Just over 100 days since it last played a match under the Verde lights, Austin FC returns to Q2 Stadium Wednesday, Feb. 16, for a preseason friendly against some of the stiffest competition on the continent. Atlas FC, fresh off its 2021 Liga MX Apertura championship, will become just the second Mexican side to cross the Rio Grande for an exhibition tussle with the Verde and Black.
In addition to its championship swagger, Atlas will bring with it a legendary tradition of young player development that has delivered the Mexico National Team some of the best players in its history. El Tri legends Rafael Márquez, Andrés Guardado, Pável Pardo, and Jared Borgetti – among many others – learned the craft in the Guadalajara club's youth academy.
The next chapter in that tradition will likely be on full display at Q2. Wednesday's friendly falls directly in the middle of the current Liga MX season with Atlas facing league matchups just days before and after. Therefore, manager Diego Cocca is expected to lean heavily on players from the next generation of young Atlas talent in a rare opportunity to impress.
For Austin FC, the match carries big-time significance as the club completes its prep for year two in MLS. Quality of opposition aside, it will be the only chance for the Oaks to reacclimate to the environment inside Q2 ahead of the Feb. 26 season opener against Cincinnati. More importantly, though, it's a chance for ATX fans to get their first looks at several new additions to the squad after a busy offseason of roster shakeup.
Among those new additions likely to feature is 25-year-old defensive midfielder Jhojan Valencia, Austin FC's biggest signing of the winter to the tune of $1.5 million. Valencia landed in Austin just last week and has already begun training full-time with the squad. He last played a competitive match Dec. 22, when he helped Deportivo Cali secure the Colombian top flight title, and shouldn't have too much rust to shake off.
Just when it seemed like Austin FC was done making moves this winter, the club announced on Monday the signing of 31-year-old free agent midfielder Felipe Martins – known mononymously as Felipe. The Brazilian-born Felipe, now a U.S. citizen and a veteran of 283 MLS games, fills what was a glaring hole on the depth chart behind central midfielders Valencia and Alex Ring. "Everything I've seen, from the training facility, to the stadium, to the way we train and work is rare and inspiring," Felipe said in a statement. "We have no excuse to not succeed and we need to give everything we have.
"I'm here to help us get to where we want to be and to play and represent this team and this community in the best way possible," the former D.C. United player said. Prior to his signing being made official, Felipe had been training with the club on trial. He scored the only goal in the club's first closed-door friendly of the preseason Jan. 30 against Louisville City.
Kekuta Manneh forever has a place in Austin soccer history as the first local product to ply his trade for Austin FC. It did not play out as anyone in town had hoped, with Manneh lasting just one season before the club declined his second-year option, but the former Lonestar Soccer Club standout has a new home for 2022.
Manneh signed with San Antonio FC of the USL Championship and will wear No. 7 for the club while staying close to home.
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