After two straight losses, Austin FC is set to take on one of three still-undefeated MLS clubs this weekend. It's not all doom and gloom, however—Nashville SC may be unbeaten, but they've logged just one win and four draws this season.
Austin FC will also have their "ringleader" Alex Ring back in patching up a hole in midfield that gave LA Galaxy the leg up in last week's match.
Hector Jimenez's injury that saw him leave the match in a stretcher has been determined as an MCL tear in one of the latest defender injuries. A few weeks ago, left back Ben Sweat suffered an ACL injury that left Zan Kolmanic in his stead, and defender Freddy Kleemann has been put on loan to USL side Memphis 901 FC. It goes without saying that defensive depth is stretched thin.
The club will play fellow expansion club Nashville SC for their sixth-straight road match at 8 p.m. on Sunday.
What to expect
Nashville SC is the most recent expansion club in MLS aside from Austin, and despite a rocky start, the club managed to play 23 matches in the fall of 2020, finishing 7th in the Eastern Conference to earn a playoff berth.
A strong defense and 4-4-2 formation led the team to a scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake City last weekend, and the club has had two of the past three matches end in goose eggs (0-0).
Nashville's defensive cornerstone is Walker Zimmerman, a 27-year-old center back who scored the first goal in the expansion team's history and was named to the 2020 MLS Best XI last season. Alongside keeper Joe Willis, Nashville has proven it has few holes on its back end.
The club has dominated offensively in several matches this season as well. Nashville is likely to go back to their traditional 4-3-2-1 formation this week with Designated Player Hany Muktar back on the pitch, and the club has outshot its past opponents 34-12 this season.
Another formidable threat comes from off the pitch. Nashville knows how to dominate in its home stadium, and Austin FC is at a significant exhaustion disadvantage as it heads into its sixth straight road match. The Yellow-and-Blue is sure to clash with Verde, however, as hundreds of members of Austin FC's fan club take to the stadium for their #NashVERDE event.
On Austin FC's side, keeper Brad Stuver has kept the club in many matches with his spectacular saves, and he'll be a threat if Nashville continues to struggle in the final third.
Projected starting lineup
Ring is back! The captain's absence against LA Galaxy due to two yellow cards was certainly felt last weekend, and the defensive midfielder is certain to be back on the pitch to secure the midfield.
Danny Hoesen graced the crown off the pitch once again last week after Jon Gallagher stayed home on injury. However, Head Coach Josh Wolff said they're "hopeful" that Gallagher will get back into training this week. It's still unclear who will take the striker spot: neither have quite gotten their groove as a top scorer.
Sub Kekuta Manneh was a surprise threat against the Galaxy, making three threatening shots against the club in just ten minutes. While it's unlikely he'll start, he earned a double take from many who may have discounted him in the past, and Wolff was impressed with his performance.
"He's got good individual quality and his ability to combine and go 1-v-1 is nice," Wolff said. "I think he's certainly created some chances."
Nick Lima is almost certain to be at right back once again after Jimenez's injury, and the back line will need to hold on tightly to this formation as both Jimenez and Sweat heal.
Injuries and exhaustion are key threats to Austin FC's growth, but Wolff said that the club is still able to refresh as they continue to build on their identity.
"We're always going to be aware of our freshness," Wolff said. "These teams are amped up, they're at home, and they're all good opponents. So we've got to be at our very best, and we're still learning what that looks like. That's part of the challenge each week."
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Heading to Q2 Stadium? Four months ago, it would've been tough to do so without dropping a pretty penny, but by mid-September, season ticket holders were clamoring to sell their seats for as little as a $10 beer.
While Austin FC continues to sell-out crowds—their most recent match was at capacity despite their record and scheduling conflict with a Texas Longhorns game—demand has dipped as new factors continue to pull down prices.
Austin FC's rocky season has been met with unbridled fan support, but it's also lost that honeymoon-phase traction as they fell to the bottom of the standings, faced a third COVID surge and were met with school, work and good ol' Texas football.
On Sept. 15, Austin FC fan Tanis Olvedo was willing to strike a deal: two beers for a ticket.
Austin FC went from $200+ tickets to this 😪 we down bad pic.twitter.com/Q3yOr7UBiC
— Darth Concha (@davidhidalgo44) September 15, 2021
Although he later sold at cost to another season ticket holder, many fans have seen the value of their season tickets take a serious dip. By Wednesday, Sept. 15, tickets that were once no lower than $36 had dropped to as little as $14.
Austin Anthem member Phil Stanch used his accounting skills to map out the dip in his ticket sales prices.
