Familiar sounds could be heard on a November evening at Dove Springs Recreation Center in southeast Austin. The shouts of children and teenagers and blaring music rose through the crisp air.
But with it came something unfamiliar — the sounds of sneakers sliding on concrete and a soccer ball slamming into a chain-link fence. The group of youth wore verde and black jerseys, and a nearby pop-up tent donned the crest of Austin FC, the city’s new Major League Soccer club.
Next year, Austin FC will begin play in a city that’s long been starved of a major professional sports team. The club hopes its impact will stretch farther than its sprawling stadium, which is nestled between several North Austin neighborhoods.
“How do we go beyond soccer and the sport to make Austin FC something that is really emblematic of the city?” said James Ruth, Austin FC’s senior vice president of marketing. “We want to be a catalyst for all the things that make Austin great.”
This mission of creating a team that exemplifies Austin culture almost began in Columbus, Ohio. When Anthony Precourt, CEO of Austin FC’s majority ownership company Two Oak Ventures, first decided to bring a Major League Soccer squad to Austin, the investor announced intentions to move the Columbus Crew Soccer Club from central Ohio down south.
But backlash from Columbus’ fans and Precourt’s sale of the club halted the move. Instead, Austin FC became Major League Soccer’s 27th independent franchise, operating as an expansion team.
While Austin FC is set to begin play in 2021, it has worked to expand the soccer culture within the city since Precourt founded the team in 2019.
That’s not to say that Austin wasn’t already brimming with soccer fans and players before the club’s arrival. The city posted top-five national television ratings for both the 2018 and 2019 FIFA World Cups, according to Fox Sports.
But the question remained: How does an expansion soccer club take root in a city that has never housed a top-tier professional sports team? For Jordan Johnson, program director of the team’s Verde Leaders initiative, this begins by developing the soccer culture and community outreach at the youth level.
“We know that Austin is a soccer city; we know that Austin loves this sport,” Johnson said. “But from my perspective, it’s about making sure that everyone can play the sport regardless of their background and where they came from.”
Youth sports in America have been confronted with declining participation in the last decade, and soccer has taken a hit with the rest of them. According to a study by The Aspen Institute, the percentage of American children who participated regularly in a sport of any kind dropped 4 percentage points from 2011 to 2017. Youth soccer in the United States saw a 9.5% decrease in participation from 2016 to 2017.
“Pay-for-play culture is one of the biggest (reasons) for that,” Geoff Rich, an assistant professor of practice in UT’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, said in an email. “(It is) costing more and more to play for club teams’ (initial costs and travel costs). The responsibility falls to the parents to pay for those opportunities if they want to get any kind of scouting for college.”
According to a Duke University study, the “pay-to-play” model that has taken over youth soccer has forced young athletes to play for expensive club teams in order to receive the best instruction and compete with other top talent. In turn, it has phased out many young players in low-income communities — the costs of club fees, travel and equipment can amount to thousands of dollars each year.
Now, Austin FC is actively trying to buck this trend at a local level. The Verde Leaders program is an initiative where members of the organization, players and coaches of Austin FC Academy and other leaders hold biweekly soccer and life skills training sessions, as well as other community events for youth.
“They help the underserved areas get access to soccer, so they work with a lot of the AISD (Austin ISD) school districts to help provide the opportunity for young players to have access to soccer,” said Tyson Wahl, Austin FC Academy general manager.
In another effort to increase access and fervor around the sport at a young age, Austin FC has constructed two concrete “minipitches” in partnership with its nonprofit arm 4ATX Foundation. With one at the Dove Springs Recreation Center and the other in North Austin at Wooldridge Elementary School, the small courts complete with built-in goals and chain-link fences emphasize a quick, energizing style of play.
Kaitlin Swarts, Austin FC vice president of community impact, said outside of providing a space to hold events, she hopes the two futsal-style courts provide a venue for the sport to grow.
“They’re more than minipitches; they’re signals to the youth and the families in that community that you deserve a safe space to play soccer,” Swarts said. “As a club, we want to provide a place with a smooth surface, with lights, where you can just grab your friends, grab your family, show up and play.”
Ruth said the casual, unstructured fun that comes with playing pickup soccer is vital to the continual growth of soccer in Austin. Outside of the boundaries of organized sports, providing spaces for players of all ages to compete in an informal setting is a goal the club is working toward.
“Pickup soccer culture is really important to soccer culture in the city,” Ruth said. “It definitely exists. We think there’s some opportunities for us to supercharge that.”
On its face, one may see the glamour of an investment group that includes actor Matthew McConaughey or the gleam of the new $240 million stadium. But at its core, Austin FC’s presence in the city begins in places like the Dove Springs minipitch — with a ball moving, music blasting and a community and its youth coming together to share a love for this sport.
“As a club, Austin FC believes that soccer can unify the city in a way that not much else can,” Swarts said.