Aztex, needing new home, cast eye toward suburbs

USL stadium unlikely for COTA, even though there is a plan.

A year ago Tuesday, the Austin Aztex rolled out a United Soccer League launch party that drew a large crowd to a downtown studio, celebrating the city’s newest pro sports franchise.

That night it was announced that the Aztex had scored a Major League Soccer affiliation with Columbus Crew SC. Twelve months later, Columbus is doing quite well. The Crew will host the New York Red Bulls on Sunday in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Aztex, on the other hand, suspended operations for a year because of financial woes. They have no players under contract, virtually no staff and no coach after Paul Dalglish took over the NASL’s Ottawa Fury on Friday.

If Austin is to return to the USL in 2017, ownership must build a soccer-specific stadium next year or help finance a multipurpose venue with a developer. Either way, the American-Statesman has learned the stadium would probably be in a suburban location.

“We’ve had at least a couple suburbs within a one-hour radius of Austin approach us about getting something done,” said Aztex investor Bobby Epstein, CEO of Circuit of the Americas, without naming the cities.

Aztex owner Rene van de Zande said it makes financial sense to build a USL stadium in a suburb, where land is less expensive and cities sometimes are more willing to help than Austin.

“It’s way more likely that the stadium would be suburban rather than close to downtown,” he said. “That can make it affordable and sustainable. We’re looking at Round Rock, Cedar Park, Leander and others. There is interest from some of those places.”

Aztex business manager Roberto Pinto da Silva Jr. said there are more than 10 options still on the table. One of them is on the COTA grounds in Southeast Austin. Epstein has an artist’s rendering of a 6,000- to 8,000-seat venue neatly tucked into the course design.

“It’s possible to do a stadium out here,” Epstein said, “but it’s not in the middle of where our customers are. We have a lot of fans north and west, and you’d like them to be within 25 to 35 minutes of the facility.”

Van de Zande explained that while he and his partner Epstein share the same long-term vision for soccer in Austin, they are working different tracts right now.

“Bobby is in this with the end goal of bringing MLS to town,” van de Zande said. “He’d like that 7,000 to 8,000 downtown stadium that can be expanded to 20,000. I am not a part of that discussion.

“When I talk about a temporary solution, it’s a 4,000 to 5,000 facility that is just right for USL and perhaps makes sense for a suburban multipurpose facility.”

Outside of downtown, the Domain in Northwest Austin is viewed as an ideal location, but it’s too expensive for the shorter-term USL solution.

“Ideally, you find a site that works for both, but that might not be economically feasible, ” van de Zande said.

A smaller suburban facility — van de Zande, looking for models, loves the look and feel of Cavalier Stadium in Lake Travis — could cost as little as $5 million to $6 million, not counting land, or as much as several times that amount if tucked into a larger real estate development, an idea that intrigues Aztex ownership.

One way or another, the Aztex, whose losses last year probably exceeded $1 million on an operational budget north of $2 million, are under the watchful eyes of the USL office to get this stadium project off the ground. The first shovel needs to hit dirt by June or July to have a place ready for the 2017 season.

“Austin is a fantastic market, and we’d like to have them back, but they have to move this along, reach certain milestones by certain dates,” USL President Jake Edwards told the American-Statesman. “By Christmas, spring and summer, we have guidelines for them.

“They have a stadium plan. It looks great. But they don’t have the site yet or the financing nailed down. It’s very important they have a sustainable model. We’re raising our standards, and they’ve got to keep up or we’ll move on without them. Austin needs the right stadium to get this done.”

Aztex ownership has ruled out renting an exisiting facility because it needs control of its own revenue streams.

“I’m an optimist,” van de Zande said. “But if you don’t get city support to help build a stadium, there are huge challenges. And if there is no stadium, there is nothing.”

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