Q2 Stadium swapped its Verde for red, white and blue as country music legend Willie Nelson returned for his first in-person Fourth of July Picnic since 2019 on Monday.
The music fest included fireworks, fun merch and acts from country greats including Charley Crockett, Midland, Brothers Osborne, Allison Russell, Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell and Austin's own Asleep at the Wheel. And while Q2 will have some kinks to straighten before it becomes a concert-hosting regular, Nelson's unifying spirit kept things cool during the 12-hour outdoor event.
Midland performed at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic. (Q2 Stadium/Twitter)
Doors opened at 11 a.m., and Asleep at the Wheel was on the stage by 12 p.m.—though as one Reddit post pointed out, there weren't many people there to see them play.
Q2 Stadium stayed sparsely populated for the first half of the day. (Claire Partain/Austonia)
Per Q2 Stadium policy, attendees weren't allowed to re-enter the venue after leaving, so anyone who wanted to watch both an afternoon and Nelson's big performance were stuck at the venue for hours straight. That opened up the perfect opportunity for customers to snatch up snacks, water and beers, which emptied wallets even faster than at Austin FC games. Nothing says "the end is nigh" like $15 beers.
An open-air, 20,500 seat venue, Q2 Stadium sometimes struggled to carry sound clearly, and between-song banter was often limited to an incomprehensible garble. Still, Tyler Childers' commanding growls came through, Alison Russells' multi-instrument ensemble shone and Nelson's strums on his trusty guitar, Trigger, were front and center by the end of the night.
Fans found it hard to look away from Tyler Childers' enrapturing performance. (Jakob Rodriguez)
The July 4th picnic, which was most recently held at Circuit of the Americas from 2015-2019, benefitted from Q2's more central location, and the large venue offered plenty of room for attendees to mull about.
As the sun mercifully dipped below the horizon, the music paused for a 15-minute fireworks show.
But the July 4th staples weren't the main event. At 89, Nelson didn't disappoint, sitting calmly as he performed alongside his family members and even gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, who made a surprise appearance midway through the show.
.@BetoORourke and his son just joined @WillieNelson on stage for his annual 4th of July picnic in Austin pic.twitter.com/2kgr5yDogG
— Jeremy Wallace (@JeremySWallace) July 5, 2022
At times wistful, joyful or both, Nelson took the crowd through hits from "On the Road Again" to "Always on My Mind."
And as each favorite was played, all of the heat and stress of the day were encompassed by Nelson's voice, his storytelling and more as Austinites new and old gathered for the decades-old tradition.
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Despite near 100-degree heat, Austin FC's sunny four-week win streak was clouded with a shaky start and disputes between the club and supporters' groups as Austin lost 1-0 to LA Galaxy on Sunday.
With the loss, both Los Angeles teams are threatening to dethrone No. 2 Austin in the MLS West. Austin FC continues to edge out the Galaxy and has the second-most goals in the league behind its No. 1 opponent LAFC.
Here are three takeaways from the match:
The Dominguez dispute
While star forward Cecilio Dominguez didn't take to the pitch Sunday night, his influence was felt throughout the stadium as an uncharacteristic silence fell upon the Q2 Stadium supporters' section for 10 minutes of the match.
The team's two fan clubs halted their signature chants in response to Dominguez's return to the Austin FC roster Wednesday. Dominguez was suspended from the club for a month as the league conducted an investigation into an Austin police call alleging "verbal and emotional abuse" from Dominguez to his ex-partner on April 8.
APD did not continue the investigation, and Dominguez's ex-partner did not pursue any charges. But both fan clubs Austin Anthem and Los Verdes have taken a stand against Dominguez's continued presence on the team and domestic violence as a larger issue within the community. Fans held up banners for domestic violence hotline SAFE Alliance Austin and a Verde and Black banner demanding "No more silence."
A founding member of the Verdes Against Domestic Violence committee, who did not want to be named due to the sensitive subject, said the moment of silence was made to raise awareness to fans who don't know about the situation and highlight the severity of verbal emotional abuse while giving back to the community.
"We can use our voices or the absence of our voices to create an impact, so that's what we're doing," they said. "For us to be able to take this very difficult thing and turn it into something positive for our community was really important to all of us."
A gritty game
Austin's smiley, fun-loving playing style of recent weeks was dashed in the grueling 1-0 loss, especially as a turnover led to a long-distance Galaxy goal in just the sixth minute of play.
Austin FC's Ethan Finlay's quick ball recovery accidentally set up LA's Mark Delgado for a shot outside the box, which ricocheted off the post past keeper Andrew Tarbell to become the only goal of the match. Tarbell, who took over after star keeper Brad Stuver suffered a leg gash last match, also had two saves in the game.
The game was clearly going in the Galaxy's favor, partially due to Austin FC errors and turnovers, until Austin recovered its possession-heavy playing style in the second half. Despite a dominating first half for Galaxy, the Verde and Black finished off the game with 55.2% possession, 13 shots and two near-misses, including an off-the-post free kick from MLS' top goalscorer Sebastian Driussi.
The trials ahead
So close to an equalizer from Driussi! pic.twitter.com/QFktGSJEXa— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 9, 2022
Even as Austin FC rose to the top of the standings, many skeptics said the team's early success boiled down to "bonus games" against low-ranking teams.
