There’s a football team in San Antonio that has a great shot at winning a trophy this year.
Hint: These athletes play football with their feet.
San Antonio FC, the minor league team that plays on the North Side, is the best sports story in town right now.
Even on the heels of the club’s disappointing 1-0 loss to Indy Eleven on Saturday, SAFC remains atop the USL Championship league standings with 57 points through 26 games. The Black and Red, as San Antonio FC is affectionately known, became the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot after losses by rival clubs in the Western Conference.
Their winning ways aren’t the only reason to watch. The San Antonio Spurs-owned soccer club features a high-powered attack and one of the best defenses in the league. If the basketball Spurs have gotten a bad rap for playing a pass-happy, “boring” style (personally, I think the Spurs at their peak played some of the most eye-catching basketball, but I also don’t mind delayed gratification), these fútboleros are anything but.
The club has one of the league’s most exciting players in 23-year-old Houston native Samuel Adeniran, who has scored a goal in every other match he’s played, and the consensus favorite for Defender of the Year in center-back Mitchell Taintor, who’s chipped in with five goals himself.
And the team is easy to root for because of the way its players are willing to go to battle on the field. The club has used the alliterative “mentality monsters” as a Ted Lasso-esque mantra to unite around. One of the first times this phrase clicked for me was after witnessing the club’s comeback win over Austin FC, a major league team and SAFC’s natural rival.
The two-year-old Major League Soccer franchise from up the interstate has impressed in its second season — on Friday, the Verde and Black beat frontrunners Los Angeles FC and are firmly on track not only to qualify for the playoffs but enjoy home-field advantage. But it was the San Antonians who triumphed when the two teams met in the U.S. Open Cup in April.
It was one of the most memorable moments of the year in local professional sports, a feat nearly 8,000 witnessed at Toyota Field. It was also one to savor, considering the already fraught history between these two organizations, despite the April game being their first meeting in an official competition.
But at least a quarter of those in attendance were Austin FC fans. The green-and-black-clad supporters were in full voice, drowning out the comparatively sparse Crocketteers, who banged on drums in support of the home team during the 120-minute contest ultimately settled in extra time.
After SAFC’s Justin Dhillon tied the game in the 82nd minute, San Antonio defender Carter Manley found the go-ahead goal in the first period of extra time, with the home crowd finally matching the decibel level of the perpetually chanting Austin fans. Watching that game made me think about the unrealized potential of soccer in San Antonio.
A few years ago, when Major League Soccer was looking to expand to new cities, eyeing the American Southwest and Midwest, it had earmarked San Antonio as one of the top candidates for a new franchise. The City of San Antonio and Bexar County caught wind of the league’s interest and bought Toyota Field, then home to the North American Soccer League’s San Antonio Scorpions, and rebranded the team in anticipation of a move to the big leagues.
Suddenly, the owner of the Columbus Crew in MLS began making overtures for what ultimately became the sale of the Crew to a new ownership group and the award of MLS’s newest expansion slot to Austin. Conventional wisdom says there’s not enough room for major league franchises in both Austin and the Alamo City, so San Antonio saw its hopes for an MLS club extinguish.
The maneuvering of Austin FC owner Anthony Precourt, who sat on the league’s expansion committee before deciding to move on from Columbus, was sharply criticized as unfair to San Antonio, which had done the work to submit a formal expansion bid while Austin had not.
So San Antonio’s defeat of its more monied I-35 rival felt like sweet vengeance. What’s more, it gave San Antonio the chance at a major trophy in American soccer: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the oldest national soccer competition founded in 1914.
Alas, the Houston Dynamo knocked los negrirojos out of the tournament in the next round. Sacramento Republic, another USL Championship club snubbed by MLS’s expansion process, has a chance to upset MLS club Orlando City in the final of that tournament next week.
With the top record in the USL Championship, San Antonio is one of the favorites to win the league trophy this year. FiveThirtyEight puts SAFC’s odds of winning the final at 19%, second to perennial contenders Louisville City FC’s 29% chance.
What I like the most about rooting on the San Antonio Fútbol Club is its commitment to developing local talent. From MacArthur High School grad Matt Cardone, who minded the SAFC net from the club’s inception in 2016 until his retirement this season, to former Central Catholic High School star Jose Gallegos, who made his debut for the Black and Red as a teenager before impressing enough to earn a move to Danish club SønderjyskE in the winter. He had auditioned for a place at famed clubs FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich a few years ago.
We are in Texas, where gridiron football remains king. As the UTSA Roadrunners prepare to take on the 24th-ranked Houston Cougars on Saturday, hearts and minds of San Antonians will no doubt fixate again on the rising college football team’s dark-horse chances at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But if you’re like me, you’ll pay close attention to SAFC’s Mentality Monsters, who appear destined for glory this season.