The Verde Report: Can Copa Tejas Salvage Austin FC’s Season?
Which Texas squad will walk away with the honors?
Late Saturday night, well after Q2 Stadium had emptied out of raspy and frustrated Austin FC fans following a 1-0 loss to Minnesota United, two West Coast matches went final to mathematically eliminate Austin FC from the MLS Cup playoffs.
So there you have it. Austin FC will not be pulling a 1998 Chicago Fire and winning the MLS Cup in its first year of existence. It's been, by any measure, a brutal debut season for the Verde. And yet, there is still a very real chance that Austin FC could hoist a trophy before the curtain closes on year one.
Copa Tejas is right there for the taking.
Copa Tejas was originally founded in 2019 by Steve Arters and Danielle Gawronski, two San Antonio FC fans looking to add some tangible stakes to the in-state rivalry between four Texas-based USL Championship (2nd division) squads. At the time, Major League Soccer only fielded two Texas teams – FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo – so an MLS version of Copa Tejas didn't make much sense. But the next year, with Austin FC's arrival imminent, Arters and Gawronski decided to bring Copa Tejas to the major leagues.
"I had seen some social media traffic coming out of Austin where they were talking about, 'Hey, now that Austin FC is coming on board, shouldn't there be some kind of statewide trophy?' And I just thought, if there was ever a time to reach out and do it, now's the time," Arters told the Chronicle.
Copa Tejas is not affiliated with, nor officially sanctioned by, any league or club. It's a trophy by, for, and of the fans – specifically supporters' groups like Los Verdes and Austin Anthem. The trophy goes to the supporters of the club that finishes the MLS season with the best head-to-head record among the three Texas rivals. The object itself doesn't even actually exist yet, though Arters assures that the silversmith will have it ready by season's end. Copa Tejas is using a GoFundMe campaign to retroactively cover the cost of production.
All three Texas teams currently find themselves at the bottom of the MLS Western Conference, but that's irrelevant as far as Copa Tejas is concerned. In the head-to-head race, Dallas and Houston are tied at 8 points each (two wins, two draws, one loss), with Austin in third place at 3 points (one win, three losses). But the Oaks can flip the script in the next two weekends. With back-to-back wins over Houston at home this Sunday (Oct. 24) and at Dallas next Saturday (Oct. 30), ATXFC would jump to 9 points and steal the cup.
"You talk about excitement, you talk about momentum. I mean, we couldn't have written a better ending for the first year, for it to come down to the final game and winner-take-all-type stakes," Arters said. He plans to be in Dallas on Oct. 30 to present the trophy.
But do the clubs themselves place value in a fan-generated award? When asked directly about it Tuesday, ATX head coach Josh Wolff stopped short of making it a main objective.
"We recognize we're one of three teams in the state of Texas and we're competing for those bragging rights," Wolff said. "Whether it's a trophy, a real trophy, a fictitious trophy, we're going to see these guys many many times. So I think each and every opportunity carries weight and has the ability to build and charge that rivalry."
To be clear, Wolff is not paid to win Copa Tejas. He's paid to chase the MLS Cup. But for a club with so little to boast about on the field in year one, the image of lifting a trophy – any trophy – should be more than a little appealing.
For Arters, though, the clubs' stances make little difference. "Where we are right now in the growth of Copa Tejas, it's probably up to every club to decide its priority. But we know that [for] the supporters' groups who support those clubs, it's an important cup."
To learn what winning Copa Tejas can really mean for a club, the Chronicle spoke to someone who has lived it. In 2019, following a 3-0 home victory over Rio Grande Valley FC, Sonny Guadarrama lifted the inaugural edition of the USL Copa with Austin Bold FC. Like Austin FC in 2021, the Bold was in its expansion season and Copa Tejas represented the first piece of silverware in club history.
"The day that we got to lift the trophy, it was a fun celebration for our team," Guadarrama said. "Anytime that you can claim to having some type of hardware for your team I think it's a big deal."
In addition to his playing duties with the Bold, Guadarrama does Spanish-language commentary for Austin FC's local TV broadcasts. He's followed the Verde as closely as anyone throughout the year, and believes Wolff and company should go all-in on Copa Tejas now that playoffs are officially off the table.
"I would try to go out with my head up high and I think that saying that you're the best team in Texas ... that would make the fans happy for sure," Guadarrama said. "Obviously, it takes time to build the team, so any of these little successes that you can get, I think it just keeps on building and it keeps giving them more motivation."