The word “start-up” is almost as synonymous a word with the city of Austin as breakfast tacos or the Texas Longhorns.
You don’t, however, hear the word often when referring to a soccer team. And that’s just fine with Anna Villarreal—the owner, coach, and part-time player on Austin’s newest soccer club, The Nationals, who also owns her own screen-printing company in Austin with her soccer-playing husband.
The Nationals are a new professional women’s soccer team and are in no way affiliated with the latest edition of professional women’s soccer in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Although that might be confusing for some, for Villarreal, it is all part of a greater plan, one that draws comparisons to the Harlem Globetrotters in terms of the type of competition the team plays, and how they are promoted.
“We have 11 million kids who play soccer, but that number drops to six million by the time they hit fifth grade, and four million by the time they reach the age of eighteen,” Villarreal said. “The idea behind The Nationals is to create a team comprised of players not only focused on winning, but also ingraining the idea of soccer in the everyday lives of Americans.”
“Some people watch soccer, and think, 'Oh, that’s really easy. All they do is run around and kick a ball from one end to another.' What we hope to do by creating DVDs that touch on both soccer aerobics and soccer as another weight loss option, we hope to connect to those people who did not see soccer in this light before. I used to do soccer aerobics, and it’s a great way to get people working out with a soccer ball.”
In addition to the DVDs, Villarreal is planning several weekly events during the latter part of the year as a way to showcase The Nationals, sponsors of the team ("First Thursday Fitness," for the team’s fitness sponsors), and—in keeping with Austin’s title as the “Live Music Capital of the World”—local music talent, which she hopes will help with the promotion of the team.
Growing The Nationals, a team without a league, in a sport in which the top U.S. women’s league averaged 800–1,200 fans a game (even after a big World Cup boost in 2011) represents a huge undertaking for Villarreal, who—after playing an exhibition schedule against college teams such as Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma this spring—has plans for The Nationals to participate in a large national women’s tournament later in the year, as well as a match against another country's male youth national team during F1 weekend.
On March 27th, two familiar faces from the U.S. Women’s team will play in Austin, as the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL (featuring current U.S. National Teamer Shannon Boxx and former U.S. National Teamer Leslie Osborne) wrap up their week-long Austin training camp with a match against The Nationals, a game that Villarreal hopes will be well attended.
The Nationals don’t lack for stars, either. Rachael Balaguer, formerly of the St. Stephens and Texas A&M women’s soccer teams, and renowned strength coach Diane Vevey, head up the roster of accomplished players and coaches.
With all the challenges in front of her, Villarreal believes she has done the research and consulted the right people in order for The Nationals to succeed.
“While this is a new model, it’s a model that can work for both men’s and women’s teams all over the world,” Villarreal said, citing past research she performed before going through with assembling the team. “Like any start-up, it’s going to have its ups and downs. But we think we have a plan in place to position The Nationals brand for success.”