MLS formally announces Austin expansion team for 2021

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — After a long and often rocky courtship, Austin and Major League Soccer became a match.

The league formally welcomed Austin as its 27th franchise with a raucous downtown party Tuesday full of chanting and flag-waving, and Commissioner Don Garber calling the Texas capital a “perfect fit.” MLS said Austin will begin play in the 2021 season.

“We think of us being a league for a new America,” Garber said. “Austin is diverse. It has enormous energy. It has people who really believe in the city. … We need to be here.”

The move has been long expected as Austin became the target destination for efforts last year to move the Columbus Crew. The Crew instead will stay in Ohio under a new ownership group.

Austin recently signed a lease with Austin majority owner Anthony Precourt, a California-based investor, to provide land for a privately-funded $225 million stadium. The Austin venue will be an open-air facility with a grass playing field on land that has been vacant for 25 years.

“We’re going to unite this city. We’re going to fight for this city. We’re going to make you proud,” Precourt said.

Precourt’s attempts to move the Crew, a bedrock MLS franchise, drew fierce resistance in Columbus as fans rallied to save their team and state and local officials filed lawsuits attempting to block the move.

In Austin, a divided city council argued for months over the stadium deal before it was approved on a narrow vote. Instead of moving the Crew, MLS and Precourt agreed that team would be placed under a new ownership group that includes Cleveland Browns Dee and Jimmy Haslem.

MLS has long eyed Austin — although quietly until 2018 — as an expansion opportunity. Precourt’s initial purchase deal for the Crew included a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years, but it also had a clause that would let him move to Austin. And before Precourt announced his desire to move, MLS had trademarked Austin FC and Austin Athletic as possible names for a franchise even though the city had not applied for expansion.

“Our journey here to Austin wasn’t linear and it certainly wasn’t easy. It was the most complicated project in our league’s history,” Garber said. “Everybody came together to align to bring this team to the city.”

The MLS club will be the first major league franchise in Austin, and will be the third MLS team in Texas, joining Dallas and Houston.

The announcement ceremony tapped into Austin’s hip vibe as it was hosted at a downtown brew pub packed with fans chanting and waiving green flags with the Austin FC logo. But it was also several miles away from the area where the city donated the land to build the new stadium, a project that was met with fierce resistance from some residents, and sparked a petition drive seeking to stop the deal.

The Austin metropolitan area is just over 2 million. The sports scene is dominated by the University of Texas Longhorns, but the city also hosts Formula One and MotoGP racing every year. Its economy centers on state government, the university and the city’s surging role as a major technology hub featuring companies like Dell, Samsung and Apple, which recently announced a major expansion. Facebook and Google also have offices.

“It’s not only about sports. It is truly taking a city that is being stressed because it is growing so fast, about having a place, a team, an event, a shared experience that brings everybody together from all parts of this city,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said.