It’s Destiny. History of SATX MLS Bid and Why SAFC vs Austin FC has been Decades in the Making

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When San Antonio FC and Austin FC take the pitch at Toyota Field and meet for the first time in a competitive match between the two in the US Open Cup, there would have been about 18 years of history, decisions and events that has culminated into this match. This match was destined to happen years back before either team even existed.

This may be the biggest match in the history of San Antonio soccer, for San Antonio FC and the soccer fans of San Antonio. For Austin FC, it will be almost equally important, the first ever US Open Cup match in team history. The most obvious reason for this new rivalry besides the geography is that many soccer fans in San Antonio believe that San Antonio should have been awarded a MLS team long before Austin did. For Austin fans, this has just been about a four year dream. Austin had two professional teams before, the Aztex and Austin Bold both played in the USL. But this is considered the first true professional team in the city of Austin.

There was a time when San Antonio was a front runner for having a Major League Soccer (MLS) team coming to the city. We now know the end results as the city of Austin, just 77 miles north of Toyota Field, received a MLS team in the form of Austin FC.

Every story has a beginning, for San Antonio the story of the MLS bid began in 2004. It was the first bid for San Antonio to have a MLS expansion team come to the city. The mayor of San Antonio at the time, Ed Garza, approached Major League Soccer with a proposal for an expansion team in San Antonio. Part of the plan was for an expansion team to play at the Alamodome and build soccer complexes for youth soccer. Then in 2005 the incoming mayor, Phil Hardberger expressed he was not a supporter and was openly opposed to having a MLS expansion team.

The Alamodome was considered to be the home for a potential MLS team in SATX. Photo Credits:Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock.com

The state of the MLS back in 2005 was in recovery mode, having just survived contraction of two clubs in 2002 and financial problems. It was an expansion year for MLS, adding Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. MLS was looking to continue to move forward and grow over the next decade.

During 2004/2005 time frame, Don Garber, commissioner of MLS, was seriously considering San Antonio as the next expansion city. Don Garber stated that the MLS bid for San Antonio had turned political. The City Council of San Antonio set to Major League Soccer a new set of draft agreements for the lease on the Alamodome, which were to reflect the business terms of the Memorandum of Understanding.

In a public statement, Don Garber said “these agreements instead contained many new terms that are in direct contradiction to the Memorandum of Understanding that was approved by the City Council on April 14 – – terms under which it would be impossible for any sports team to succeed in the city.”

In effect, the San Antonio City Council convinced Don Garber and MLS that San Antonio was not a viable city for Major League Soccer.

“After review of these drafts, and given the fact that the terms of the previously negotiated agreement are no longer being honored, MLS and its owners will no longer consider San Antonio as a candidate for an MLS team in 2006.” – Don Garber

To add insult to injury for soccer fans in San Antonio with MLS hopes, the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston and were renamed the Houston Dynamo in 2006. It seemed that San Antonio’s dreams of a MLS team were dead. In 2007, Toronto FC was named the next MLS expansion team, the ownership paid just $10 million dollars to join the league. (keep that amount in mind)

2011, a new hope. San Antonio was home to a professional soccer team. Not a Major League Soccer team but home to the San Antonio Scorpions of the newly formed North American Soccer League (NASL), it was born from the ashes of the NASL of the 70s. Soccer boomed in San Antonio. After a season playing in a high school stadium, the Scorpions ownership, built Toyota Field. The stadium is a 15 minute drive north from downtown San Antonio on I-35. Built as a 8,400 sit stadium with standing room and ready for an expansion of an upper deck, additional suites and other re-modifications to bring it to MLS standards. Soccer fans in San Antonio answered in kind, leading attendance in the NASL for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Scorpions won the NASL Championship in 2014.

San Antonio Scorpions playing FC Dallas in front of a sell out Toyota Field.

