The curious case of the Aztex: How floodwaters and MLS ambitions overwhelmed an Austin soccer brand

Courtesy of USL

Both USL and the Columbus Crew have set their gaze on Austin. But the strange story of pro soccer in Texas' capital city runs deeper still.

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In 2015, an unusually stormy Memorial Day weekend culminated with flooding in downtown Austin. Waters from the overflowing Shoal Creek rushed into House Park, damaging the 6,000-seat stadium’s playing surface and forcing three months of repairs to meet the demands of high-school football season.

For the Austin Aztex, a newly-elevated USL team vying for a breakout year in House Park, the floods effectively washed away their building momentum, and brought the most recent chapter of soccer in Austin — including a team of the same name that abruptly moved to Orlando five years prior — to a premature end.

This summer’s announcement of a USL team returning to Austin in 2019, coupled with October’s surprise revelation that Precourt Sports Ventures may relocate founding MLS franchise Columbus Crew SC to Austin, leaves Central Texas soccer fans in another state of limbo, even if a slightly more positive one.

“We’re happy to see professional soccer return to Austin,” says Matthew Gray, who leads Eberly’s Army, the still-active supporters’ group created for the first, incoming iteration of the Aztex nearly a decade ago. However, they’re a bit wary of what the future holds, be it a renewed relationship with USL or a new one with a Crew team that would be leaving Columbus under a cloud of controversy.

“We have blindly accepted two different organizations running professional soccer in Austin,” Gray says, “and both times, we have been bit by it. We’re not going to make that same mistake again.”

The first Aztex team was launched in 2008 as a USL PDL side by Stoke City board member Phil Rawlins, who touted the relationship between the Potters and the new club from the outset.

Courtesy of USL

Aztex, v1.0 (Courtesy of USL)

Though Austin fans grew to support the Aztex, with an average of almost 4,000 fans attending home games during the 2010 season, Rawlins later that year announced his team’s new home at an Orlando press conference. An hour earlier, he’d issued a statement noting that attempts to “broaden the investment base” in Austin, coupled with concerns over House Park’s viability as a home stadium, had forced them to leave the Texas capital.

Rawlins knew that Orlando gave him the opportunity to get into MLS. (For my 2016 book on MLS history, "The United States of Soccer," Rawlins told me he’d opened talks with MLS about operating a team in the Southeast before moving the Aztex; he chose Orlando based on research he’d initiated to determine which city in the region was most viable.)

Gray says the Aztex’s unexpected move caused “a lot of anger and disappointment,” spurring his group to launch a community-rallying movement similar to what Crew fans are doing now. Eberly’s Army also worked behind the scenes with a local ownership group led by David Markley; by September 2011, Markley announced a new Aztex team, purposefully adopting that familiar brand, would start USL PDL play in 2012.

The Aztex kicked off its 2015 season, when it made the jump from USL PDL to USL, with the ATX Pro Challenge, a February exhibition at the University of Texas’ Mike A. Myers Stadium featuring the Aztex, the Crew (its new MLS affiliate club), FC Dallas, and D.C. United.

According to the Aztex’s director of marketing & communications Jeff Burns, the tournament solidified just three months prior, and drew a respectable audience to the Friday-Sunday event despite the short promotional lead time, cold weather and a popular marathon closing roads adjacent to the stadium. (The Austin American-Statesman reported that Friday’s attendance, the strongest of the two days, was a “generously estimated 6,000.”)

NEXT: When a fateful Texas flood swept the Aztex away