'Number one fans': Austin FC fathers balance family, soccer and being the coolest dads at Career Day
Austin FC's roster is stocked with guys in all different stages of life, but nearly all stick to a similar mantra: "family comes first (and) soccer comes second." For nine Austin FC athletes, that means balancing hours of grueling work with fatherhood off the pitch.
That lifestyle became apparent when Matt Besler, the club's starting defender and one of the best center backs in MLS history, stayed home for Austin's second-ever match to witness the birth of his son Miller. Besler had already missed the birth of his first daughter and wasn't going to miss one again.
"It's in God's hands of when the baby's going to come, and you do your best to plan as much as possible, but in the end, it usually never works out that way," Besler said. "We just felt like it was better for me to just stay back and not travel because you don't want to regret missing that."
Besler's wife, Amanda, and two daughters joined him on his journey to Austin after 12 years with Sporting Kansas City. Balancing family and soccer isn't too bad, Besler said, and neither aspect of his life has suffered from the other. Still, he admits there isn't much time for Netflix binging or picking up hobbies.
"I feel like I've been able to balance those two things really well... but it really is just balancing my family and soccer," Besler said. "That's about all I have time for, but... I would rather have it this way than the other way where you feel like you're getting pulled in like a million different directions."
Besler's children haven't quite wrapped their head around their dad being a professional football player—he currently has them convinced he's an aspiring magician—but they do share a post-game ritual: playing Operation on Dad.
"They like to be the doctor (and) inspect all my bruises and scratches from the game," Besler said. "So they each have their medical kits and they do a physical exam on me, and they're always worried about daddy getting hurt or kicked. So that's probably as far as we get in terms of the soccer fandom."
While adjusting to Austin has been difficult—namely, the sweltering Texas summer heat—Besler said his family has adjusted with the help of an at-home swimming pool and the city's overwhelming support.
Fellow central defender Julio Cascante feels the same way. Cascante and his wife, Jessica, had their hands full when they moved to Austin from Portland with their then-four-month-old son Anto. Pair that with Austin FC's stagnant record, which has garnered plenty of criticism, and life on the Verde pitch can be pretty stressful.
Cascante said he's able to leave the pressures of the job thanks to his role as a husband and father.
"You get home and you see your baby, I think that's that's what gives you that relief," Cascante said. "He wants to be with you as soon as you get off, and so you forget about all the bad things that happened to you today (because) they only think about you as a father."
For Diego Fagundez, seeing pictures of his children with him on the pitch reminds him why he plays.
"It's something that I'll never forget, and I hope that they'll never forget, and they can tell their kids someday," Fagundez said. "That's why I do it. I might be having a bad day, but at the end of the day, they still bring my smile... It's the best feeling in the world."
Having built-in fans has its benefits. Fagundez's three-year-old daughter, Maria, has already been seen shouting his name in the supporter's section, and he hopes one day she'll be on the podium with fan band La Murga's "capos," or chant leaders.
"They're my number one fans," Fagundez said. "In that video of my daughter in the south end with all the fans, she's throwing her arms and singing and yelling. That's amazing to me."
Fagundez, whose father played professionally too, hopes to create the same memories he enjoyed as a kid for his own children. Fagundez, Besler and Cascante all hope to see their kids play soccer one day, but more importantly, they hope to pass on key aspects of the sport—passion, kindness, dedication and sacrifice.
While adjusting to a new city with a young family has been difficult for all, they're thankful for all the support from Austin fans that help the Texas capital feel like home. Fagundez has become great friends with members of Los Verdes, and some have even helped him watch his kids as he goes to training.
"Austin's amazing," Fagundez said. "From the first day they got here, the fan base just helped me so much. If I needed something, they would be the first ones there. It's like one big, happy family."
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As summer temperatures continue to increase, so does Austin's "Party Island"—a hundreds-strong army of kayakers and paddle boarders who gather each weekend in the middle of Lady Bird Lake.
Born from the pandemic, the swarm of paddleboarding partiers has continued to grow each summer and can be seen from the nearby Lamar Boulevard Bridge. And while "Party Island" certainly lives up to one half of its name, it's not actually an island at all: instead, it's located at a shallow sandbar near Lou Neff Point.
With beers, burgers from portable grills and even DJ turntables in hand, more friends and strangers continue to beat the heat in new ways at the distinct Austin hangout.
