Minnesotan soccer, expectedly, is based around the urban population centers of the state. Duluth and Rochester both contribute clubs to the lower league scene, as does Moorhead as half of the border territory the Dakota Fusion call home.
In a region where soccer, and the financial possibilities around it, are still finding their way, it is largely unheard of to see anything other than a medium to large sized city host a club that plays at a national league level. This is why the announcement of Austin Villa FC as new members of the UPSL, set to play this season, is such a potential game changer.
According to the 2020 census, Austin has a population of 26,174. For context, the same census marked the nearby larger city of Rochester, who also have a UPSL club, at 121,395 people. This scale is almost unheard of in high level midwestern amateur soccer. Sioux Falls is a deceivingly large city, and even La Crosse, thought of as smaller, is marked at over 50,000 people.
Stillwater, home of new USL League Two side St. Croix Legends, is smaller than Austin with less than 20,000 people, but the small border city benefits from being literally a river away from the similarly sized Hudson, Wisconsin and fitting well within the Twin Cities metro.
Nonetheless, Austin Villa are set to compete against the best and brightest of the UPSL Midwest-West, where seven of the eleven teams will be from the Twin Cities metro.
Sota Soccer spoke with Head Coach Alex Evenson and Austin Villa Co-Founder Frank Spaeth, who some will recognize from his years serving as general manager for Med City, to find out more about the club. Spaeth is also head men’s soccer coach at Riverland Community College.
While Austin Villa didn’t take to the pitch until 2022, the idea of starting a high level amateur club in the Austin area had been brewing for years between Evenson and Spaeth.
“Actually it’s something Alex and I had been kicking around since, oh, a couple of years ago,” Spaeth explained. “Alex and his family have been involved in soccer in Austin for a long time, I’ve been involved at the community college there in town for the last few years. We knew there was a lot of talent in Austin and the surrounding areas. So we thought hey this would be really cool, Alex knew about the work I’d done here in Rochester with Med City FC, and then it was probably early February, late January that we decided, you know, why not quit talking about it and just do it.”
Austin Villa had a joint try out with Med City in the offseason, with both clubs taking several players from the process. From there, the project grew until the decision was made to join the UPSL, a fit Spaeth felt worked well with Austin Villa’s current resources.
“I think from my perspective, having been involved in the NPSL, knowing that league for the last several years and the way it has grown, we just felt the UPSL and the resources needed to get it up and running, versus a league like the NPSL or even USL League Two, we just felt the UPSL was a good fit… I think costs were a factor. For a team like ours, in Austin, I think that affordability factor came into play.”
According to Head Coach Alex Evenson, the roster Austin Villa has formed is packed with local area talent, including multiple high school age players, in addition to college players.
“We knew we wanted to get a lot of those kids from Austin and the surrounding area,” Evenson continued. “Being the first year it was a little bit easier to get some of those guys that aren’t already committed to the [other] teams around the area. I’d say the majority of players are from Austin, and then we’ve got two from Rochester, one from Albert Lea, one from Plainview. And then we’ve got some local college kids, four of them come from Luther, two are from Brior Cliff University, one from Faith Baptist University, and two are from Saint Cloud State University.”
Evenson added that he believes the local focus has contributed to the club’s positive start, with the squad being familiar with each other amid an earlier than usual start to the season.
“Since the majority of our players are local, starting the season so early, I think it’s benefited us because of those local kids having played with or against each other throughout the years whether it’s youth or high school level.”
As for the philosophy behind it all, Frank Spaeth says that finding ways to grow Austin’s soccer scene and improve opportunities for players remains paramount. Spaeth also added that forming a well organized club has proven as important as working on the roster.
“One of our philosophies was that we wanted to give those local players that are playing in college a chance to play at a high level in the summer… I think the other thing is giving some of those younger players, who maybe have that ability to play at a higher level than just the youth level, the opportunity to grow in terms of their game… I think the organizational piece is so important. From my previous experiences, you’ve got to decide what your philosophy’s going to be and you’ve got to live by that philosophy… We’ve got some longer term objectives about what this team is going to do for the community of Austin. I think having that clear vision is important. I think there needs to be an understanding from the players but also the coaches and the management and administrative side of things, that this is a higher level, and we want to treat it that way.”
It’s fair to say Austin Villa has started 2022 well. The club beat Granite City 2-0 and Rochester FC 5-0 in its opening two matches, both at home. They then traveled to the Dakota Young Stars, where they lost 3-1. The loss resulted their first time conceding in league play. The positive start, which has seen a number of goals and assists from local players like Julio Hernández, Andres Garcia, and Mooday Wah leaves Coach Evenson hopeful the club can earn a postseason.
“We’d like to make the playoffs this first year. We know there’s a lot of season left and it could go either way, but that’s one of our main goals.”
Co-Founder Frank Spaeth notes that objectives have shifted slightly since the club’s strong start, but adds that they’re well aware of their initial goals for 2022, which included simply ensuring the club’s long term survival.
“As we’ve had some early success, I think maybe our goals are growing. I mean if you would have asked us in February what our goal was it would be, well to establish a team that’s going to be around for over a year. I mean at the end of the day, you take that leap of faith that you’re doing something that’s going to make a difference and going to be around for a while.”
With all topics sorted, it came to ask the big question, which was how the club came to the conclusion of calling itself Austin Villa, an apparently omage to English Premier League side Aston Villa.
Spaeth explained that the tongue-in-cheek name came from a long term process of looking for something that was fun and fitting, which included some bumps in the road.
“We had been kicking around names, originally we wanted to go with Austin United. We liked the idea behind the word united, and we were leaning toward that, but as we did our research we realized there was an NPSL team out of Austin, Texas that’s already got that name… We just sort of threw out Austin Villa, and that stuck… It is fun because when you say it, people that know the game, they get it right away. It’s cheesy to them but it’s still memorable.”
Austin Villa will next return home to host Turbo FC on Wednesday, May 18th at Austin High School for their third home game and fourth overall match of the season.