A visit to SXSW about 10 years ago, and a meeting, changed the trajectory of Major League Soccer's makeup.
The visitor? MLS commissioner Don Garber. Who was he meeting? The Mayor of Austin Steve Adler. Fast forward to current day, the two are standing inside a brand new $225 million stadium on 24 acres of land, reflecting on how their idea has blossomed into the 27th franchise in MLS history.
Enter Austin FC, which will be playing its inaugural game Saturday in Los Angeles.
As if navigating a pandemic didn’t already come with enough hardships, imagine trying to get a professional sports team up and running? It’s exactly what the Austin FC front office was tasked with as they kept the ship afloat while other expansion projects like Sacramento crumbled.
Owner Anthony Precourt initially tried to relocate the Columbus Crew to Austin in 2017, but after backlash and a new ownership deal kept the Crew in Ohio, the Austin project began in earnest. Before anyone involved at Austin FC could even begin to think about soccer, they had to figure out how to make an instant splash that would resonate.
Enter Academy Award-winning actor and author Matthew McConaughey, who in 2019 was announced as part-owner and "Minister" of Culture of the new team.
The Texas native had no hesitation when presented with the opportunity to be part of the project he constantly refers to as a “legacy move” for him and his family. Married to a Brazilian wife, soccer has become part of his everyday life, and his goal now is to rally that same passion around the city itself.
“Fresh, relentlessly optimistic city,” McConaughey said. “It’s the world’s game, it’s coming here. We got people from all over the world in our city that have never had a team to root for that represented the city of Austin.”
Along with being located in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, Austin FC has sold 15,500 season tickets and has a waitlist numbering another 15,000 already.
“Fits the brand of Major League Soccer: A city on the rise that marries perfectly with a league on the rise,” Garber said. “It seems so perfect. It looks like Austin, it feels like Austin, it reflects the culture of the community.”
That community is embedded within the home ground itself. Q2 Stadium was designed to emulate the outdoor spaces in the downtown bars and streets, and it's located near The Domain, a retail and residential center that's still relatively new.
“If you take a snapshot from the sky [over Q2 Stadium] and you zoom in, you should be able to see in the crowd the diversity, the creative colors, the vibrancy that represent Austin,” McConaughey said. “On any given night when you’re in that stadium, it should feel, smell and taste like the best of Austin, Texas.”
Austin FC won’t get to experience its home environment until June 19 as stadium construction finishes. MLS schedule-makers didn’t spare the newcomers any favors by pitting them against star-studded LAFC in this weekend's opener, not to mention five more 2020 playoff teams in the following six matchweeks.
Garber sees parallels between Austin FC and other recent expansion clubs.
“I tell all new owners: It is very difficult to crack the code,” Garber said. “We saw the challenges that Toronto had when they launched their team before they were able to achieve success, Orlando is another example of that. You have to expect that you just can’t come in here, snap your fingers and expect to be an MLS Cup champion. It’s a difficult league to be successful in.”
LAFC has been one of the best recent models of how to hit the ground running and McConaughey, who has attended games in L.A., has absorbed insight from that ownership group.
It also helps that his friend Will Ferrell is one of LAFC’s co-owners. In fact, McConaughey said the two have engaged in “a war of words” over the opener and might place a wager on it.
All that anticipation is now a few days away from paying off.
“How much success can we have in Year 1? We’ll see,” McConaughey said. “We’ve not built [Austin FC] in a day and we’re not going to be a fad. This is the beginning. The seed is planted to grow a big strong oak, a legend, and we have the long view here for what we’re building and going to become.”
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