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If you are a committed, grunge-wearing resident of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy–almost automatic–to look at Texas as an extraordinarily dry, hot and culturally oppressive place that is better to avoid, especially in the summer. Our two granddaughters live with their parents in Portland.
Recently we decided to take the older girl, who is 15, to Dallas. Setting aside the summer heat, a Portlander can adjust to the vibes of Austin without effort. So let’s take Texas with all of its excesses straight up. Dallas, here we come.
Our 15-year-old granddaughter and her sister, 12, have spent summer weeks with us, usually separately so that we could better get to know each individually. In visits focused on Austin and Port Aransas, the girls seemed to be developing an affection for Texas.
Houston and Dallas are two great American cities, the 4th and 9th largest, each loaded with cultural treasures, each standing in glittering and starchy contrast to Austin’s more louche, T-shirts and shorts ways.
Three hours up I-35, Dallas loomed before us as a set of gray skyscrapers in a filmy haze, accessed only through a concrete mixmaster of freeways, ramps and exits. I drove with false confidence. Be calm, I said to myself, it will all end in 10 minutes under the hotel entrance canopy. And it did.
The pool at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas. (Crescent Court Hotel)
We stayed three nights at the Crescent Court Hotel ($622 a night for two queens), a high-end hotel in Uptown, patronized by women in white blazers, business people in suits, and tall, lean professional athletes, their shiny Escalades and Corvettes darting in and out, and other celebrities like Bill Barr, the former attorney general who shoe-horned his ample self into a Toyota.
Each morning as I walked to Whole Foods for a cappuccino, a fellow identified by a bellman as Billy the Oilman arrived in his Rolls Royce Phantom. Where does he park? “Wherever he wants to. He likes the Starbucks here.”
We garaged our more modest set of wheels for the visit. We were chauffeured for tips by Matt Cooney and Alfonza “The Rev” Scott in the hotel’s black Audi sedan. They drove us to museums, restaurants and past the enclaves of the rich and famous. In Highland Park, The Rev pointed out the homes of the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman along with the family compound of the Hunts, oil and gas tycoons.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s “Cartier and Islam” exhibit (until Sept. 18) attracted an older crowd; the nearby Perot Museum of Nature and Science was a powerful whirlpool of kids’ groups ricocheting from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the oil fracking exhibit. Watch your shins.
A Geogia O'Keeffe oil painting called "Ranchos Church, New Mexico" at the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art. (Rich Oppel)
For us, the best museum was the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, a 50-minute, madcap drive away via a 75 mph toll lane along I-30. Don’t try it during rush hour. The Carter has an exquisite collection of Remington paintings and sculptures and an excellent array of 19th and 20th-century paintings as well. Pick one museum? The Amon Carter. Peaceful, beautiful, uncrowded, free admission and small enough to manage in two hours.
The Fort Worth Stockyards, a place of history (with a dab of schmaltz), fun and good shopping, filled one of our mornings. The 98 acres brand the city as Cowboy Town, with a rodeo and a twice-daily (11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.) cattle drive. We shopped for boots, drank coffee and watched the “herd” of 18 longhorns. So languid was their progress that if this were a real market drive the beef would have been very tough and leathery before it hit the steakhouse dinner plate.
The cattle drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Rich Oppel)
But we could identify: the temperature was 97. “I saw a dog chasing a cat today,” said the emcee, deploying a very old joke. “It was so hot that both were walking.”
With limited time, we chose three very different restaurants:
- Nobu, in the Crescent Court Hotel; Jia, a modern Chinese restaurant in Highland Park; and Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth. Nobu’s exotic Japanese menu set us back $480, with tip, for four (we had a guest), but it was worth it.
- Jia was an ordinary suburban strip mall restaurant, but with good food and a reasonable tab of $110 for four.
- Joe T.’s is an 85-year-old Fort Worth institution (think Matt’s El Rancho but larger), a fine Mexican restaurant where a meal with two drinks was $115.
Sushi at high-end restaurant Nobu. (Crescent Hotel)
It was all a splurge for a grandchild’s visit. Now we will get back to our ordinary road trips of Hampton Inns, where a room rate is closer to the Crescent Court’s overnight parking rate of $52. And to corner cafes in small towns.
Did Dallas change our 15-year-old’s view of Texas? “Yes. I think it’s a lot cooler than I did. The fashion, the food.” So, not only Austin is cool. Take Texas as a whole. It’s a big, complex, diverse and wonderful state.