Phil Stanch found that the predicted value of his season tickets (in orange) will continue to trend downward. (Phil Stanch)
Here are the main reasons why fans say Austin FC's ticket prices have taken a tumble:
Austin FC's first home game on June 19 seemed like perfect timing—by June 16, 51% of Travis County residents were fully vaccinated. Mid-May saw Austin lift its risk-based guidelines to Stage 2 for the first time since the pandemic's onset just in time for the brand-new Q2 Stadium to open at 100% capacity.
But with the third surge sending Austin back into Stage 5 and hospitalizations skyrocketing in late summer, some diehard fans reluctantly began opting for the couch over a 20,738-capacity stadium.
That safety-consciousness comes tenfold for parents of young children who are still ineligible to get vaccinated, at-risk fans and the older population.
School starting and unvaccinated kids. That’s why we haven’t gone in a while. We are season ticket holders, so we have just given ours away to friends and coworkers that can go.— jae (@jae98342926) September 23, 2021
Austin has stuck to capacity and hasn't added any masking or testing requirements, garnering some criticism from fans.
I stopped going because of the COVID surge. I tried to sell my tickets a couple of times and they didn’t move. Then I decided to eat them to make space. Not happy the club didn’t create a mask or vaccination requirement.— Ruben Cavazos (@rcavazos) September 24, 2021
Just as the surge reached its peak in mid-August, schools across Austin once again opened in-person, leaving many families unable to go to late-night games on weeknights. Ten of the club's 17 home games have been on Wednesdays, Thursdays or Sundays—days that have quickly transformed into "school nights."
With 9-5ers unable to justify 8:30 p.m. weeknight games and kids tucked in bed by 10, fewer fans have been able to make their way to the games.
And with school comes another conflict of interest- tried-and-true Texas football is fully underway, and though Sept. 18 saw a sold-out crowd, a few Verde seats were left empty as the two teams played at home at the same time for the first time.
A combo of a number of things:— Tom H (@hallockitup) September 23, 2021
- Wednesday or Sunday games that end around 10pm are not appealing to people with jobs or kids.
- Being in last place hurts, no matter how passionate people are about the team. Nothing on the line.
- This is still Texas, and it’s football season.
While COVID and fall responsibilities have played a factor, Austin FC is also dealing with the unfortunate reality of being a last-place team.
Season ticket holder Doug Mayo was one of the 4% of season ticket holders who didn't renew his deal with the team. Once confident that he would easily sell the coveted tickets for their original price, the team's record plummeted alongside his own ticket prices. Mayo said that the team's 5-4-16 record caused their honeymoon phase to end prematurely.
"The newness wore off fast," Mayo said. "Nobody wants to go to a sporting event when it's 99% certain the team they support will lose."
For Mayo, it'll take a better record and more passionate play on the field to get him back in the 20,000-member season ticket waitlist.
"Mainly (I want) them to start acting more like a professional team," Mayo said. "We were so excited to have something to look forward to throughout COVID and it's just been a disappointment."
I've been a big supporter in general, I went to 4 games in the first half of the season, but no amount of "fan camaraderie" makes me want to spend $30-40 to see a team that plays without heart. And that's bc the last game I saw we actually won (albeit Houston was down a man).— Brown and in Austin (@DisraelTV) September 23, 2021
Still other reasons abound: some fans say it's those $10 beers themselves that cause prices to dip, while others say tickets were overpriced in the first place. Although Austin FC says 96% of season ticket holders decided to renew for 2022, many did so with a grain of salt, including longtime fan Shawn Collins.
"I have tickets in 110 (the Lexus Club) and even when the demand was crazy high I couldn't get face for my tickets because they were so high to begin with," Collins said. "When I got them I figured I'd make back what I paid on games I couldn't attend."
Austin FC's dip in ticket sales may be more of an MLS problem than a unique issue: gameday employee and University of Texas sports business student Ben Patterson said that prices shot up due to pre-season excitement and are now at more normal levels.
"The initial hype of finally having a pro sports team is likely what drove up season ticket prices at the start of the year," Patterson said. "Now that excitement has cooled off, ticket prices have dropped in value steeply."
But while five straight losses are enough to drive at least some fans away, plenty are committed to staying Verde through thick and thin.
It might not be easy being green, but thousands of fans are now enjoying the benefits of $20 tickets as they continue to pack Q2.
Let's not question why tickets are NOT expensive.
Let's just keep buying tickets at $20. Whaddaya say? https://t.co/HkhOjczzZJ
— AC (@Arc34_) September 24, 2021
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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more races in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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