Adrian Heath's Austin Aztex Prepare For USL Debut

Ian ThomsonCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2009

Austin Aztex, the newest professional team in the U.S., continued their preparations for their inaugural season in the United Soccer Leagues First Division—North America’s second tier behind Major League Soccer—with a spirited 2-2 draw against Texas rivals Houston Dynamo last weekend.

Formed in 2008, the Aztex organisation has quickly assembled a squad which stands every chance of being competitive when the 11-team USL-1 season kicks off on April 18.

The club is owned by Stoke City board member Phil Rawlins, an Englishman based in the Texas state capital, and the two teams have a formal partnership which will see the Aztex acting as a potential source for future Potters players.

Further links between the teams run deeper than Austin’s adoption of red-and-white jerseys. Manager Adrian Heath is best remembered for his trophy-laden Everton days in the mid-1980’s but he was born in the Stoke area and started his career at the old Victoria Ground.

Heath has bolstered his fledgling squad of young American talent with four players from England’s lower leagues, the most notable being another former Stoke man Gifton Noel-Williams.

The Aztex will play their home games at Nelson Field; a humble 8,800 seated high school stadium that promises to unsettle visiting teams.

The two-sided ground lies adjacent to the main highway running eastbound to Houston and its open ends create a wind tunnel which, compounded by the artificial surface and dominating presence of American football lines, adds complexity to the simplest of tasks.

As with any new business, attracting customers in the opening months and retaining their loyalty thereafter is paramount to building future success. Rawlins will be pleased that the 4,177 fans in attendance last week—albeit a sizeable chunk making the 160-mile trip from Houston—were treated to an entertaining game.

The travelling El Batallón and Texian Army supporter groups did their part to create a lively atmosphere while Austin’s stadium announcer enlightened the novices among the home crowd with frequent updates on the action.

Hopefully he won’t be required to trumpet every “Corner to Austin” for too long.

The enthusiasm in Heath’s side was evident from the first whistle as the two-time MLS champions struggled for time on the ball.

Despite some slick play by Dynamo midfielders Brad Davis and Stuart Holden, the Aztex struck first on 21 minutes when Noel-Williams released Sullivan Silva down the right to score the club’s first ever goal.

An exuberant Silva sprinted to the West Stand to be embraced by fans and team-mates alike while our trusty announcer did his best to sour the historic moment by blasting DJ Ötzi over the tannoy.

An amusing indicator of the highly-professionalised approach ingrained in American fitness methods was provided when Silva emerged from the ruck. There was no card-happy referee laying in wait to punish his over-elaborate celebrations; rather the team physio demanding that he sup from a water bottle to replenish lost fluids.

Sadly for Silva he was to become better acquainted with the physio minutes later after limping out of the game.

Brian Mullan restored parity for the visitors on 34 minutes before Noel-Williams’ ebullience saw him dismissed following a second caution for a hard challenge on Holden. In truth, it was a harsh decision and one of many abysmal calls made by the match officials.

Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear came to the aid of his opponents by asking the referee to allow Heath to introduce a substitute in place of his fallen captain.

Kinnear said afterwards: “We wanted to play against eleven. It’s an exhibition so it doesn’t do either team any good to play with a man down.”

Austin received further assistance in first half stoppage time courtesy of a unique officiating gaffe.

Former Dynamo reserve Kyle Brown’s effort was thwarted on the goal-line by young goalkeeper Tally Hall.

Dynamo captain Wade Barrett reached the rebound ahead of Eddie Johnson, but his attempts to clear were derailed when the former Manchester United trainee clearly bundled him and the ball into the net.

As the referee ran to the six-yard line signalling a direct free kick, the opportunistic Johnson wheeled away in delight towards the same section of the crowd while Austin’s players again joined the melee.

Still our esteemed officials waited before realising nobody was paying attention to them. With “Pump up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S now filling the night sky, the referee simply cut his losses and trekked back to the halfway line.

Kinnear made wholesale changes at the interval with only one outfield player reappearing, but his reserves drew level on 47 minutes when trialist Eric Quill completed the scoring.

Kei Kamara looked to have won the game for Houston when he rounded goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo and found the net, only to be denied by another bizarre refereeing decision.

Gallardo was adjudged to have deliberately handled the ball outside his penalty area as he failed to deny the Sierra Leone international. Play was pulled back in any case—Houston were rewarded with a free kick; Gallardo went unpunished.

From then on the Aztex backroom staff became the busiest people in the ground. Waiting substitutes received thorough muscle rubs to prepare them for action while those being replaced were diligently checked by the physio before being put through their warm-down paces by the fitness guru.

At first glance, the rigorously attentive preparation off the field allied with a combative, enthusiastic spirit from his players suggests that Heath can look forward to a promising opening campaign.

Whether the team’s successes or failures are debated in the city’s famed Sixth Street bars or not...well, that may have to wait another few years.