sports 3 days ago

Crew SC: USL backer in Austin says Precourt ignoring his group

The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio — Andrew Erickson The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Nov. 13--As Austin moves forward with its search for a Major League Soccer stadium site, a United Soccer League franchise waits on the back burner.

In August, USL, the second tier of American professional soccer, announced that a franchise would return to Austin in 2019 in a 5,000-seat stadium at Circuit of the Americas, the site of a Formula One racetrack in Austin.

Bobby Epstein, the USL franchise's majority owner and Chairman of Circuit of the Americas, said those plans have been significantly altered by Precourt Sports Ventures potentially moving Crew SC to Austin after the 2018 season.

On Thursday, Austin City Council passed a resolution asking the city manager to evaluate potential stadium and practice facility sites for an MLS team on city-owned land in Austin with instructions to report back by Dec. 7.

With each passing day, the challenges for USL in Austin mount. Epstein said due to the uncertainty surrounding the franchise and a 2019 start state, he and his staff have had difficulty finding a coach, have already lost a key sponsor and are closing in on deadlines that would make it a challenge to have a soccer team up and running for the 2019 season.

Adding to those challenges is what Epstein called a lack of communication and response from Precourt Sports Ventures, which owns Crew SC, regarding soccer in Austin.

"They did not either take our representative's calls or reach out to us," Epstein said. "They may have wrongly feared that we would try and get in the way of (Precourt Sports Ventures) coming to Austin, and we don't intend to do that.

"That's been a misconception and I hope word can get out there. We're not opposed to them coming, it's more a matter of I do need them to (make a decision). I'm not against them coming here, I just don't want to lose the momentum we have and I don't want to lose our franchise."

Precourt Sports Ventures declined to comment and USL did not respond to a message seeking comment. Crew investor-operator Anthony Precourt, MLS commissioner Don Garber, Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther are set to meet Wednesday in New York to discuss the Crew's future.

Epstein said there is "zero chance" USL and MLS franchises would be able to coexist in Austin. The previous iteration of USL in Austin, the Austin Aztex, folded in fall 2015 due to financial concerns.

"We were taking a risk as it was," Epstein said. "I don't mind that Columbus is going to come here and take the risk of making professional soccer work in Austin. I'm not at all opposed to that."

Epstein said he and his staff will reach out to the USL to see what the league would advise and what flexibility they will provide the team moving forward. He hinted that he might soon need to examine other cities for his USL franchise.

"I know Columbus, they don't want to look at it as a step down from MLS to USL, but I need a new home," he said.

In the meantime, Epstein said, he and his team are still waiting to hear back from Precourt Sports Ventures.

"Our general manager made a lot of calls to them and I think they either don't like us or were worried that we were going to throw a wrench into their plan, so they didn't take our calls. I think that is a real misperception on their part," he said. "Hopefully they realize that now that they've gone through city council and we didn't pop up with any opposition, they'll know that we welcome their effort here."

aerickson@dispatch.com

@AEricksonCD

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