In the minutes that followed the Austin Aztex’s 3-1 victory over Thunder Bay on Sunday, cementing their first Premier Development League title in only their second year of existence, players, coaches and team officials hugged and high-fived amid chants and singing at House Park.
But it didn’t take long for the question to be asked. Now that the Aztex have reached the top of the PDL pyramid, what’s next?
Now comes the hard part. Trying to duplicate this season’s success will be more difficult because the team will have a huge target on its collective backs.
Still, because many of the team’s top players — including forward Kris Tyrpak, this year’s PDL most valuable player, goalkeeper Devin Cook and forward Khiry Shelton — are either still in college and/or Austin-based, the core of the squad that produced this year’s championship could return. But there will be players who move to other teams or perhaps get drafted by Major League Soccer teams.
“Now that we have won at this level, we have to decide if we are ready to try to move to the next division (of soccer),” said Rene Van De Zande, a team co-owner. “There’s a lot more that goes into a move like that than just winning as we did at the PDL level.”
The next step up in American soccer’s pyramid is the USL Pro League, which currently has 13 teams — 12 from the U.S. and one in Antigua. Oklahoma City, which played in the PDL’s Mid-South Division this season, is scheduled to move to the USL Pro League in 2014 and would continue a natural rivalry with the Aztex should Austin also move.
Austin won the Mid-South Division and the Southern Conference, cruising to the league’s championship because of a variety of factors — scoring prowess from players who could eventually be on the pitch at the game’s highest levels, clutch performances from its defense and goalkeeper, and a steady, constant preaching of the team concept by coach Paul Dalglish.
“There was never a time that we felt we were outplayed or unprepared for any situation,” said midfielder Sito Seone, who scored two goals in the championship game and was named the championship tournament’s MVP. “We always believed we could win every match and never wavered, even as the stakes increased. Paul never let us look past the challenge directly in front of us.”
The team’s fan base grew, setting attendance records at House Park in each of its final five home matches, culminating in a championship-match crowd of 4,253 in the venerable 5,500-seat stadium.
The Scottish-born Dalglish, who was voted the PDL’s coach of the year, was able to mix and match the talent he had on the roster.
“Really, the credit needs to go to the players because they all prepared well and never lost focus, even with all the things we worked to bring to the field each match,” Dalglish said. “Winning and doing it the way we did just feels right. It feels like we should be where we are.”