Two weeks ago, the Major League Soccer (MLS) All-Star Game in San Jose, Calif. provided the perfect venue for the United Soccer League‘s (USL) mid-year meetings, where major decisions for the next season were made. San Antonio FC Managing Director Tim Holt represented the club at the meetings and sat down with the Rivard Report upon returning to San Antonio.
“I thought the mid-year meetings were fantastic,” Holt said. “They were very positive. There’s this great vibe around the league with the team owners and executives. Not just the current state, but the trajectory of the league going forward (is positive). You look back to five years ago and there were 12 teams and now there are almost 30, and there are so many success stories.”
After the mid-year meetings there was ample discussion about clubs like FC Cincinnati, which met with MLS executives to discuss potential expansion into the league. San Antonio did not have that opportunity, but Holt explained that informal conversations with the MLS have been happening and will continue to happen.
“We’ve had a regular informal dialogue with MLS for the entirety of 2016,” he said. “That’s something that (begins) before, (and continues) during and after those meetings. Obviously, those meetings are more of a time for formal interaction with league folks and other team executives in MLS.”
Holt added that these meetings are just as important as the talks San Antonio FC has had with USL in the past. He also was keen to state that even though other cities are being named as potential candidates for MLS, there has still been no announcement from MLS on the procedure for future expansion. Holt’s expectation is that MLS will reveal its expansion procedure by the end of 2016 and that there will be more transparency regarding San Antonio’s MLS chances at that time.
The biggest takeaway from the meetings, Holt said, was USL’s announcement of a new structure for the league schedule in 2017. The schedule will add two matches, totaling 32 instead of 30, and will have all of San Antonio FC’s 14 fellow Western Conference teams make a trip to Toyota Field at least once. The remaining four matches will involve playing more local rivals an additional time.
The schedule changes pleased Holt, who said that they “are great for the fans.” The team supported the changes, he added, since the three week extension to the season means fewer midweek games and an extra match at Toyota Field.
The changes to the schedule are beneficial not only for fans, but also for players, coaches, and organizing bodies. With teams playing each other at least twice, there’s less room for arguments about one team getting an easier schedule than another.
“This change further balances the schedule and makes it more equitable for all teams in determining post-season berths,” Holt said. “But for our fans, I think you want to see everyone in your conference at least once, which we have now.”
The new draw will mean that San Antonio FC plays everyone in the conference twice and four rival teams an additional third time. That includes the Rio Grande Valley Toros, Oklahoma City Energy, and Tulsa Roughnecks, but the fourth team is debatable, Holt said, adding that Arizona United is a potential candidate.
San Antonio FC issued its own announcement on Wednesday, notifying fans of the new benefits of buying a season ticket membership (STM). Season ticket holders will gain access to a total of 17 matches – the USL regular season consists of 14 home matches and will see the addition of three special matches.
“That first special game, or ‘Game A’ will be something of unique value,” Holt said. “Whether that’s an MLS exhibition or an international club (match), that will also be built into the season ticket package. So, it will be better next year, in part due to the league’s new format (and) us doing a little more from a programming standpoint.”
In 2016, the team only had three months to organize a pre-season schedule while work was being done on the stadium to transform it from the former San Antonio Scorpions venue to San Antonio FC’s. That meant that fans were not able to attend the pre-season matches, which were largely against local college teams.
“(Having more time) certainly makes things easier, but by no means is that an excuse, we had several months to get things organized,” Holt said. “But having a full cycle of the off-season, which really for us starts now, we think will make a world of difference in terms of the product next season, including things we didn’t necessarily have time to do with the facility, the team, and the club.”
Preliminary discussions for possible pre-season opponents are already underway with a number of teams, Holt said. The climate in San Antonio makes it the perfect place for pre-season soccer in February, as demonstrated by the tournament hosted here in 2005. Holt believes that San Antonio is uniquely placed to bring in MLS teams.
There have already been a number of small but meaningful tokens of appreciation for season ticket holders in August, which San Antonio FC is calling ‘STM Appreciation Month.’
“I don’t think you can do that sort of thing enough,” Holt said. “You’re only limited by your creativity and we’ve got some of our players behind it. We have amazing fan support and we don’t want them to ever think we take that for granted, so we’re going to do little things that go above and beyond.”
Holt uses the word ‘build’ a lot, whether he is talking about the team or the soccer culture. Mostly he’s talking about the fan base, which he says is consistently growing.
“We will literally have a couple dozen people per game come, (commit) to the rest of the 2016 season package, and (prepare) to come from the beginning of the 2017 (season),” Holt said.
For Holt, it’s all about building and about making progress – another word he loves to use. While San Antonio FC appears to be on track, there’s still more to do, but Holt remains optimistic as he describes the “undeniable” progress the team has made.
Top image: San Antonio FC Managing Director Tim Holt speaks about the potential the soccer team brings to the city. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone