Monday, March 9, 2009

Crew to Texas for USL Showdown

The Crew take on USL side Austin Aztex FC this Saturday at a time when the second division USL has been challenging the MLS on every front and making a strong case that a European-style relegation and promotion system could work in the U.S.

USL teams posted strong ticket sales in 2008, their non-single entity ownership system and lack of $40 million ransom for expansion are giving owners and teams the flexibility to be creative -- particularly in these tough economic times -- and most importantly, they are kicking ass on the field.

Take the CONCACAF Champions League tournament: Two out of the three non-Mexican North American sides in the quarterfinals were USL teams, Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders. Houston Dynamo, the only MLS team to make it out of group play were manhandled by Atlante of Mexico and promptly sent packing. Montreal made an exciting showing, beating Santos Laguna 2-0 before 65,000 at home in the first leg before blowing it on the away trip. And Puerto Rico Islanders remain the only non-Mexican side in the tournament, preparing to face off against Santos Laguna in the semi-finals under the steadfast leadership of former Crew keeper Bill Gaudette.

Not to mention the Islanders beat the reigning MLS champs 2-0 last month.

So the Crew, coming off a 4-game pre-season winning streak that saw them handily take care of Everton and Liverpool reserves, would do well to not overlook Aztex. This last game of the pre-season campaign will be the Crew’s most challenging.

The Aztex are an exciting new expansion team preparing for their first season in USL. They bring a combination of several interesting qualities.

First, Aztex start with a ready-made fan base in the considerable Texas Latino soccer community. The name alone is a clear marketing tool, aimed at firing up Mexican nationalist pride by conjuring the fabled Mexico City stadium that has been the graveyard of U.S. men’s national team dreams for going on three decades.

Aztecs also bring a distinctly English flavour to their game. They have a unique farm-team like affiliation with EPL side Stoke City, which includes player exchanges, talent scouting and the sharing of coaching knowledge. (They are owned by British-born, Austin businessman Phil Rawlins, who also owns a share of Stoke City).

Their English manager, Adrian Heath, had an impressive career in English football that spanned nearly 20 years. Himself a childhood Stoke supporter, he started his playing career at the club in 1979 making 95 appearances. He later joined Everton and became the club’s top scorer in his first full season, scoring 18 in all competitions in the 1983–84 season. Aztex also have an unusually high number of English players for a U.S. squad.

And while Aztex have no record to examine, much of their roster is filled with players from the U-23 team the club has fielded in the Premier Development League (PDL). The results there this past year were impressive: Mid-South Division Champions with a record of 10-5-1; Coach Wolfgang Suhnholz, Coach of the Year; Miguel Gallardo, Goalkeeper of the Year; Beto Papandrea, Defender of the Year.

In their only two pre-season matches Aztex have looked impressive while posting mixed results. March 1, they went down 2-0 at home to New England Revolution, but March 7 they led Houston Dynamo twice in the first half before running out of steam in the second, ending in a 2-2 draw.

Players to watch:

Eddie Johnson: No not that Eddie Johnson of Fulham and USMNT fame. This Eddie Johnson is a 24-year-old Englishman who just signed with Aztex after a career in England that started promising but never lived up to its billing. The 6-2, 180 lb forward is a serious scoring threat, particularly from the air.

Gifton Noel-Williams: A veteran English striker, Noel-Williams recorded several caps with the English national team at various stages early on in his career. At 16 years old he began his professional career playing at Watford. Two seasons later Noel-Williams led Watford in scoring as the team was promoted to the Premiership. He scored 33 goals for Watford before moving to Stoke City in 2003. While at Stoke, the 6’3” striker led The Potters in scoring two consecutive seasons (2003-05), where he found the net a total of 23 times. He continued his career at Burnley before moving to Spain to play for Real Murcia and most recently Elche.

Miguel Gallardo: The Mexican-born goal keeper was 2008 PDL Goalkeeper of the Year and Southern Conference All-Star. In 2008 for Aztex U-23, Gallardo conceded only eight goals and led the league with nine shutouts.

Beto Papandrea: At 32, Papandrea is the veteran of the defense. The University of Texas-Austin grad earned 2008 PDL Defender of the Year.

Zach Pope: An Austin native and Duke standout, Pope is a diminutive but very quick defender in the mold of a Frankie Hejduk. He was originally drafted by Chicago Fire in the 2008 Superdraft but later released.

The game is 7:30 p.m. Central Time (9:30 Eastern), Saturday, March 14, at Aztex Nelson Stadium in Austin.

El Luchador predicts a physical game, Crew 3-1 Aztex.

Columbus Till I Die.


D said...

I think a relegation system in the US would be excellent and create much better competition.

Jericho said...

Hey Lucha, Interesting relegation post. I can see both sides of the argument, and also can see why it probably won't happen for a while.

Can I get you to link to our shop?

We're just a couple Crew fans who like making shirts and stuff.