COTA chairman Bobby Epstein will be the club’s majority owner in a rapidly growing United Soccer League, which expects to field at least 34 teams in 2019. Since Austin’s aborted USL startup in 2015, the USL has been elevated to Division II status, one step below Major League Soccer, and gained a television contract with ESPN.
“We’re coming back in a big way,” Epstein told the American-Statesman. “For the first time, we’ll have our own intimate, purpose-built stadium, an international-size field, no football lines, no track. We’ll get fans close to the action, have a true home field and allow players to play the game the way it is intended.”
The stadium, to be located between the Austin 360 Amphitheater and the circuit’s grand plaza, will represent a major expansion of the new FC Barcelona training academy scheduled to open this month. That facility was to seat about 1,000 fans. Now it will have five times the capacity to meet USL standards.
“We have worked diligently with Bobby over the past 18 months to secure a permanent home for a USL club in Austin and are pleased to have arrived at a solution,” USL President Jake Edwards said preceding Wednesday’s official announcement. “This will ensure the long-term success of the franchise.”
Epstein, who said he has a small group of investors joining him in the project, did not disclose a cost estimate for the stadium. USL venues with similar capacities have $5 million to $10 million price tags, not counting land acquisition. Epstein, who emphasized the project will be accomplished with private money, indicated he can do this for less.
“We already have a lot of what we need in place,” said Epstein, majority investor in Austin’s former USL club, the Aztex. “We have the infrastructure, own the land. We have roads, parking, concessions. We already own a lot of seating that can be moved from our F1 inventory. Obviously, we have a sales and marketing staff, too.”
Epstein said he plans to sell naming rights to the stadium. He added that the field, which will have luxury suites and lighting for night games, also will be available for local soccer tournaments.
The USL, currently a 30-team league, is excited about the partnership with a Formula One track. This will be the only American soccer stadium — maybe the only one in the world — on the grounds of a motorsports facility.
“Circuit of the Americas is an outstanding venue that has been home to major events for a number of years,” Edwards said.
The team will no longer be known as the Aztex, who suffered substantial financial losses in 2015 while playing at high school football stadiums. The club was the second Aztex franchise to fail in Austin; the original one moved to Orlando, Fla., in 2011.
“It’s important to get a fresh start,” Epstein said. “The way it was done before wasn’t fair to the fans. They deserve better.”
FC Austin is a strong candidate for the new franchise’s name, but team officials will take suggestions in the months ahead.
Former Aztex CEO Rene van de Zande is expected to retain a financial interest in the new team, which aims to have a coach and general manager in place by next summer.
In 2015, the Aztex reported an average home attendance of 3,227, which ranked 11th in a 24-team league.
Roberto Pinto da Silva Jr., former Aztex business manager and now COTA’s special projects director, said the re-launch of a USL franchise has a much better chance to succeed.
“It never felt like real soccer before, playing on high school fields with football lines and yard-markers. So many people told us that,” said da Silva Jr., a Brazilian. “This time we’ll offer the full soccer experience in one location, a place everybody knows.”
Austin Sports Commissioner Lance Aldridge said Epstein’s commitment will allow the city to get back on the national pro soccer map.
“In addition, we think the stadium being located at COTA is another great step in cementing its standing as a top year-round sports and entertainment destination,” Aldridge said.
Austin’s latest USL club will be a test run in the long-term push for an MLS franchise, whether through expansion or relocation. Austin, often a top-20 TV market for international soccer, is the largest city in the United States without a major professional sports franchise.
MLS commissioner Don Garber touted Austin’s potential during a South by Southwest appearance in March.
“If our USL franchise proves itself and fans show up, it will send a message to MLS that this is a good place for soccer,” Epstein said.
In the meantime, he envisions a spirited rivalry with San Antonio FC, a second-year USL team. Only 70 miles will separate the teams’ stadiums.
“It’ll be the first time there’ve been two USL teams positioned so close,” Epstein said. “I expect their fans to come up here and our fans to go down there.”
Wherever they travel, Austin’s fans will want to see a winner, of course.
“We plan to win,” Epstein said. “We’re not there to put just a good team on the field. We want to do what it takes to get Austin a championship.”
USL at a glance
League’s status: Division II in the U.S. Soccer Federation structure, just beneath Major League Soccer. Think Triple-A baseball.
Teams: Thirty in 2017, but expected to rise to at least 34 by 2019 when Austin re-enters the USL.
Texas connection: San Antonio FC and Rio Grande Valley FC
Alignment: Split into Eastern and Western conferences, with top-eight teams in each conference qualifying for the playoffs.
Season: Consists of 34 regular-season matches from mid-March to mid-October, followed by the playoffs.
Defending champ: New York Red Bulls II
Average attendance: 4,403 in 2017, with Cincinnati — a candidate for MLS expansion — the runaway leader with 20,466 per home game.
Franchise fees: When the Aztex entered the league in 2015, the going rate was reportedly $500,000. By 2018, Nashville will pay a reported $4 million to join the USL.
Player salaries: The figures are not publicized, but most players make between $20,000 to $30,000 per season, although some big-name international players earn far more.
Not in the game
Biggest U.S. cities without a pro soccer team (population estimates from 2016):
San Diego…..8…..1.41 million
Note: San Diego will enter the NASL in 2018; Austin will join the USL in 2019.
Austin soccer timeline
A history of men’s semi-pro or pro soccer teams in Austin, one of which is now a Major League Soccer franchise in Florida:
1987-1993: Austin Sockadillos, Southwest Indoor Soccer League. Home: Tatu’s All-Star Indoor Soccer Palace, among other venues.
1989-91: Capital Sockadillos, Southwest Outdoor Soccer League. Home: Burger Center, Nelson Field, House Park.
1992-93: Sockadillos move up to U.S. Indoor Soccer League.
1994-98: Austin Lone Stars indoor club, USISL Division 3 (‘94); USISL Division 2 (‘95-96); USISL D-3 Pro (‘97-98).
1999-2000: Austin Lone Stars outdoor club, USL Division 3 Pro.
2002-07: Austin Lightning, Premier Development League. Home: Burger Center and at least five other venues in Travis and Williamson counties.
2008: Austin Stampede, Premier Development League. Home: Dragon Stadium, Round Rock
2009-10: Austin Aztex FC, USL First Division (‘09). Home: Nelson Field; USSF D-2 Pro (‘10). Home: House Park. Note: Team moved to Orlando, Fla., in 2011 and eventually became Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer.
2012-14: Austin Aztex, Premier Development League. Home: House Park. Note: The Aztex won the 2013 PDL championship, which remains the only soccer league title to Austin’s name.
2015: Austin Aztex, United Soccer League (Division 3). Home: House Park (until the Memorial Day weekend floods) and Reeves Athletic Complex in Round Rock. Note: Team suspended operations after the season because of financial losses.
2019: USL Austin (name TBA), United Soccer League (Division 2). Home: Circuit of the Americas.