Austin Bold FC — celebrating the opening of its new 5,022-seat stadium on Saturday night, when it hosts new rival-down-the-road San Antonio FC in its USL Championship home opener — is arguably the most intriguing first-year team in any North American soccer league this season.
Its roster is a veritable United Nations, with 14 different home countries among the squad’s 25 first-teamers. It spans multiple generations — 16-year-old forward Julian Gaines, a celebrated young local player, is still in high school, while the oldest player on the team, Marcelo Saragosa, is 37 and was part of an MLS Cup-winning LA Galaxy squad — in 2005.
Argentine veteran Dario Conca, who turns 36 in May, was regarded as one of the best players in Brazil’s top-flight league in the late 2000s, and signed with Chinese team Guangzhou Evergrande in July 2011. His bio on the Bold’s site terms the deal “a then-Chinese Super League record contract that made him the third-highest paid player in the world – behind only Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.”
One of the team’s three other seniormost players, 35-year-old Brazilian striker Kleber, has played for Dynamo Kyiv as part of a 17-year pro career and earned the nickname “The Gladiator” along the way. Another, 34-year-old goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, doubles as the team’s goalkeeping coach.
The other 34-year-old, defender Jermaine Taylor, has more than 100 international caps for Jamaica’s senior squad and featured in Minnesota United FC’s debut MLS season in 2017. He’s one of four players whose last stop was in MLS; others in that camp include Scottish player Calum Mallace, drafted by the Montreal Impact for its inaugural 2012 season, and appearing in five matches for last year’s inaugural LAFC team, and Amobi Okugo, a former U.S. national U-23 player, back from a season’s hiatus after last playing for the Portland Timbers in 2017. Kris Tyrpak, a native Austinite who spent 2018 with San Antonio FC, Miami FC 2, and Nashville SC, scored a goal in one of Chivas USA’s final matches ever, playing for the team during its 2014 farewell tour.
The team’s narrative is made even richer and offbeat by their recent history. Owner Bobby Epstein, also chairman of the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) complex in neighboring Elroy, and general manager Roberto Pinto da Silva, Jr. are reprising their roles with the Bold from their former USL endeavor, the Austin Aztex, which last played in the league in 2015.
The Aztex started 2015 with a preseason invitational tournament featuring D.C. United, FC Dallas, and then-new MLS partners Columbus Crew SC. But just two months into the season, the Memorial Day Flood (as it’s known in Austin lore) destroyed the turf in the downtown high school stadium the team was renting. The stadium was closed for repairs to ready it for August — and high school football season.
They relocated 27 miles north to the suburban high school stadium where they practiced, derailing the marketing momentum they’d finally begun to capture, after starting in 2011 as a Premier Development League franchise before making the leap to USL. (The previous iteration of the Aztex, founded in 2008, was relocated to Orlando via a surprise announcement by owner Phil Rawlins in 2010, to the bewilderment of local soccer fans.)
The Aztex went on hiatus after the 2015 season, and didn’t re-emerge until August 2017, when Epstein announced Austin would reenter USL with a newly-named team playing at his Circuit of the Americas complex in neighboring Elroy, best known for its annual Formula 1 race and concert amphitheater.
But two months later, the owner of the Aztex’s former MLS partner, Anthony Precourt, announced that he was exploring the prospect of moving the Crew to Austin, and they’ve had intertwined fortunes as competing Austin soccer entities since.
In August 2018, just 12 days after Epstein and Silva unveiled the Bold brand and new coach Marcelo Serrano, the Austin City Council voted to partner with Precourt on a $200 million-plus stadium project in North Austin, clearing a major obstacle to Austin FC becoming a reality.
Epstein inserted himself into the stadium controversy in October, by announcing he was funding a petition drive to force a public vote on the stadium. He then publicly withdrew his support from the PAC organizing the petition drive just days later, when the PAC published an online ad attacking Austin mayor Steve Adler that featured Pepe the Frog, a cartoon frog adopted by alt-right and anti-Semitic groups.
This was happening while Precourt working out details on a sale of the Crew to new owners, transferring his MLS investor-operator rights to a brand-new team launching as Austin FC in 2021.
