It's the kind of beautiful early summer evening that can bring even the most die-hard air-conditioning lover outside. The sky is a deepening blue with pink sunset tinges and a faint moon vies for attention with the illuminated Austin skyline. A breeze accompanies the steady trickle of fans into House Park Stadium, many of whom, despite the balmy temperatures, are wearing blue and gold scarves. Children run excitedly in the aisles while adults of all demographics find seats on the metal bleachers. The teams take the field, the national anthem is sung, and play begins. The Austin Aztex are taking on the New Orleans Jesters in the first of a two-match weekend. While House Park is a familiar scene for local high school football in the fall, in the summer it is the home pitch for Austin’s own United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (USL PDL) team, the Austin Aztex.The Austin Aztex are both a new and an old feature in the city’s history. The Austin Aztex FC was a professional soccer team that began play in 2008. Fans came out for home matches at both Nelson Field (’09) and the more centrally located House Park off Lamar Boulevard (’10), dressed in the team’s red and white striped jerseys which recalled owner Phil Rawlin’s association with Stokes City F.C. There was an impromptu band of enthusiastic musicians who accompanied play with a cacophony of drums, random instruments, and air horns at many home games. Despite fan enthusiasm, investors were lacking and the team was sold, relocating to Orlando, Florida, where the soccer club was renamed Orlando City in October 2010.
Die-hard soccer fans in Austin were not to be without their beloved Aztex for long, though. David Markley, founder and minority owner of the former Austin Aztex FC, resurrected the team just one year after the relocation. The new Austin Aztex dropped the “FC” and became one of the 64 USL PDL teams across the United States and Canada and part of the Mid-South division of the Southern Conference. Markley hopes to build the foundation for a future professional team within the recently reincarnated amateur Austin Aztex. A new logo consisting of the Texas lone star and frequent Austin acronym “ATX” was created and the teams’ colors became dark blue and gold. The new head coach, Paul Dalglish, is a Scotsman and former pro player for several storied teams (including Newcastle United F.C.) who has a long history in developmental soccer in the Austin and Houston areas. With these developments, fans have had much to celebrate since the new team was announced in September 2011.
The fans are over the moon with the return of the Aztex and there was an enthusiastic group decked out in blue and gold stationed behind the team at the New Orleans match. Referees were heckled, the Jesters bombarded with derision, songs sung, chants initiated, and applause roundly given. The group of fans is known as Eberley’s Army, named after Angelina Eberly, the “savior of Austin,” who thwarted attempts to steal government archives and relocate the state capital to Houston by firing a cannon (a statue of Eberly in the act is at the exact location, what is now 6th and Congress). The group avidly supports the Austin Aztex at both home and away games. Matthew Gray, president and co-founder of the fan group, recalled the 2012 season opener: “We took a van full of about 12 fans to Houston for the game against the Texas Dutch Lions. We picked up another eight in Houston, and we out cheered the whole stadium. I don’t believe [the Texas Dutch Lions] knew what hit ‘em,” he chuckled, “and I’d like to think we helped in that 4-0 victory.”
Eberly’s Army’s mission is to “grow and spread the gift of playing soccer with a quality ball to every corner of the globe” and they accomplish this through modeling keen interest in the beautiful sport and by actively bringing new viewers. They support not only the Austin Aztex but also a variety of local, collegiate, and international teams, by frequently hosting parties to watch televised matches. The group often meets at The Tavern prior to an Aztex home game and marches the scant block to House Park together, ending the evening with both sets of teams, coaches, and fans at the official post-game restaurant and pub, The Lion & Rose, located in The Village at Westlake.
One of the wonderful things about the Austin Aztex matches that Gray pointed out is their family-friendly nature. He asked, “Where else can you take a family of four to see a quality sport for $20?” Gray explained that kids ages 10 and under get in free to all home games, and the fact is in high evidence. Young soccer fans are everywhere, most clad in team jerseys with the infamous Neymar Mohawk in evidence on many a head, and a near mini-riot erupts during the half when Aztex staffers toss tiny soccer balls into the crowd. Despite the prohibitive signs, kids cling to the fence separating fans from the field. (With no track as buffer, the players’ benches are practically within reach and it is possible to stand so near the pitch that spectators have a vivid sense of being part of play. Balls frequently shoot into the stands, one eliciting extreme excitement as it sailed completely over the bleachers and out into Lamar Boulevard). There’s even a free, parent-regulated moon bounce on the east side of the stadium, which rocked continuously with the antics of little jumpers.
There are plenty of snacks to complete the evening, ranging from the standard concession fare located under the bleachers to the Yumé Burger food trailer in the northwest corner to Amy’s Ice Creams booth by the gates of the stadium. Amy’s Ice Creams scoop Alex Seyer pointed out that the team has its own flavor, Aztex Azul y Oro, which is only available at home games and represents the team colors with blueberry ice cream and crushed Golden Oreos. Based on the number of cups clutched in kids’ hands, ice cream is by far the fan food favorite, with popcorn a distant second.
Sometime after the half, the field fully basks in the familiar Friday night glow of stadium lights. A few of the 800 fans have migrated to the east bleachers. Behind them, the Capitol tower shines red as the Goddess of Liberty raises her torch. The Aztex move downfield and thrill the fans with a penalty shot to tie the game in the eighty-fourth minute. Drums bang, the crowd roars, and the Austin Aztex complete the perfect summer night.
The Austin Aztex final home game of the 2012 season will be on Friday, July 6, against the West Texas Sockers. See austinaztex.com for more information.