The ever-expanding United Soccer League received a booster shot this weekend, elevated to provisional Division 2 status by the national federation.
The Austin Aztex, however, will not be along for the ride — at least not this year, ownership confirmed Saturday.
“Yes, 2017 is out,” Aztex owner Rene van de Zande told the American-Statesman. “The Aztex are in continued discussions with the league to return in 2018.”
Aztex majority investor Bobby Epstein has maintained a “no stadium, no team” stance all along, but van de Zande and the league office held out a sliver of hope for an Austin return this year with a temporary stadium or rental.
That initial suspension ran out in October, but the USL kept the Aztex in the league — on paper, at least — for an undetermined period while the stadium search continued.
A USL owner who did not want to be identified told the Statesman the league is showing patience because it desires to be in the Austin market.
The USL, which has close ties to Major League Soccer, is going places. Since 2014, it has doubled in size to 30 franchises, adding Texas teams in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. Ottawa, Reno and Tampa Bay will come on line in 2017, and Nashville is signed up for 2018.
Until now, the NASL was Division 2 and the USL Division 3. The U.S. Soccer Federation will consider them co-Division 2 and re-evaluate at the end of the year.
“This provides further validation about our league’s financial sustainability, national footprint, ownership quality, stadium infrastructure and player development,” USL CEO Alec Papadakis said. “Our teams have invested more than $100 million into stadium development in the last year to enhance the experience for 1.5 million fans that attended games in 2016.”
While the USL keeps growing and improving, the NASL is shrinking and hemorrhaging money. NASL teams in Tampa Bay and Ottawa are jumping to the USL. The New York Cosmos and Oklahoma City were on the verge of collapse. The NASL could have as few as eight teams, but the USSF threw it a lifeline because it does not want the older league to die.
Meanwhile, Austin will be without a professional soccer team for the second year in a row. Aztex ownership has told the Statesman it will take a 5,000-seat stadium at a cost of $5 million to $6 million, not counting land purchase, to meet USL standards. There are no indications that owners are close to finding new investors or getting city help to make that happen.
Van de Zande is pleased with the USL’s rise in profile.
“This has been a few years in the making,” he said. “Division 2 criteria has set the bar higher to operate a USL franchise, including the need for better facilities.
“In our stadium solution discussions, the Austin Aztex already anticipated the criteria that must be met to operate a team in Division 2.”