the senior squad on an amateur contract; it was Harwell's penetrating cross into the box that Alvarez redirected for the first goal against Puerto Rico. But without a target man who can get forward effectively, with the speed and/or moves to break down a defense, this team is going to have to work very hard to create scoring chances.
The Schedule and the Cup
The Aztex host three home games this week: Friday and Sunday against the Charleston Battery, then Tuesday evening hosting the PDL Mississippi Brilla in the first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Charleston is one of the USL-1 powerhouses, currently a strong second place in the USL-1, and a team that last year knocked off two MLS teams – FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo – in advancing all the way to the Open Cup final. The Aztex, meanwhile, are currently on the bubble in the USL playoff race, in seventh place, though with a game or three in hand over all the teams ahead of them. And though it's early – the Aztex are just seven games into their 30-game season – given the front-loaded home schedule, after the two Charleston games, the Aztex have just seven more home dates this season.
Then there's the U.S. Open Cup. Our version of England's FA Cup, it's one of the oldest cup competitions in the world, dating back to 1914. It's open to all affiliated amateur and pro teams in the U.S.; top-level rec league teams have been known to advance through the first few rounds, but the top of the bracket pretty much belongs to the MLS and USL-1. The Aztex got what looks like a favorable draw in this year's tournament, facing only amateurs in the first two rounds; if they beat Mississippi on Tuesday, they get the winner of the Arizona Sahuaros-El Paso Patriots game the next Tuesday, June 16. The third round is the payoff: a date with an MLS team, most likely Chivas USA or Houston Dynamo, for a spot in the quarterfinals.
This week kicks off an absolutely brutal stretch for the Aztex, especially if they win their first couple of Cup games, as they should against amateur competition: up to 12 games in 31 days, including only one break of more than two days between games and travel, to Puerto Rico and Miami, then home, then to Rochester and back, then to Cleveland, to Houston or L.A., and Cleveland again, and back home for, if I'm figuring it right, nine travel days in the month. And serious travel, too – distances that none of the major clubs in Europe, with their 30-player rosters, ever have to deal with. Can the Aztex? We'll start to find out this week. Like I said, it should be interesting.
And a Lagniappe ...
Meanwhile, talk about a new, purpose-built soccer stadium, which you may have seen referred to here occasionally over the past few months, has bubbled up more publicly. See "Naked City" for more info, and for a fanciful site plan, see austinchronicle.com/highlandmall.
The Week's Schedule:
Friday, June 5, 7pm: Charleston Battery
Sunday, June 7, 6pm: Charleston Battery (nationally televised on Fox Soccer Channel)
Tuesday, June 9, 7:30pm: Mississippi Brilla (U.S. Open Cup)
All games are at Nelson Field, off Berkman, just north of U.S. 290. See www.austinaztex.com for more.