For local supporters of the beautiful game, 2015 will be remembered for dramatic highs and devastating lows. It was a year in which professional soccer made a return to the City of the Violet Crown, but which ends with no active team and head coach Paul Dalglish packing his bags for a new gig in Canada.
The year began with bang; in February the Aztex hosted three MLS teams – FC Dallas, Columbus Crew, and D.C. United – in the “ATX Pro Challenge”. The four-team tournament was a delight for supporters and great experience for the teams, but turned sour for team ownership as cost overruns and mistakes in planning put the Aztex organization in a hole financially before the USL season had even begun.
While the financial problems were developing off the field, the on-pitch performance was quite good through preseason. The Aztex were able to hold their own during the Pro Challenge, and managed a preseason record of 6-1 thereafter, beating the Houston Dynamo, the San Antonio Scorpions, and every college team they faced except SMU.
The USL regular season began in late March, and the Aztex continued their good form. On a beautiful night in Austin, a crowd of over 4,000 was on hand at House Park for the club’s first professional league match. The Aztex were dominant, earning a 2-0 win over the Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
As the season developed, the Aztex began to struggle to keep the consistency they showed early on. Finding the back of the net became increasingly difficult for the Aztex attack, but the gritty nature of Dalglish’s side kept them in most matches, as many were decided by a slim margin.
Memorial Day Floods
As Spring moved into the Hill Country, it brought significant amounts of inclement weather, and lots of rainfall. On Memorial Day weekend, a home match versus Tulsa was slated for Saturday, May 23, but was pushed back to the following day due to lightning and heavy thunderstorms. The 1-0 defeat on Sunday morning, in front of far fewer fans than would have attended the night before, wouldn’t be the only loss on the weekend, or the worst. On Monday, a record amount of rainfall and flash flooding hit Austin. Many area homes and businesses experienced damage when water from Shoal Creek crested several feet above flood stage.
Few structures were hit harder than House Park, the home of the Aztex. It was estimated that more than five feet of water flooded across the playing surface, badly damaging the artificial turf and making it unplayable. The Aztex suddenly found themselves in the uncomfortable position of finding a new home field on short notice. Meanwhile AISD, the Austin school district that owns and operates the stadium, were operating on a timetable focused on fall football more than summer soccer.
While there is never a good time to lose your home, the Aztex did have the small bit of luck of having a few weeks of away games on the schedule while they sorted out their options.
U.S. Open Cup
The true highlight for the 2015 Aztex would be their play in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The club’s first match was against former PDL foe Laredo Heat. Historically the Heat have been one of the most successful amateur clubs in the tournament, but the Aztex earned a 2-0 result and a spot in the next round.
Next up for Austin was a date to take on the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions again at their home in San Antonio. Mikey Ambrose opened the night when he scored what we at Violet Crown Soccer consider the goal of the year, giving Austin a lead that they would not surrender. The final scoreline was 2-0, Eberly’s Army joyously hoisted the Queso Bowl, and Austin was on its way to the next round against MLS’ Houston Dynamo in June.
Austin’s supporters, led by Eberly’s Army, chartered a bus and traveled over 50 strong to cheer on the club in another rain soaked match. The Aztex took the pitch at BBVA Compass Stadium looking to replicate their preseason success against Dalglish’s former club. Though the hosts were eventually victorious 2-0, and Austin’s longest run in Open Cup play was over, it was a night that won’t soon be forgotten by Austin fans.
A New House
Ultimately, the club made the safe choice and chose to complete their home season at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex, the football stadium of Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) in the Northwest suburbs of Austin. The Aztex had an existing relationship with RRISD, making the change easy for the club.
Fortunately for fans, the club was able to partner with Capital Metro to provide free transportation along the MetroRail train line, with a shuttle to the stadium. Signs pointed to a successful partnership, but rainy weather continued to plague game days, and attendance continued to be impacted
On June 20th, the Aztex marked a new phase in their season when they played their first home game at Kelly Reeves, against the same foe as their last match at House Park: Tulsa Roughnecks FC. The match was again delayed due to weather, though the end result was better: a 1-1 draw.
Donovan, Ching, & Holden
In August, the Aztex were able to post their best attendance number of the year when Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, and Stuart Holden appeared in a halftime 3-on-3 charity match. The trio of former USMNT players was in town hosting their first-ever HELM Soccer summer skills camp. Funds raised at the match benefited the Aztex Soccer Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Aztex.
The Aztex were unable to capture the magic provided by the boost in atmosphere and dropped a 1-0 result to the visiting Timbers 2 side. The loss was the first of three consecutive losses that left the Aztex playing for pride as they pushed to the end of the regular season.
The Final Stretch
With eight games to play, and sitting outside of playoff position, the Aztex only had three home games on the schedule. The team needed to win their home games and find a dramatic improvement in their road form.
The next two dates were home matches with postseason contenders Los Angeles Galaxy II (“Los Dos”) and Orange County Blues. The Aztex played with determination but were only able to split the two games with a win and a draw, effectively ending their already slim chances of making the playoffs in their first professional season.
September had just one home date on the Aztex schedule: a charity game that saw the players don pink jerseys to be auctioned after the game. Proceeds raised from the jersey auction benefited both the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Aztex Foundation.
The Aztex were able to earn a 2-1 win and send the fans home happy in their final home appearance. The victory allowed the club to post a winning home record in their first USL season. While the crowds never fully embraced the move to Kelly Reeves, on that night, at least, a good crowd was on hand to thank the team for 2015.
Finishing on the Road
The final 3 dates of the USL regular season were road contests, and the normally stingy Aztex defense was porous. Allowing six goals over the first two matches brought losses at Colorado Springs and Sounders 2.
As in their home finale, the Aztex were able to muster a positive result in their final match of the season, though they were down 2-0 in the 65th minute. But Romain Gall led the charge, scoring first in a three-goal outburst that was continued by Tony Rocha and finished by Kris Tyrpak. The flurry gave Austin the 3-2 win and a 9th place finish in their inaugural season.
The Aztex Foundation
The Komen Foundation pink jersey night was one of several fundraisers held by the Aztex Foundation. There was also a bowling night with the players, and an auction of camouflage jerseys the night the Aztex won an exhibition (4-0) against the All-Air Force Team.
Funds raised are used by the foundation to serve economically disadvantaged youth through educational scholarships, using soccer as a way to give back to the community. The Aztex Foundation awarded scholarships in its first year and is currently planning an event to recognize recipients and lay the groundwork for the future.
Shortly after the conclusion of the regular season, news finally came out that confirmed troubling rumors that had been circulating: the team would not return to the field in 2016. Instead, the club will take a one-year hiatus in order to focus on establishing a better, more sustainable stadium situation. You can find more coverage of that developing story in this initial story, as well as the latest on-the-record news in this post.
Stay connected with Violet Crown Soccer in 2016 for the latest news on pro soccer in Austin, plus coverage of everything else of interest to soccer fans in and around Austin.