Nearly three weeks before its inaugural home season opener, San Antonio’s newest professional soccer franchise called on the business community for support.
In addition to getting to know the basics about the United Soccer League (USL) club that will play at Toyota Field, participants at the reception were encouraged to do what they can do financially to support the franchise. Scarves and magnets bearing the San Antonio FC’s logo lay on table tops in the AT&T Center’s terrace level restaurant, where the reception was held.
After all, it’s been three months since Spurs Sports and Entertainment agreed with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to run a soccer team at Toyota Field. It is part of deal where the City and County own and operate the soccer-specific venue, once home to the San Antonio Scorpions of the North American Soccer League.
Many local officials have said, with support from the Spurs, competing in the USL will better position San Antonio toward landing a franchise in Major League Soccer (MLS) within a few years.
“There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes to get us to this point,” Chamber President and Richard Perez told the crowd Monday.
“We’ve got a facility, we’ve got players, we’ve got coaches, we’ve got everything we need except one of the most critical parts, and that’s us,” Perez said. “We need a fan base to get out there and really show that we’re here for them because they’re here for us.”
Perez said local fans have helped to prove San Antonio is a sports town in different ways, but that there is room to further grow soccer.
“We want to make sure the inaugural season is the best there can be, and it’s going to take all of us — all of our friends and relatives,” Perez said. “It’s going to take all of us buying tickets, providing sponsorships and getting involved.”
Perez said he already has bought season tickets for San Antonio FC.
“I will be there at the first game, and the second game, and third game, and the fourth, to cheer them on at all games,” he added.
Tim Holt, managing director for the new soccer club, told a reporter that 95% of club level season tickets at Toyota Field are sold.
Single game tickets went on sale on March 9. Holt did not reveal numbers, but it appears San Antonio FC will have a large crowd for its home season opener against the Swope Park Rangers on Saturday, April 9. The match starts at 7:30 p.m.
Speaking to the reception crowd, Holt agreed with Perez that it is a special time to be a sports fan in San Antonio, given the overall success of local professional and collegiate athletic programs in the last several years.
“With San Antonio FC coming in, it could enhance and elevate that. We think we have a unique opportunity elevate that,” Holt said.
Holt, who worked with San Antonio FC Coach Darren Powell at their previous employer, Orlando City SC, explained that the Scorpions helped to lay a solid foundation for soccer’s growth in this city.
Holt said local businessman Gordon Hartman, who spearheaded the development of Morgan’s Wonderland, the STAR Soccer Complex and Toyota Field, was key in helping to get “professional soccer on the map here.”
Holt noted that San Antonio is in a better spot for future MLS expansion because the 30-team USL is directly affiliated with MLS. San Antonio FC will play in the Western Conference. Rio Grande Valley FC, the only other Texas USL team, would be a geographic rival to San Antonio FC. Rio Grande Valley did fall to San Antonio, 1-0, in a preseason, closed-door friendly at Toyota Field on Saturday.
While some USL clubs are operated and owned by MLS franchises, others are merely affiliated with one, such as the case between Rio Grande Valley and the Houston Dynamo. San Antonio FC, for now, is independent and its 2016 season will consist of 15 home regular season matches.
“We’ll strive to win championships and build our markets for even higher levels like Major League Soccer in the future,” Holt added. “We make no bones about it, MLS is a strong league.”
Additionally, San Antonio FC could have potential to play for the U.S. Open Cup, which is open to all affiliated amateur and professional U.S. clubs, Holt said.
Holt said organizing a new club like San Antonio FC, from top to bottom, in a short timeframe has been a challenge especially. But he feels confident Coach Powell and his team are ready to go.
While MLS is a goal for San Antonio in pro sports expansion, Holt said his current team will focus on competing well in the USL, a growing league. The league had a total of regular season attendance of 609,500 in 2004. Total USL attendance since 2011 was more than 1.7 million by 2015.
Holt said he knows San Antonio has a knowledgeable, strong soccer fan base, thanks in large part to the Scorpions. Ultimately, MLS will monitor how well San Antonio FC performs on the field and how engaged its fans are.
“Fans are a very active, vocal part of the gameday experience. They cheer, they sing, yes, there’s occasionally smoke and flags, there’s drums – soccer being watched in person is not designed to be a passive experience,” he added. “Winning helps. Performance of the team matters.”
Powell, in his first professional head coaching job, said the roster is almost completely filled. San Antonio FC has been typically practicing at 9 in the mornings at Toyota Field. The coach said he is happy to have seen everything come together, in organizing a new club, in a matter of a few weeks.
“When I arrived, there were zero players, no coaching staff. Three months later, we have them in place. We have a tremendous group of players,” he said.
“When you get to know them, they will be engaged in this community. In talking with each of those players, what we were looking for was drive and ambition. When you see them perform, I think you’ll see they have that.”
One player, midfielder Michael Reed, briefly spoke to the crowd. He last played for the Atlanta Silverbacks NASL team, where he started all of his 29 appearances and scored one goal. He remembers being recruited personally by Powell.
“I was very fortunate to get the call from Darren. I’ve never had anything like it before, in my all years playing pro soccer, when a coach calls and asks what are your goals,” Reed recalled. He echoed Powell’s sentiment about being active in the community.
“It’s a privilege being part of this organization. These guys take a lot of pride and care in their work,” Reed said of his teammates.
Top Image: Head Coach Darren Powell jokes about how his English accent gets thicker the more passionate about the game he gets. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone