The Austin Aztex and Foreign Ownership in American Soccer

Austin AztexHere come the Austin Aztex — the newest United Soccer Leagues team, who will play in the First Division, itself one rung below Major League Soccer in the American soccer pyramid.

As Americans are too busy buying Premier League teams, it’s been left to an Englishman, Phil Rawlins, to launch the Aztex in Texas. Rawlins is also an owner and director of Stoke City, who play in England’s Championship.

The Aztex will be officially affiliated to Stoke, which will mean “the English club holding their summer training camp in Austin, scouting for talent both locally and across the US, exchanging players with the Aztex and sharing best practices between the two clubs.”

The interesting part is that this latest move is part of a deliberate strategy by USL founder and president Francisco Marcos to further internationalise the league. As he explained,

I firmly believe that Phil Rawlins understands, and is fully committed to, the concept of international relationships as the way to speed up American player development and to further the creation of thriving soccer culture in the US. Following in the footsteps of Crystal Palace Baltimore, who began play last season, and of our recently announced partnership with West Ham United, this is a significant moment in the history and growth of the USL First Division

My question is, does this represent a good step for American soccer? On the one hand, bringing in foreign expertise on training and development could be helpful (though it would be good if the affiliations were with clubs from more diverse football cultures than the British).

On the other, it’s hard to imagine Americans becoming attached to the likes of Crystal Palace Baltimore, and I say that not only out of my own personal antipathy to Crystal Palace.

Locally rooted USL teams can develop strong support and identity, as we’ve seen with the Portland Timbers. But foreign owned USL teams, as essentially farms or appendages to a higher priority team, seem unlikely to set down roots for long. Despite the remarkably passionate and valiant efforts of California Victory fans to save the club after their Spanish ownership abandoned them, they’ll be on hiatus from the USL in 2008, and their return uncertain.

Yet it’s hard to say a new team being placed in Texas is bad for soccer overall. Austin is a vibrant, growing city — if the Aztex can find and settle at a suitable stadium, it could be a success. There’s already talk on soccer forums of a supporters’ group being formed.

And the Aztex — despite the really forced way they’ve stuck “tex” in the name — can at least claim an actual local basis to their ownership, as Rawlins lives in the area. He also said all the right things, stating that “My goal is to make the Aztex a community-based club that the Austin area can be proud of.”

Let’s hope so. What soccer needs here are more locally rooted clubs that stick around for a long time, not farm operations run for the benefit of foreign clubs.

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