‘Let Them Play’: Why Austin FC fans face an anxious wait to see their team take the field

Austin FC

Austin FC’s Q2 stadium (Picture: KXAN/Todd Bynum)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin FC fans know a thing or two about patience.

Since January 2019, when the club was officially announced as Major League Soccer’s 27th franchise, fans have watched a stadium rise from the ground in north Austin as a squad of players slowly takes shape.

During the last two years, the city’s soccer fans have learned the virtue of patience – and that patience may be needed for a little while longer.

A dark cloud looms over Austin FC’s inaugural season in the form of an unresolved collective bargaining agreement between MLS players and club owners related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s between the players and the league,” Austin FC president Andy Loughnane told KXAN.

“We’ll be ready to play when the season begins.”

Exactly when that will happen remains a mystery. The MLS is on the brink of a damaging lockout that will be enforced if the back and forth between the league and its players’ association remains unresolved at midnight on Thursday.

Austin FC’s Q2 stadium (Picture: KXAN/Todd Bynum)

As the tense negotiations continue, the league has set a start date of April 3 – already about a month later than usual – while Austin FC’s Q2 stadium should be ready to host games in early June.

“If the Major League Soccer schedule begins in early April, we’ll likely begin on the road for a couple of matches, and then ultimately we’ll return to Q2 Stadium for our inaugural match,” Loughnane said.

Loughnane’s use of “if” is significant as a question mark continues to hang over the new season and its 27 clubs.

“I think we all knew Austin FC’s first season was going to be chaotic,” Tony Cardone, vice president of the supporters’ group Austin Anthem, said. “I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be quite this chaotic.

“The odds of the season starting on time are anyone’s guess,” he added.

With the shortened 2020 season providing a blueprint for how the MLS can handle COVID-19, Cardone identified the collective bargaining agreement as the biggest issue facing the league – though he is cautiously optimistic that a solution can be found.

“The CBA is the one that’s most concerning,” he said.

“It’s something that no one really knows the outcome, but I think the players and the owners have an opportunity to fix this before it becomes a big problem. There’s not a lot of time, but there’s still enough to make it work.”

Throughout the saga, players have stressed that they want to play – and the fans have their backs.

Supporters’ groups around the country, including Austin Anthem and Los Verdes, have led the “Let Them Play” campaign, throwing their support behind the players.

“Without the players, we have no game. Without supporters, we have no soccer. Together, we are united as one soccer community,” a statement posted by Austin Anthem reads.

Players have been vocal too, with many tweeting “Let Us Play” as the negotiation deadline screeches ever closer.

Among them is Austin goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who tweeted his support in response to Austin Anthem’s statement.

“We’re being asked to come to the stadium with our season tickets, with all the merchandise and without the players there – we feel like we have a unique responsibility to help them bridge the gap with the owners in a way that not any other soccer league in the world has,” Cardone said.

He noted Austin FC’s owners have been “excellent” so far “but that’s not a universal standard across the league.”

Questions remain over how the season may be affected by the pandemic as it continues to rage across the country, as well as how much time teams will have to tune up in pre-season – especially vital for a completely new team like Austin FC.

As disruptive as it may be, Cardone pointed out one possible silver lining for Austin FC fans if their first gameday is delayed.

He said he thinks an extended pre-season would “reduce the disadvantage” facing the expansion franchise in their debut campaign.

The MLS reopened negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement last month, arguing COVID-19 presents further uncertainty following a pandemic-affected season that cost the league nearly $1 billion.

During the most recent negotiation last summer, players agreed to take a pay cut so the 2020 season could continue.

The MLS and MLSPA will continue meeting ahead of the deadline at midnight on Thursday, when the league says it will begin the lockout. In that scenario, the MLS would continue to pay health insurance premiums for players and their families, the MLS said.

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