Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The League Goes to Austin FC's first Play-Off Match

Sunday, October 16th, I attended my first Austin FC match at Q2 Stadium here in sunny Austin, Texas.  

This was a somewhat unlikely event.  I've tried many times to get into soccer, but it never really worked for me.  European leagues play on European time, and I don't speak Spanish to keep up with the best soccer in my hemisphere.  And, honestly, cable has usually done a terrible job of covering MLS, the US's soccer equivalent of the NBA or MLB.  Over the years I was more interested in the US Women's National Team - because of the best sports-watching moments of my life is and always will be Brandi Chastain's penalty kick in the 1999 FIFA World Cup (yeah, the one that ended with Chastain whipping off her jersey).  That moment made a 24-year-old me cry.

Anyway, I was astoundingly skeptical of Austin taking on an MLS team.  It was originally pitched very badly by the owners looking to move here,  They made some weird moves along the way - like trying to just say they were going to build their stadium on highly utilized public land in incredibly dense areas of town, something not agreed upon by City Council or anyone else.  It would have created innumerable issues from traffic to environmental, and was kind of ugly and brazen, demonstrating they did not know Austin and did not share the values of Austinites.  

You don't just drop a massive stadium on Town Lake and think no one will notice.

Austin had also had a few goes at pro soccer and those had not met with all that much enthusiasm.  I'm not generally aware of all of the levels of pro and semi-pro soccer in the US, but Austin Aztex had some issues, and it seems like that was not the first team to play here.  They kind of reformed as Austin FC Bold, but struggled with getting press, and now in the shadow of Austin FC have moved to Ft. Worth.  

Folks from places like Houston will also not quite understand that Pro-Sports are not necessarily as key to life here.  I grew up in Austin and have lived here the vast majority of my life, and people do not feel they're missing a lot by not having a pro-sports team when UT's football stadium is gigantic and seats 100,000 and we seat 20,000 for basketball.  We have baseball and volleyball and basketball if you need them, and it honestly sometimes feels purer as sport because it is amateur athletics.  

We've also had ice hockey come and go (and maybe come back?).  We've had arena football, minor-league football, and now a pro Rugby team.  None of which got a ton of traction.

Frankly, I didn't know how it would go.  

Early on there were indicators which pointed in a positive direction that I ignored.  Citizens showed up in enormous numbers to the City Council to testify about the value of such a team to the Austin community.  But people also show up to support all sorts of things - many of which do not fill 20,000 person stadiums.   I, myself, was saying "ugh, if the tax payers have to deal wit this stadium when the team folds, I'm gonna be so pissed."  I had no idea what I was talking about.

From the first home match in 2021, Austin FC has sold out almost every game.  And from Day 1, Austin FC has had an amazing Supporters Section comprised of a variety of sub-crews.  I don't fully grok how it all breaks out, but there's at least one band (La Murga).  There's The Fighting Leslie's.  Los Verdes.  Austin Anthem.  It's an intensely *positive* group, which seemed to irk some other teams' supporters groups, which strikes me as ridiculous.  In year one, social media was full of out-of-towners telling the fans they were doing futbol wrong by not being furious constantly with the team.  

Of course people have opinions and cranking about what someone should or should have not done is always part of it, but when you're in the stadium or talking the team, boosterism is cool.  Slagging off other teams and their fans is... kind of a dead end.  Let alone doing that to your own team when they're the ones out there playing for you.  Enjoy a thing, man.

Anyway, being an entitled fan is dumb, as is hooliganism.  And we have enough armchair experts on American football who's version of support of the local college football squad and attached university who are pretty sure they could coach and manage a team that I much prefer the vibe of Austin FC fans.

Of course, the coincidental arrival of Ted Lasso piqued a certain interest in soccer  - the workings of which seem bizarre and hopelessly impenetrable if you're an outsider.  But the show *knows* soccer is a bit impenetrable at first, and so explains to it to Ted, and therefore us.*  

You just can't take for granted how *weird* longstanding sports are to the uninitiated or those of us who didn't grow up with the games.  I played soccer in my youth, but the rules are not the same as what we had, and as a defensive center, I never had to worry much about strategy anyway.  Per viewing - my family was a basketball family, and, later, a football family.  Baseball was just not on the radar, and so it was that I was in my 20's before I understood you could have an infinite number of foul balls during an at-bat and it kind of unlocked baseball for me.  And ever since, I've enjoyed baseball and I've enjoyed how many weirdo little rules the game has (seriously, sit your kids down and do your best to explain a sport to them.).  