If Austin's opponents were "bonuses" before, the opponents ahead are the opposite. The Verde and Black are 1-1 against higher-ranking teams with the loss after an eighth-place Houston Dynamo win April 30. The club will hit the road for a matchup against No. 5 Real Salt Lake before returning to take on LAFC—the top team in the league—in Los Angeles four days later on Wednesday, May 18.
The Verde and Black will hope for Stuver's recovery and more standout performances from scorers Maxi Urruti and Driussi as it looks to keep up that near-perfect record.
BONUS: Verde hair, don't care
The prophecy has finally come true.
Austin FC fan favorite Diego Fagundez has sported dark hair, bleached looks and even an "LV" fade for fan club Los Verdes, and he said from the start that Verde wasn't off the table.
"You never know," Fagundez said last April. "It might go green someday."
Fagundez fulfilled that promise with a new neon green hairdo at the Sunday match.
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Fresh from a loss to a lower-division San Antonio FC, Austin FC proved it still has the chops to maintain its home fortress as it once again rose to the top of the MLS West with a 3-0 Vancouver Whitecaps win at Q2 Stadium on Saturday.
The team is still undefeated at its home stadium this season as it notched its third straight MLS win for the first time ever, in part thanks to its skillful archer Maxi Urruti, who drew back two successful shots to land his first brace with his new team.
Another second-half goal by forward Sebastian Driussi finalized the 3-0 win and pushed Driussi, who has scored six goals this season, to the top of the league's scoring stats.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
Scoring season continues
No.3️⃣7️⃣ always knows where the goal is! 👌 pic.twitter.com/4fezbDmJas— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 24, 2022
Austin FC's scoring droughts have all but dried up this season, and they have the stats to back it up: Driussi, who scored his sixth goal this season with a header in the 67th minute, is now the MLS' top goalscorer.
Urruti isn't far behind—in the four games since he scored his first Verde goal against San Jose April 2, the acrobatically-inclined striker has essentially been handed a permanent starting spot after scoring four goals in the last four MLS matches.
The goals keep pouring down in Austin's Q2 Stadium, and the club is 8-1-1 in its last 10 matches at home. The Verde and Black have scored 20 goals in eight games—at least three more than any other club, including the West's current runner-up LAFC—and has the largest goal differential between itself and its opponents in the league.
Will this cut out all the "bonus" game talk?
3 points, clean sheet, Maxi brace , Sebas top scorer, Top of the table ( at least for couple hours 😅) but I’ll guess it’s all bonus games. pic.twitter.com/8yEUvagkeW— Alexei Plaza (@AlexeiPlaza) April 24, 2022
Earlier in the week, Austin FC's color commentator Michael Lahoud entered a bout of heated banter with MLS analyst Andrew Weibe.
Weibe, like other commentators, couch quarterbacks and others who watched the team's less-impressive first season, hasn't been as awestruck as some Verde observers with Austin FC's performances. Instead, he and others have prescribed to the idea that Austin has shot to the top thanks to "bonus" games, or matches that are somehow guaranteed wins because of the opposing team's standings.
Austin has only played one of the top eight MLS West clubs so far. But some of those clubs are sitting at the bottom, at least in part, due to their losses to Austin FC. And Inter Miami and FC Cincinnati, who both conceded five goals to Austin this season, have rallied and even won against other higher-ranked clubs after their loss to the Verde and Black.
If the club's fifth win doesn't damper those "bonus" game claims, good performances against its upcoming teams will: next up, the club will take on a Texas Derby rival in Houston Dynamo, which currently sits at seventh in the conference. That match will be followed by three straight matches against higher-ranked clubs, including LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and LAFC.
Futbol or 'funbol'?
It’s a party! 🥳 pic.twitter.com/lfOc76SHmM— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 24, 2022
It's a lot easier to smile during an Austin FC win, and new positive energy has been found in every facet of the game.
Felicidades to the happy couple 💚💚 pic.twitter.com/cczMEbh4lc— Los Verdes (@LosVerdesATX) April 24, 2022
Midway through the first half, a couple temporarily silenced one of Austin's loudest crowds to date as the two announced their engagement in front of thousands.
Be careful with the rattlesnakes in Austin. 🐍😉 pic.twitter.com/3EnfXT1p8u— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 24, 2022
And on the pitch, Austin FC's players have had plenty of chances to bring out their elaborate goal celebrations.
The goalscoring duo of the night, Urruti and Driussi, debuted a new snakelike handshake after Driussi's goal.
The new move was the latest of several different celebrations brought out after a Verde goal: Urruti continues to revel in the latest goal with an archer-style pose, and every time the team scores, the players form a huddle and bring out what can best be described as the coolest possible version of jazz hands.
"(Jazz hands gesture) I have no idea where that came from, but guys started doing it in the very first game (this season and it just kind of continued," goalkeeper Brad Stuver said after the match. "I have no idea where the snake came from, but we're doing it all the time at the training facility. They just look at you and just they just go (snake gesture.) And I'm like, 'I don't know what that means, but cool.'"
After a year of tighter COVID restrictions, Stuver said the team has also bonded over barbecues, club hangouts and more.
"We have our South American contingent, they drink their mate every day, sit around in the locker room and drink their daily latte (and) play cards together," Stuver said. "This year we've done a lot more team bonding and stuff...(we) actually have a little Brazil vs. Argentina, which barbecue is better...just overall, the camaraderie is a little bit more organic."