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USL Austin franchise hitting make-or-break point as MLS talks delayed


COTA chairman Bobby Epstein: ‘We are nearly too late for 2019.’

City council’s MLS stadium debate will come eight weeks past originally scheduled date.

Austin’s new USL team stops construction and hiring while waiting.

As the Austin City Council puts off a discussion regarding Major League Soccer, a scenario could unfold that leaves Austin with no professional soccer club in 2019.

Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein, who announced in August that he was launching a United Soccer League franchise in ‘19, said his project is not viable if an MLS team comes to Austin. Columbus Crew SC ownership is exploring a move to the Texas capital.

“We believe the the Crew are coming to Austin and look forward to them bringing pro soccer to our city,” Epstein said Thursday. “Logically, we stopped work on building a facility or hiring staff upon their announcement.

“If their plans change, we would be happy to re-energize our efforts, but at this stage, we are nearly too late for 2019.”

Epstein has unveiled plans for a 5,000-seat stadium at the motorsports and entertainment complex in Southeast Austin.

On Thursday, the council moved all discussion and any action regarding a potential MLS stadium site to Feb. 15, 2018, a full eight weeks after it was originally scheduled to take place. This was the second delay in a week, following one that initially pushed the date back to Feb. 1.

The council made the moves after consulting MLS officials and Precourt Sports Ventures, the owners of the Crew. All sides said more time was needed to fully evaluate and vet the eight city-owned sites identified Tuesday for either a stadium, training facility or both.

Yet the uncertainty of how long it might take the council and PSV to agree on a stadium site — if they do agree on one — shortens the timeline for the MLS team to move here in time for the 2019 season, which opens with a January training camp.

“We’re encouraged to this point, but there is a finite timeline,” said Austin MLS lobbyist Richard Suttle, who works for PSV. He did not identify a drop-dead date for reaching a stadium deal. If they move here, the Crew plan to play the 2019 and 2020 seasons in a rented facility.

The USL Austin timeline is much shorter. Unlike the Precourt group, Epstein does not have an existing franchise — with management, staff and a roster — already in place. He is starting from scratch.

“Construction and search processes are not overnight events,” he said. “We were pursuing a very ambitious timeline and planned to already be through the infrastructure design and permitting phase, with a coach in place and season tickets on sale in less than 60 days.

“How do you market a team, search for corporate sponsors or sell season tickets if you’re not even sure you’ll be here?”

If the Crew come here, the USL team would likely be moved to another city, clearing the way for Austin’s first major league franchise.

In a recent interview with Mayor Steve Adler, the American-Statesman asked about the possibility that both soccer projects fall through.

“I won’t deal in hypotheticals, but we have a pretty unique opportunity here to land an MLS team,” Adler said. “Based on my conversations with team ownership and the league, I’m convinced that if there’s an appropriate location, they will come to Austin.”

Council member Kathie Tovo offered a similar message.

“I don’t pretend to be an expert on how the world of major league soccer works, yet I think it’s significant that there is a lot of support for soccer here,” she said. “My guess is we will have a pro soccer team in Austin, and it’s just a matter of when.”

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