Story by Jacob Murphy
Photos by Lauren Ussery
More than 12,000 fans piled into Myers Stadium for the ATX Pro Challenge in February to watch exciting soccer and support the Austin Marathon. The Austin Aztex are about to kick off their 2015 season, and supporters came out to see a preview of their local United Soccer League team.
Aztex fans were not the only ones there. As part of a four-team tournament, three other Major League Soccer (MLS) teams — D.C. United, Columbus Crew SC and FC Dallas — participated in a four-game event that took place over two days. Fans from all four sides were present, especially the Dallas supporters, who took up entire sections of the stands as an away team.
Synchronized chants and cheering came from all parts of the crowd. Even though these were only preseason games, many fans were on their feet the whole time. It was clear that Austinites are passionate about their soccer.
The Aztex were blown away by their MLS competition. Despite losing both games over the weekend, head coach Paul Dalglish still liked what he saw from his team, and he says he was glad that they got the opportunity to play against higher level competition. “It’s a privilege to play against these MLS teams,” says Dalglish. “For our guys it was really a baptism by fire and a great learning experience."
The first match proved quite the challenge for the Aztex as Austin dropped its first game to D.C. United 2-0. United scored both its goals in the first 16 minutes and proved too much for Dalglish’s club to overcome.
In the eighth minute, United’s Miguel Aguilar drove in from the right side of the box and hit a rocket toward the top left corner, past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Devin Perales. Aguilar embarrassed Aztex defender Kyle Hoffer in the process, causing him to get crossed up and fall as he attempted to stick to his man.
Soon after in the 15th minute, D.C. forward Conor Doyle had a one-on-one opportunity against Perales and converted. Down two goals and not playing very well, the Aztex had their chance late in the game to erase the opposition’s clean sheet. Off a corner kick, defender Leone Cruz moved into the box and blasted a header toward the left post, but goalkeeper Bill Hamid made a highlight-reel save that had to be seen to be believed.
Even after allowing two early goals, Dalglish insisted that his team played better in the first half than in the second. This could be attributed to the fact that around the 60-minute mark, United subbed in players who are believed to be the team’s projected starters for the season. “It was a game of two halves,” Dalglish says. “We were excellent in the first half, and then we weren’t as good in the second half.”
The Scottish coach felt the opposite way about game two. On the first day, Columbus Crew SC fell to FC Dallas 3-1, so Columbus ended up as the Aztex’s next opponent.
After the first half, the score was level at 0-0, but there was an 18-0 shot advantage in favor of Crew SC in the first half alone, an enormous disparity. Crew SC’s right-back, Chad Parson, managed to tap one in for his side in the 81st minute, assisted by a cross from Justin Meram. The scoreline was held at 1-0, as the Aztex finished the tournament winless and scoreless. “We struggled with Columbus, but the second half I think we kind of worked out tactically what we needed to change, and as we made the changes, the guys executed the plan,” Dalglish says. “But literally, I thought we dominated the second half.”
With 23 new players on the Aztex roster and training only two weeks in, struggles were expected. “All we really been working on is a general system of play, which is to get the spacing right and the distances between the players,” Dalglish says. “So just letting them learn the system is the first priority, and after a couple weeks of learning the system, we’ll start working on individual areas where we can be a little more specific on what we want to achieve.”
After all, these were preseason games that don’t count against teams that are not even in the same league. The only thing that the Aztex truly lost was a one-of-a-kind, pistol-wielding, armadillo in a cowboy hat, otherwise known as the Pro Challenge Championship Trophy.
Dalglish maintains that playing against superior teams was a good thing. “It exposed weaknesses in our play that maybe an easier opposition wouldn’t have exposed,” Dalglish says. “We want to improve every game, and we want to make sure that we can be the best that we can become. The only way you do that is by making mistakes and fixing them.”
The final game of the tournament ended with D.C. United defeating F.C. Dallas 1-0. Its reward, the awe-inspiring armadillo, is a beacon of success.
This year will mark the first that the Aztex play in the United Soccer League after playing in the Premier Development League (PDL) for the previous three. This current Austin club was established in 2011 after another club that was also called the Austin Aztex moved to Orlando due to financial struggles. Since the revitalization of the team, the Aztex have amassed a 31-7-6 record. After advancing to the Southern Conference Championship game every year and having a total of 13 players drafted in the MLS SuperDrafts, the team was prepared to move up the USL, a more advanced league. However, they do not want to stop there.
The ultimate goal for the club is to one day bring MLS soccer to Austin, one of the largest cities in the country without a major sports team. As demonstrated by the turnout to the ATX Pro Challenge, there is an abundance of soccer-loving Austinites.
Dalglish loves the energy the fans bring to the games and hopes the fanbase continues to grow as the team advances further into higher division leagues. “[The fans] have been with us in the PDL, and they’ve carried on their support as we move up the ranks at the end approach,” Dalglish says.
The Pro Challenge could potentially serve as a springboard for creating more buzz around the Aztex prior to the upcoming season. Most American soccer fans follow their favorite European league teams, but attending Aztex games can provide the excitement of live action and give fans the pride that comes with supporting the hometown squad.
The Austin Aztex kick off their USL regular season by hosting Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on March 28.