Once again it seemed like, San Antonio had a clear path to Major League Soccer. In December of 2013, Don Garber had announced that San Antonio was one of five cities being considered for another MLS expansion. But, just four months later, in March of 2014, Don Garber felt that San Antonio and the state of Texas wasn’t in the immediate plans for expansion but said that it would likely happen.

There seemed to be writing on the wall that NASL was failing and starting seeing itself as an antagonizer to MLS. It was also fighting for lone second division rights in the US Soccer pyramid, and not willing to share with the up and coming United Soccer League (USL). NASL also wanted promotion/relegation.

At the end of the 2015 season, it was announced that the San Antonio Scorpions were ceasing operations and the rights were sold to a unnamed group in Las Vegas. The city of San Antonio was once again without a professional soccer club, another dead MLS bid and little hope for soccer in the Alamo City.

It didn’t take very long for San Antonio for have another chance at professional soccer and the dream of having a MLS franchise. Spurs Sports and Entertainment announced they would have a team join the USL and make a bid for MLS. If Spurs Sports and Entertainment succeeded by 2017/2018 and was awarded a spot in MLS, they would pay around $200 million for an expansion fee to enter Major League Soccer.

It was joint venture between Spurs Sports and Entertainment, the city of San Antonio and Bexar County. The city and county put $9 million each for the purchase of Toyota Field. Spurs Sports and Entertainment donated $3 million to Morgan’s Wonderland, an amusement park centered around people with disabilities, which was owned by Gordon Hartman, who also owned the Scorpions and Toyota Field.

The deal for Spurs Sports and Entertainment to bring in San Antonio FC was it had a 20 year lease of Toyota Field for a undisclosed amount and 10 years to bring a MLS team to San Antonio. If Spurs Sports and Entertainment can not have a MLS team by 2026, they will have to pay the city $5 million penalty, spread out over the next eight years. Spurs Sports and Entertainment also invested $1 million for improvements to Toyota Field, while the city and county each invested $500,000.

On December 22, 2015, San Antonio FC was born with the backing of a major metropolitan area, county and a very successful sports ownership that had experience in winning with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

San Antonio FC began play in 2016 and showed some success on the field, bringing in a talented roster of MLS veterans and youth. Attendance, once again, was outstanding, the city of San Antonio supported the new team. San Antonio was and has been in the top 8 of attendance very year since 2016, with several sell outs throughout the year.

SAFC MLS bid video in 2017

On February 22, 2017, Spurs Sports and Entertainment made a serious push for the MLS bid, releasing a YouTube video featuring then San Antonio mayor, Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff with full support for the MLS bid. The San Antonio bid would see major road block just eight month later.

On October 16, 2017 is when the villain of this story entered the picture. Anthony Precourt owner of the Columbus Crew announced that he would intend to move the Columbus Crew to Austin if a new stadium deal couldn’t be done.

Mayor of Austin, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Anthony Precourt on announcement of Austin FC. Photo from ESPN.

It was not known to any party involved to the creation of San Antonio FC and the MLS bid for San Antonio that Austin was part of MLS’ plans. Anthony Precourt and MLS Commissioner, Don Garber made a deal when Precourt brought the Columbus Crew from the Hunt Family (same Hunt family that owns FC Dallas) in 2012 that if the city Columbus couldn’t build a new stadium for the Crew by 2023, Precourt could exercise his right to move the Crew to Austin.

When the news became public that Austin could likely receive a MLS team, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said “We found out there was some real, what I consider, dirty politics,”

At the time Anthony Precourt didn’t just own a MLS franchise, he was on the MLS selection committee for new franchises.

An unhappy Nelson Wolff said “Putting the guy that wants to move to Austin on it, knowing full well if Austin got a franchise we were not going to get one, because we’re only about 75 miles away or so … all of our suspicions became true. The Spurs didn’t think that was going to happen;  but you’ve been around politics long enough how to smell out a rat; I figured that was a rat. And turned out to be a big rat.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff stated that if he had known that this clause existed and that Precourt wanted a MLS team in Austin long before San Antonio FC existed, the county would not have invested in the purchase of Toyota Field.

