Last month, I sat outside in 103 degree weather watching what turned out to be an incredible soccer match between the US Women's National Team and Japan. I showed up at the bar an hour early, ordered a margarita and settled in. Several hours later, the hundred or so people in attendance and I watched—gasping, sweating and slightly tipsy—as the American women twice failed to protect one-goal leads.
In a heartbreaking end to what was a wonderful tournament, the Japanese Women's National Team calmly finished their penalty kicks, confounding new national star Hope Solo, while our team, seemingly out of gas, couldn't muster much more than weak passes towards the corners of the frame. And just like that, we all stood and filed out of the bar, subject to yet another in a seemingly endless stream of disappointments that have haunted fans of the US National Team over the past several years. This match was among the most frustrating, and painful, to behold. But even this loss pales in comparison to the biggest loss for Austin's soccer fans in the past year: the move of our own Austin Aztex late last summer to Orlando.
It still stings. I still talk about them. I still don't know what to do with a closet full of t-shirts and official jerseys whose punchy red clashes terribly with the burnt orange that graces the rest of my sports attire. It's been almost a year, and the squandered opportunity that we, as a city and as a community of soccer fans, had to focus our love of the game on a home-town professional club still aches as the biggest loss I've faced as a fan. And the worst part is that we really don't have anyone to blame but ourselves.
All these complaints had some basis in truth, but they belie the fact that Austin simply did not show enough support for the team to validate the owners' interest in staying here.
When Phil Rawlins, the Aztex's owner, publicly acknowledged that he was moving the team, many of us were quick to direct our anger towards him. The Aztex had, over the past two seasons in the USL D-2 pro league (think of it as triple-A baseball: pro, but not quite MLB), found a rhythm and settled into a thoughtful, attacking style of play that was increasingly a beautiful thing to watch. They had finally relocated home games to House Park, a centrally-located stadium in close proximity to restaurants and bars—amenities which had been sorely lacking in their original home at Reagan High School's Nelson Field. Things seemed to be falling into place: attendance was rising, the team was improving, and Chantico's Army, the official supporters' group, was a great presence at every match. With so much going right, the decision to move the team to Orlando came as a shock to many of us who had proudly cheered on the team at every home game.
And so, predictably, we blamed ownership. Rawlins became the scapegoat: he wanted too many concessions from the city, wanted them to build a stadium that simply wasn't in the budget, was too willing to take the easy way out and skip town for greener pastures instead of waiting patiently for the Austin community to fully buy in to the organization and the team.
I spent several months bandying about this kind of pat analysis of the Aztex's demise. I have since, though, come to understand that the real problem was with the community of soccer fans who, for reasons I have yet to fully comprehend, simply refused to consistently support the team.
There were too many home games where the stadium was only half-full, too many fans of the game who chose to spend their Sunday afternoons at Barton Springs rather than coming to watch the games. Too many who chose to complain about the lack of alcohol sales at the stadium. Too many complaints about the way the ball skipped on the turf, about the football lines painted across the field, ruining the beauty of the pitch. All these complaints had some basis in truth, but they belie the fact that Austin simply did not show enough support for the team to validate the owners' interest in staying here.
The sad truth is that the Aztex's departure was the product, unfortunately, of the worst instincts of US soccer fans, and it's now too late for some Wambach-like last minute heroics to bring the team back home.
The issue with fan support of the Aztex mirrors a larger problem with soccer fans in the US: we're actually incredibly condescending about the American game. The number of conversations I've had with soccer aficionados who claim they simply "can't watch" the MLS because the pace is too slow and the players lack real quality is depressing. We spend money on cable TV packages that allow us to watch the EPL, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, but refuse to tune in to ESPN's MLS Game of the Week, which is still earning very low ratings (though these have been steadily improving). We prefer discussing transfer rumors between clubs in the relegation zone in England over debating the starting XI for the MLS All-Star game.
For a country that faces its fair share of criticism for being xenophobic, American soccer fans are, in general, about as un-patriotic about our own game as is imaginable.
There are, of course, signs that this is changing. One need look no further that the incredible crowds at every Seattle Sounders game, or the passion of the Timber's Army in Portland, or the unyielding support for a DC United squad who have been stuck in a terrible stadium for years to have some faith that Americans are, little by little, beginning to appreciate that the MLS, and US soccer in general, is something to be cherished instead of derided. And more and more often, I'm able to show a friend an amazing goal from the MLS as evidence that they should actually tune in to these matches. Ultimately, I'm hopeful and optimistic about the growth of the game in the US, on every level, and that's why the loss of the Aztex was so particularly excruciating.
I spent that July evening discussing the US Womens' loss with a number of friends. We rued the missed opportunities that cost us the Cup, those momentary lapses that allowed Homare Sawa to get free in the box and deftly flick the incoming corner kick into the back of the US net in overtime, albeit with the help of a slight deflection, forcing the penalty shoot-out. The lingering frustration of this loss, though, was tempered by the knowledge that this win for Japan, after the devastation that country has faced over the past year, was as meaningful as they come.
There is no such consolation in Austin's loss of the Aztex, no feel-good story to fall back on. The sad truth is that the Aztex's departure was the product, unfortunately, of the worst instincts of US soccer fans, and it's now too late for some Wambach-like last minute heroics to bring the team back home. In four years, the US Women's National Team will have the opportunity to avenge this loss, but Austin soccer fans don't have that luxury: this was a one of a kind chance, and we showed a true lack of class in letting it slip through our fingers.