AUSTIN (KXAN) — On an uncharacteristically wet and cold week in Central Texas, some of the best soccer players in the country are tuning up ahead of some key games.
The national soccer spotlight is back on Austin as the U.S. women’s team hold a training camp at Austin FC’s training ground, St. David’s Performance Center.
But with exposure comes scrutiny, and the lack of a professional women’s team in Austin is emerging as a gaping hole.
The Houston Dash is the only National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team in Texas, but the women behind the ‘NWSL 2 Austin’ campaign are confident that change is coming.
“The biggest question we always get asked is ‘when is it going to happen?’ said Michelle Frasch, co-founder of the campaign. “We think it’s just a matter of time.”
Frasch and Christine Hanley, the other co-founder of NWSL 2 Austin, said demand is not an issue.
They point to last June, when a noisy crowd sold out Q2 Stadium for a women’s national team exhibition match against Nigeria – the first ever game at the arena.
This week’s winter training camp marks the USWNT’s second visit to Austin – the men’s team has also been twice in the last six months – and the players are impressed.
First choice goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who plays for the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars and has featured 78 times for her country, said she would “love” to see a team in the Texas capital.
“I think Austin would be a great fit for the NWSL,” Naeher said.
“I think the facilities here are great, they’ve done a phenomenal job with the resources that they have and the fields, the training grounds, locker rooms, weight rooms and everything like that.”
“I would love to see a women’s team here someday,” Naeher added. “I think this would be an ideal location.”
The NWSL is in a constant state of growth, with two expansion teams joining in 2022, based in Los Angeles and San Diego, bringing the number of teams to 12.
Hanley pointed out fans of women’s soccer in Central Texas would have to travel to Houston to watch a professional game. Geographically, the closest team to Houston is in Kansas City.
“It’s always been a dream to not have to drive three hours to go watch women’s soccer,” Hanley said. “Our goal is to basically level the playing field and give the women the same opportunities here.”
Some of the more commercially successful NWSL teams are linked to Major League Soccer teams.
The Portland Thorns, who boast the highest average attendance in the league at more than 14,000, are affiliated with the Portland Timbers and the teams share a stadium.
In Texas, it’s the same situation with the Dash and the Houston Dynamo. While the Dash has struggled with attendance, the Dynamo is near the bottom of the MLS list – suggesting demand in the city is not comparable to Austin.
Frasch and Hanley said they believe Austin FC owner Anthony Precourt is keen to bring women’s soccer to Austin.
“You can only imagine if they had a sellout crowd for the women’s national team before, how much money the owners could be bringing in if they brought a female side,” Hanley said. “So whether it’s through existing ownership or new ownership, it’s just a smart business plan.”
“We’ve had brief conversations with Precourt when he’s been down in the supporter’s section during Austin FC games,” Frasch added. “You can tell he lights up about it as soon as we talk about it.”
Q2 Stadium’s lease agreement specifically mentions it is approved for NWSL use as well as the MLS, Frasch said.
“Ownership and the front office aren’t going to give us the answers we want to hear right now, just because they don’t want to spoil stuff,” she said. “But I think it’s coming. It’s definitely coming.”
Austin has elite soccer facilities in place, the fans are on board, and Austin FC ownership appears to be interested, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
Those include finding an investor to provide the money to launch the team, whether it’s Precourt or someone else – nine of the 12 NWSL teams are not affiliated with an MLS club.
The instability of the league itself is another barrier. In October, the NWSL launched an investigation into its own handling of sexual abuse allegations relating to a former coach, who was fired when the allegations went public in September.
Despite that, the NWSL 2 Austin campaigners are hopeful women’s soccer can thrive in the Texas capital.
“The supporters’ culture that we’ve built in this city, it’s a very inclusive space,” Frasch said.
She estimated there could be a team in Austin “maybe closer to 2024.”
“You always want to leave things better than you found it,” Hanley said. “Just knowing that Austin FC can help pave the way for little girls to have dreams of going on to play professional soccer, and not just stopping at the college level.”