“I don’t know why they did that knowing full well that Precourt had the right to go to Austin, I don’t know why they even opened up a process that we thought was going to be fair and turned out not to be.” said Judge Wolff

Judge Nelson Wolff considered a criminal indictment and lawsuit for MLS and Anthony Precourt due to the process being fraudulent and stated that MLS misled San Antonio into a MLS bid.

By November 29th, 2017, MLS attorney Bradley Ruskin sent a letter to Judge Wollf that Spurs Sports and Entertainment had agree with MLS to defer consideration of the MLS bid until a second round of expansion. Things on the San Antonio side stayed quiet for while.

Then late in 2018, Spurs Sports and Entertainment quietly and officially ended the MLS bid. Once the bid was dropped, the investigation from the Bexar County District Attorney into MLS also ended.

By then, MLS and Anthony Precourt were in full process of placing a team in Austin. Investors from the Cleveland Browns ended buying the Columbus Crew and Precourt was granted expansion rights for Austin, interesting part is Anthony Precourt did not have to pay any expansion fees for Austin FC. San Antonio was once again, not part of the MLS discussion. In 2021, Austin FC played their inaugural season, calling Q2 Stadium in North Austin, some 15 minutes away from downtown, home.

While, the dream of having a MLS team in San Antonio is no longer around, soccer has thrived in the city. The USL has grown to be a strong second division league and showing some financial stability and a plan for the future. San Antonio FC continues to succeed on the field, looking to win a championship soon. Attendance continues to be in the top of the USL for San Antonio FC and the fan base remains dedicated and passionate. It hasn’t been the end of the world for San Antonio soccer.

Fans celebrate a SAFC goal in the playoffs at Toyota Field in 2021. Photo by Soy SAF

So what’s the fallout of Anthony Precourt and his decision to bring a team to Austin? Well, the soccer landscape in America has significantly changed. It affected four teams in three cities across two leagues. The Columbus Crew were saved and eventually got their new stadium, Austin received it first professional soccer team in the city. The USL’s Austin Bold, who’s ownership fought and lost the battle for Austin’s soccer heart, was sold and ceased operations and look to return in the future most likely in Fort Worth and San Antonio FC lost its MLS hopes for the third time.

The future for San Antonio FC is still solid, a team producing some quality homegrown players, signing MLS veterans and putting a competitive team on the pitch. Could San Antonio FC play in MLS in the future?

The MLS will have 29 teams next year with the introduction of St. Louis City, and Las Vegas seems to the front runner to be the 30th and final MLS team, completing Don Garber’s dream of a 30 team league. The cost of expansion team has now reached north of $300 million, a far cry from the $10 million Toronto FC paid in 2007.

It seems like unless, Don Garber or whoever succeeds him as MLS Commissioner decide to increase the league past 30 teams or introduce promotion/relegation, San Antonio will not be a MLS team any time in the near future. If there was an opportunity for expansion and San Antonio was once again considered a top city, would Spurs Sports and Entertainment pay $400 million or more in expansion fees?

With so much history over the last 18 years or so, this upcoming match between San Antonio FC and Austin FC in the US Open Cup has meaning. A win for San Antonio FC would definitely feel amazing to the club and especially the fans, something they could talk about for years, maybe give San Antonio soccer fans some payback to league that misled them and a club that seemingly stole any chance of San Antonio having a MLS team.

notes:

Information and resources obtained from:

a. https://www.texasstandard.org/stories/how-san-antonio-got-passed-over-by-major-league-soccer-for-austin/

b. https://news4sanantonio.com/news/local/austins-new-mls-franchise-leaves-bad-feelings-in-san-antonio

c. https://soccer.nbcsports.com/2017/10/30/san-antonio-sends-mls-scathing-letter-league-denies-it-misled-expansion-bid/

d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expansion_of_Major_League_Soccer

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