The Verde Report: Will Longhorn Football Crowd Out Austin FC?
Burnt Orange is back. Can the Verde still keep Austin sports fans interested?
On Saturday, Austin FC lost on the road to the Vancouver Whitecaps, 2-1, for its league-leading 13th defeat of the season. From a strictly soccer standpoint, it was a bad loss. From just about every other standpoint, though, it wasn't even the worst result for Austin FC that day.
A little over an hour earlier, the Texas Longhorn football team completed a 38-18 thrashing of fellow AP Top 25 program Louisiana at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. It wasn't quite a "Texas is back, folks!" sort of win, but it was enough to get Austin sports fans – and media – revved up for an entire fall of Longhorn football, led by new head coach Steve Sarkisian and potential Heisman candidate, running back Bijan Robinson.
Burnt Orange has begun to drown out Verde on the airwaves – which, to be fair, was always going to happen. It will happen, to some degree, this time of year every year. Nobody should understand that better than Austin FC principal owner Anthony Precourt, who from 2013 to 2019 stewarded the Columbus Crew through the annual shadow of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Soccer and major college football can certainly coexist in the same spotlight. But the onus is on the MLS club to earn its mainstream attention with winning play.
That's what makes some of Austin FC's big decisions up to this point confusing. While "Playoffs, year one!" was the goal Austin FC repeatedly set with its words, a much different mindset has been espoused by the club's actions, one more akin to "Rome wasn't built in a day." The head coach, hired not only to manage the team but also help build it, was picked out of the MLS assistant ranks. Recent expansion success stories in MLS, most notably Atlanta United and LAFC, called upon proven, experienced coaches in the forms of former FC Barcelona manager Tata Martino and former U.S. men's national team coach Bob Bradley, respectively.
Despite a difficult first season in Austin, Josh Wolff belongs as a manager in MLS. But he needs time to grow into the position. If Precourt and Co. wanted immediate success, they would have spent bigger on a bigger résumé. They also would have spent bigger, earlier, on the roster. The club made a conscious and public decision to spend only a fraction of its total budget up front, saving millions of dollars for midseason acquisitions. In doing so, they had time to acquire potential franchise centerpiece Sebastián Driussi and young imposing striker Moussa Djitté. However, they also had time to amass 9 losses in 17 games before either player made his first start in Verde.
In those games, the two Designated Players the club did field, 25-year-old Tomás Pochettino and 27-year-old Cecilio Domínguez, were unable to impact matches in the way MLS clubs hope to get out of their high-priced players. According to Transfermarkt, neither player ranks in the top 70 most expensive MLS acquisitions.
Now, Q2 Stadium continues to sell out home matches, and the season ticket waiting list still spills well over five figures. The club can reasonably rely on having a passionate fan base for the next couple years, at least, which could give Wolff and his young players time to sink their teeth into the league.
But there's no denying that Austin FC missed a golden opportunity to become the star city of American soccer in 2021 in the way Atlanta and Los Angeles did in their debut seasons. They now face five Saturdays this fall going head-to-head against the Longhorns. The fight for Austin eyeballs continues Sept. 11 when UT meets Arkansas away, 6pm, and Austin FC faces the Houston Dynamo, 7:30pm, at BBVA Stadium.