The Battle for the Willie Nelson’s Guitar

In our quest to report the good, the bad and the truly bizarre from the world of football, we send our reporters to all corners of the globe. In the first of many reports I am sure, Damon Williams an exiled Newcastle United fan, who has recently swapped Accrington, Lancashire for Austin, Texas, gives us the low down on a very strange local rivalry as the Austin Aztex took on the Miami FC in the USSF D-2 Pro league..

“I want to start off with some background to this game. This was the first time I have gone to see a footy, sorry soccer,  game on American soil or in this case Astroturf.  I was also keen to understand what an Englishman, apart from myself, was doing in Austin.  The Aztex manager is none other than Adrian Heath, more recently manager at Coventry City, but now in his second season in Austin.  They currently play in the USSF D-2 which is basically the level below the MLS and is some kind of “Gods waiting room” in American soccer terms as there is no promotion or relegation to the MLS, teams have to apply for a franchise when one becomes available.  With MLS teams in Dallas and Houston already, the chances of Austin getting the nod are slim to say the least.

The visitors Miami had hoped not to be in this league at all.  They had been one of the ten teams who had signed an agreement to form the new North American Soccer League (NASL) as a rival to the MLS but a court order has postponed this for at least another year.  One name that I was looking out for though was Martyn Lancaster, the Miami centre back who actually hailed from Wigan and has played for the likes of Leigh RMI, Chester City and the mighty Northwich Victoria before heading off to the sunshine (more of him next week as we have secured an exclusive interview with him – ED).

So what did I expect from all of this? Had the success and enthusiasm of the USA team’s performance in the World Cup filtered through into the public, or would it still remain that ‘game’ that those American’s play who don’t make the American Football, Baseball or Basketball team’s? Only time would tell.

This game was stated as a rival clash and was also titled the ‘Battle for the Willie Nelson Guitar’. What? Where did that come from? This was bizarrely the prize for winning the game and ‘series’ (best out of the 4 games played) between the two, along with obligatory 3 points to the winner of the single game of course. This turned out to be a bit of a non-entity in any case as the Aztec’s had already won the series with 2 wins and a draw already this season. This rivalry was created by the local mayor’s from each city having a friendly wager and thought it would be ‘fun’ to chose a signed Willie Nelson guitar as the prize,  although I am still not sure on why that “prize” was chosen. The distance between these two cities is over 1,300 miles, taking almost 24 hours to drive between them or around a 2 ½ hour flight – it’s definitely not your Man United vs Liverpool rivalry or distance, but the driving time could be the same as driving from say Arsenal to Chelsea in rush hour!

The teams are also definitely at different ends of the league table, with the Aztex’s on the top spot and the Miami Blues, definitely feeling their namesake holding up the bottom of the table. Interestingly, the last game between these two teams saw a hat-trick by Max Griffin in a 3-1 win for the Aztex’s – the part that is interesting is that this was the first hat-trick in the Aztex’s ‘soccer’ history. In fairness to this fact and to put it in perspective, the Aztex’s were only created in 2008, so I cannot slate them too much for their lack of record(s)!

So that’s the background, onto the other points of interest to this game. At a total cost of $27 (adult and child ticket) and using an easy online booking system and ticket pick up, we made our way to the game for the 7.30pm kick off. Now where to park? Austin in the evenings and weekends drop their parking charges on the pay and display meters, although there are not too many of these about, especially near the Aztex’s ground, so was it going to be the inevitable sports stadium parking fee? Absolutely zero cost, result!!

I was really looking forward to see if the rivalry that the politicians had instigated between the two teams had fed its way into the hearts and minds of the supporters. Well to be honest, it wasn’t exactly like the Gallowgate End at St James’s Park or the Stretford End at Old Trafford, but all the same, the atmosphere was buoyant. The capacity for House Park stadium is only 6,500, so, not on the scale for the majority of major sporting events, but could be described as ‘cosy’ if it was actually at full capacity. The total attendance for the evening was about 3,200 which wasn’t a bad turn out, but I was expecting more from the fabled Chantico’s Army, the supporters

As you would imagine at an American sporting event, there was some razzmatazz in the build up to the game and during it of course. Would the Austin favourite Willie Nelson make an appearance and give out a heart-warming rendition of ‘Bubbles in my beer’ or ‘Cowboys are frequently secretly fond of each other’ or my favourite ‘Gotta get drunk’?. Unfortunately or fortunately he didn’t! There was also the expectation of cheerleaders,  especially with the reputation Texas has for producing these.  You can never go wrong with those provided that the  acts have been tried and tested.  Unfortunately all we had was some dodgy looking soccerettes throwing out prizes each time there was a goal so a poor display on the entertainment front.

It was an extremely hot evening, even for Texas standards, with the thermometer hitting over the 100f mark during the afternoon and not dropping much from that point into the early evening. This weather would be a test for most of the players surely!  But not for the referee who used the pitch markings, still laid out for American Football. Having these markings only made it easier for the referee, who could easily mark out 10 yards for free kicks, very confusing for the spectator to see the goal and side lines!

It was certainly a test for the supporters to sit through it, a cold beer or two would be in order just for the thought of cooling one self’s inner core. Wait, they don’t sell beer?!?! Unbelievable, when is there ever a sporting event that doesn’t serve beer? I soon discovered that the stadium that the Aztex’s play in is actually the stadium for a local school, Austin High, and that is why no alcohol could be sold. So a 6,500 seater stadium for a school – just like my education growing up in England then! There was also the typical food on offer, hot dogs, burgers and  nachos but would I indulge after hearing a report on the radio on the way to the game stating that three quarters of all food sold in stadiums in the USA had failed some form of a food inspection at some point in the last year.  Of course I did and went to the Austin Pizza stand – a tried and tested source of food as the wife uses them as one of her suppliers for her work.

So with a lack of rivalry on display in the stands despite the efforts of Chantico Army.  Not quite like the Toon Army, although they were a bit more colourful and all of them appeared to keep their shirts on through the match.  The group kept the tempo up throughout game as they banged out some great ‘samba’ type music on the instruments they had brought to the game – although there was a dodgy looking plastic orange bin that one of them seemed to bang. He must have stolen this from some bakery dumpster around the corner! Whilst the tunes were great, they showed that there were only so many different tunes that could be played in 90+ minutes, by the 30 minute mark it was starting to turn into Chinese water torture! Just to add to the woes of the banging noise, when they stopped for a very brief rest bite the Vuvuzula’s that were on sale at the main gates came into play. Gimme the gun….just pass the gun!

Just a quick note on the game itself, it ended with another 3-1 score line, although it  should have been 4-0 to the Aztex’s at half time. The Aztex’s remain 5 points clear at the top of the table with still a couple of games in hand. The Aztex’s also have an English guy, called Eddie Johnson who plays up front for them, last seen at Bradford City and Chester City – not a bad player and good to see the British showing their skills on American soil!

I am not sure if I would buy a season ticket despite my longing for the beautiful game in a sea of artificial sports, but the odd game at $50 for the privilege is a fun evening out and the little guy enjoyed the experience too.  If only they served Newcastle Brown Ale I would sign up straight away!

A full match report can be viewed on the Chantico’s website here.

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