While the Bold’s home opener was announced as a sellout the day before the match, some local fans who might have otherwise ventured out to COTA have pledged to stay away from the Bold, citing the politics that have, for some, soured soccer’s return to Austin.
Silva, both focused on building the new team and hopeful that fans will make their way to the gleaming new metal stadium at COTA, credits Serrano for bringing in a mix of players he believes will play attractive soccer.
“If we didn’t have Marcelo, I don’t think we’d have all the players that we have,” Silva notes, adding that the majority would be starters with any USL Championship team and could even break into MLS ranks. “If you have good ingredients, the chances are that you have a good meal. If you have good ingredients and a good cook, even better, and I think we got a great cook with Coach Marcelo.”
Serrano, who also coaches the U.S. Virgin Islands team, notes that it will take time for his squad to adapt to the possession-heavy, attack-minded style he wants them to adopt. They have yet to win; they fought Las Vegas Lights FC to a scoreless draw in their first game, then lost 2-1 to Reno 1868 as part of an extended road trip in the Silver State the next week.
Yet, Serrano, who uses English, Spanish, and Portuguese to communicate with the squad, does see some positive signs toward his goal for the team to make the playoffs. “I’m not the kind of guy to say, ‘Oh, let’s see how it’s going to go.’ Of course, we want to go to the playoffs, but we don’t know if we’re going to be successful or not. it’s a first-year franchise.” He is confident, however, that a win on Saturday could send them in the right direction.
Tyrpak, who played for the previous iteration of the Aztex, notes, “We have a lot of veteran guys who have been at the top level throughout the world. For me, it feels more like an MLS side because of the talent and experience.” He also notes that USL Championship is a better, deeper league than the USL that Austin fans last saw four seasons prior.
“As the season’s progressed, we’ve figured out ways to communicate and figure out each other’s playing styles,” Tyrpak adds, noting that Serrano’s vision for the team is helped by including “a lot of experienced guys who know how to keep the ball under pressure. They see the field very well and they read the game very well.” He thinks the mix of ball-savvy veterans and young players willing to run are creating a solid alchemy.
Okugo is excited to be part of the Bold, noting that the Nevada road trip helped the team bond, citing team meals and a Top Golf excursion as outings that brought the players together. Though he’s excited to be in Austin, Okugu, like Tyrpak, recognizes it as a potential pathway back to MLS maybe even before Austin FC kicks off. He recognizes that being at a USL Championship team in Austin affords him a great opportunity to showcase his talents, especially as he attended to family and business concerns rather than soccer in 2018. Terming his time away a reset, he notes, “I missed soccer, so it’s good to be back.”
For Gaines, whose older brother McKinze is under contract with Bundesliga team Darmstadt 98, and currently on a loan to FSV Zwickau, the Bold provided him an opportunity to play close to home and finish high school while keeping MLS academy, college, and overseas options open. “I think being here is definitely the right choice,” he notes. “It was a no-brainer to stay in town and play in front of my family and friends.” By the same token, the Bold understand that they have a likable and marketable young player in Gaines — indeed, he was part of the Bold’s August 2018 launch announcement, heralded as one of the team’s first signings.
Silva emphasizes that while both he and Epstein are personally passionate about soccer, the Bold is an extension of what he sees as COTA’s community-minded and entertainment-focused approach. “He enjoys seeing people have fun in the businesses that he creates,” Silva insists.
At Wednesday’s open house for season-ticket holders to showcase the just-erected stadium, that spirit was on display, as Epstein took to the field — wearing a new yellow Bold keeper’s jersey with “Bobby” on the back — in a fun, free-for-all match in which Bold players scrimmaged against 100 children from local youth soccer leagues.
While it’s premature to predict how the Bold will fare, or even how they’ll co-exist with Austin FC come 2021, Silva believes that they’ll stay independent rather than aligning with any MLS team, concerned that an alliance would cast the Bold as more of a development squad. “That makes the winning and the fan experience secondary,” Silva opines. “Our main goal is for fans to have fun. And for that I think we need to win, having independent soccer.”