Stoke-on-the-Trent, United Kingdom
An event that may have passed under the radar of many supporters too excited and tense as the prospect of promotion slowly turned from pipe dream to “just do it” status during the early months of this year was the birth of a new professional football club in far off Texas USA. Football happenings just off the Gulf of Mexico may not usually attract the attention of the good residents of North Staffordshire, I grant you but this one is a little different.
At a time when Americans are busily trying to beat off competition from shady Far Eastern businessmen and buy up as many English Premier League clubs as possible, our guests today are one concluded example, it is an Englishman who has decided to take the plunge and get the professional “soccer” ball rolling again in Austin, Texas. The Englishman in question is Stoke City Director, Phil Rawlins.
In tandem with the official announcement of the birth of the Austin Aztex it was confirmed that an official affiliation with Stoke City Football Club was in place. Further links between the new football relatives was strengthened later with the appointment of former player and Stokie through and through Adrian “Inchy” Heath as the Head Coach for the franchise. It was revealed at the launch that the new club would participate in the United Soccer Leagues First Division and this participation would commence in the 2009 season. This competition will see Austin play hosts to clubs from all over North America, including Montreal, Vancouver, Atlanta, Minnesota and Miami.
With more immediate effect it was revealed that the Aztex had taken over the interests of Austin Stampede and would use their position in the USL Premier Development League to blood an under-twenty three side. As our own season drew to its thrilling climax against Leicester City, this team embarked on its inaugural season. It is testament to the organisational skill of Rawlins, the ability of the coaching staff he gathered around him and the calibre of player that they were able to attract that not only did they compete in the Southern Conference, Mid South Division but they went and won the thing hands down. This qualified them for entry into the US Open Cup knock outs, outs eventually loosing out amid controversial refereeing decisions (the Stoke affiliation kicking in no doubt) in the Southern Conference final against the 2007 PDL Champions, Laredo Heat.
An amazingly successful start then for Rawlins venture in his adopted home town but where will this journey take him, the Austin Aztex and Stoke City in the future? Like many of you, I imagine the game we call football just doesn’t seem to happen in America when viewed from this side of the pond. Many of us remember a few decades back to the time when World stars past their prime were imported to the North American League to help the game take off there. This included Pele, Franz Beckenbauer , Best and of course our own Gordon Banks who plied his trade at a franchise based in Fort Lauderdale. Alan Hudson too flew over to the States to join his pal Rodney Marsh and the others in securing himself one last big pay day and a fabulous lifestyle in the name of promoting soccer to the USA sports fan. Despite initial interest this soon faded and died. The American sports public no doubt soon twigged that it was actually watching a circus rather than the real competitive thing.
F I.F.A. was so determined to break down the last major part of the globe that had not submitted to football fever went as far as holding a World Cup Finals in the USA back in 1994. Even the unprecedented step of holding the jewel in the F.I.F.A. crown in a country previously so reluctant to embrace the beautiful game in the same way as it devotes itself to Baseball, American Football and Basketball failed to make the big breakthrough in terms of top level professional football taking a major step forward. The sleep educing bore draw final between Brazil and Italy was hardly what the doctor ordered, mind.
So the question remains; what are the hopes, aspirations and benefits possible in the land of massive potential and obstinate reluctance to accept football/soccer as the only world wide sport that matters?
Affiliations of clubs within the United Soccer Leagues are not a new concept with Crystal Palace and West Ham already having joined Mexican clubs in striking up relations within the organisation. Ajax Amsterdam, world leaders in developing streams of youth development, too have been hovering around and showing an interest. The USL President, Francisco Marcos recently attended an Aztex Soccer Night hosted in Delilah’s Bar at the Britannia Stadium and his perspective of the benefits from a league basis was made quite clear. For him it is all about a partnership in providing expertise leading to accelerated development of USA players. Along with the access to our coaches and their knowledge this would involve an exchange between the participants of young fringe players along with more experienced professionals nearing the end of their careers but still with much to offer from this side of the Atlantic swapping places with the best of the young American talent who would be given an opportunity to develop in Europe and then returning to help take USA football to a higher plain.
Marcos has been the guiding light in the three decade plus development of the USL and his aims are clearly reflected in the difference between his set up and the Beckhamised world of the more famous (at this point) Major Soccer League (MSL). The MSL is all about big business, the best known players, marketing finance and profit. The USL is more focused on nurturing talent within its regionalised league structure which covers the USA, Canada and into the Caribbean.. It provides competition for both sexes and from junior level through to the seniors. Don’t get caught out on our model here. There is no promotion and relegation pyramid between the two organisations with USL teams striving to achieve MSL status. They are completely separate. It is entirely possible that the MSL will one day outrank the MSL. We shall see.
This sits well with the stated aims and plans outlined by the Aztex. It is intended that they will develop what they refer to as a vertically integrated community soccer club. This means that they intend to provide a structure of player development within the Austin and Central Texas area from young aspiring child players (of both sexes) through Youth development and on into their professional USL sides. It isn’t in effect a million miles removed from our own Academy structure. The first two layers are taking shape through the senior side that will launch next season under Adrian Heath and the under twenty three side that has competed this year. Some players from that side are now being offered contracts with the senior set up thus establishing the progression chain. Furthermore the club has also established links with the Lonestar Soccer Club which markets itself as Central Texas’ most prominent Youth soccer development club and runs teams from all ages and both sexes from eight to eighteen.
In one of the first tangible examples of the affiliation between the Potters and the Aztex this club has hosted and assisted Rawlins’ Aztex team in organising an International round of friendlies involving Lonestar, Monterrey Rayados of the Mexican Primera Division and our own Academy under 18s Youth Team that have taken place in Austin over the last week. It is not clear if the intention is for the Aztex to piggy back its youth development programme on the back of this already established organisation or if they will eventually go it alone with an independent set up. Which ever, the intention is there.
Clearly it is in this area that the most fruitful benefits of collaboration are most likely to emerge.
One of the great mysteries to observers outside of the USA is how so many people can actively participate in a sport yet so few emerge into the light of top professional worldwide football. Phil Rawlins estimated that there is something like thirty five to forty thousand youth soccer players in Central Texas alone! Clearly there is a great piece of the jigsaw missing that means the overwhelming majority just don’t go forward. I suspect at least part of the answer can be found in the American college culture.
The introduction of the Academy system through professional football clubs at the back end of the last decade meant that aspiring football talent could be taken into full time coaching at the clubs with the fall back of continued education and qualifications. The lack of established professional clubs in the States means that at the age of 15/16 young wannabe footballers either have the choice of jumping on a plane to Europe or going off to college to complete their education and gain their qualifications by which time they have either missed so much time in football development terms that they have passed up any chance of making the grade or they will not reach anywhere near the potential they had as young teenagers.
Clearly the link up between Stoke and the Axtex can help to remove the dilemma aspiring Texas footballers currently face. If they show exceptional talent they can make use of the Academy facilities at Stoke providing the dual possibility of Premier League talent for or a feed back into the Aztex and USA football in general of more developed talent.
There are of course the coaching benefits associated with the link up. The Aztex will have access to a English professional coaching methods and standards and no doubt our coaches can learn from USA based coaches who may not as yet be developing a stream of top flight footballers but most definitely are up to speed with state of the art fitness, dietary etc developments.
Of course all this depends on the Aztex staying the course. Rawlins has had the good sense not to promote the new club as simply some sort of feeder tube for big brother English club. He has not for instance inserted our club name in their identity in the way Crystal Palace have. Instead he is being very careful to develop the club in the way it should; as part of the Austin community.
Already you can find proud Austin residents beginning to develop supporter groups. The most organised of these is known as Chantico’s Army (they can be found at www.chanticosarmy.com). These are people who have immediately identified themselves with their local club but also take a keen interest in what is happening at Stoke. Pop in and pay them a visit. You will be made most welcome and it is an ideal way to keep up to speed on not only Aztex news but what are the latest developments in the links between our clubs.
I’m sure this story has plenty of interesting events and turns to come. We will keep our eye on developments and keep you posted.
“The Oatcake” Fanzine
August 17, 2008