Similarly, soccer is a garden of new and strange things lifelong fans take for granted and totally make sense once you better get the game.  But at first seem insane - ex: the obvious example being offsides, closely followed by the value of faking injury.

When Austin FC did launch, I found that they were going to air games live on our local CW affiliate which is great except that I have YouTubeTV, which doesn't carry that channel, and so I had to but an antenna like it's 1998.  Some games are only on Univision.  One was only on twitter?  But the seasons are long, running from end of February til playoffs starting in October, and I think I only missed about four games the first season, and maybe two this season.  

To no surprise, Jamie - who does love a good sporting match of nearly any kind - has been watching along with me.  She seems very up on the rules, I think she has her own favorite players, and she tolerates it when I go into the kitchen during the second half of games and start cleaning if I can't take the tension.  

Back in the spring, a co-worker of mine figured out I was an Austin FC watcher, and he engaged me.  It's clear he's a real fan of the futbol, and I'm an interested bystander, but he also told me early on that he is a "supporter".  And in soccer-world, that means he goes to all the matches and enters into a sort of free-for-all area behind the South-end goal where the bands and spirit groups mass.  They have flags and chants and songs.  They make something called a "tifo", which is a huge banner shown before the game.  It's a whole scene.

Anyhoo... he invited me along to the match on Sunday afternoon.

After a pretty predictable but rough first season, this year went well.  Austin FC wound up ranked second in our division.  Not every game has been pretty, but we entered into the post season able to play on, and in a home game at that.  

We took the bus in from north-central Austin, and were the first guys on the bus.  As we went along, it filled up with eager fans at each stop, and the bus was kind of humming.  I will talk to anyone and we wound up talking to a gentleman about his former career as a barbecue cutter.

Inside the gates, it was a sea of green.  I don't have a t-shirt that fits right (I'm a definite "tall" and the t-shirt I do own shows belly when I raise my arms).  As used to burnt orange as I am, and even Cubbie blue, it was amazing to see everyone in Austin FC kit and gear.  

It was fun.  It was chaos.  My body - after staying home for 2+ years of COVID sheltering - was absolutely furious with me for standing around in one spot on concrete for 3 hours.  My feet hurt for a full day after, and I drank roughly 60 oz of water when I got home to rehydrate.  

The supporters section is loud, unruly, there are props and flags and instruments and people throw $18 beers and free cups of water all through-out.  Which sounds awful, but when its 92 standing in the shade, you embrace it.  There's a constant cycle of chants and songs - and it does not let up.  Something is always going on.  The goal is to remain positive and support those guys on the field and let them know the fans are there.  Also, there's a very large, green rubber chicken.

With 90 minutes of regular time played, plus 30 minutes of extra time, we remained tied 2-2.  This was somewhat nonsense as we had multiple goals taken back and the refs were all over us - even as they ejected one of the Real Salt Lake players (who richly and shamefully deserved it).  So, we went to sudden-death penalty shots.  

Our goalie, Brad Stuver, has ice in his veins, and he blocked 3 of 4, barely missing the one that went in.  Meanwhile our team scored 4, and as it's best of 5, mathematically, we were done at that point.  And Stuver, who is a hero during any game, became that guy.

them's my dudes

I hugged a stranger, I high-fived a dozen more.  I screamed til my lungs gave out.  

Here's video of the shoot-out.  You can actually see my pale-ass arms stick up out of the crowd at 4:34 - just look to the left of the camera man.  I'm wearing a backward baseball cap way up top there.

Anyhow - I've been in a mode for a while where if folks offer me something, I try to say "yes", within reason.  And as I'm now boosted and all that, this was a chance for me to finally (FINALLY) get to go see the team.

And, you know, I was totally wrong about Austin FC and soccer in Austin.  It's here, it's huge, and any skepticism I had was badly founded.  And, man, is it fun.  Cannot wait to get Jamie to a match.

Cannot believe that here in 2022, I'm a futbol guy.  At least for the local club.  But that's part of it!  Support your local club.  Now, if we can just get a National Women's Soccer League squad of our own...

*While real soccer sadly lacks a Hannah Waddingham with every team, it still can be highly watchable. 

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