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View from the End Line: A Tale of Two MLS Cities

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Is Austin as excited as Orlando was, and does Portland still hold that excitement?

MLS: LA Galaxy at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Fellow contributor Jenn Glasheen put together a fantastic list of things to do this month while the boys are on the international break, as well as not playing at home until July (except since then they’ve added a home U.S. Open Cup match). Her list is a fantastic resource, and incorporates a number of ideas that should really resonate with everyone in some combination.

The two that jumped out at me were volunteering and going to a Pride match. Ironically enough, this break in the Orlando City men’s schedule lined up perfectly with allowing me to accomplish some things not on Jenn’s list that I always try do more of: eat BBQ, attend concerts, and talk to others about soccer.

As some of you know, I travel quite a bit, mostly for work. The work trips have taken me to some pretty cool places, and lined up fairly well with helping to feed my footy addiction over the years. I’ve taken multiple trips to Glasgow, Scotland, and I still haven’t seen a Rangers or Celtic match in person. I already have tickets to fly back to Scotland in a few weeks, but this will be a very full trip with little time to explore, which is fine considering the leagues have completed for the season. My current trip has me flying out to Portland for a business meeting after I spend five days in Austin, TX — two MLS soccer towns, one with a rich history and one getting ready to open the very first chapter of its own.

My time in Austin was spent catching up with friends, eating way too much BBQ, three days of absolutely beautiful music, and not worrying about work for as long as possible. My friends are not the biggest of sports fans, and soccer is way down the list if they were to watch something. We went all over town, bouncing between bars, BBQ joints, tacos, more BBQ, and the Austin Terror Fest venues.

I met a lot of really great folks, but one thing that really threw me for a loop was that I did not see a single piece of Austin FC advertising anywhere. In fact, as I chatted with folks throughout the greater Austin area, wherever we were, virtually no one knew anything about the new team. A few folks seemed to remember something about a stadium being built, while others had heard there was a new sports team coming to town but didn’t really know much about it.

Just a few days ago, Austin FC broke the MLS record for the most season-ticket deposits in one day, reporting more than 30,000 deposits for the 2021 season. That means at least 3% of the estimated population of Austin is vying to guarantee their seat in the new stadium in the club’s inaugural year. Surely I would have bumped into more than just one person who was interested in MLS coming to Austin.

To be honest, I didn’t see one billboard, one sign, one commercial, one banner, or one anything. I remember when OCSC announced it was going to become an MLS franchise. There were billboards everywhere and advertising around every corner (I was on a few around town), it created a massive buzz throughout Central Florida, and you couldn’t help but bump into someone who was just as excited as yourself that Orlando City was about to join MLS. Admittedly, there is a rather large difference in population, as Austin has close to 1,000,000 residents and Orlando has about 280,000 (these are both population estimates within the city limits only and if you include metro area Orlando rises to 2.5 million to Austin’s 2.1 million), but the absolute lack of seeing anything about the newest MLS club anywhere in the city was very surprising. The next town on my trip was the complete opposite.

Portland, population estimate of 654,000, is such a stark difference to home and Austin. The scenery is breathtaking — the river and its seven bridges — the diverse cultural and food scene, and of course, the music, is something that really speaks to me. However, this part of the trip was very much work focused — so focused that I only had a few hours to try to catch up with some friends. The rest of the trip was very much focused on the task at hand, but lunch and dinner did let us get out and explore a little. I can say with authority that it is hard to walk around Portland and not see something related to the Portland Timbers, or Portland Thorns FC.

While in Portland, I walked into bars, sports bars, and upscale joints alike. The only thing I noticed as much as seeing something related to the Timbers or Thorns were advertisements relating to Pride Month. Ironically, there is a ton of merchandise floating around almost every business I went into that had a version of merchandise related to both, and their support of both.

There were hints of support everywhere, from a simple scarf hanging in the corner of a bar, to business-themed merchandise, and schedules for watch parties aplenty. The few folks I was able to chat with, as soon as I said I was from Orlando, immediately asked if I was a City fan. We would chat, very nicely, comparing how our clubs were doing this season, and end the evening on a respectful note, wishing each other’s club the best of luck for the remainder of the season. This was repeated numerous times throughout my time in Portland, with every conversation being cordial, honest, and full of nothing but respect.

This tale of two cities is so puzzling to me. I realize that the Timbers have been entrenched in Portland for some time and have a history within the city that even a casual fan will understand and be witness to. Austin, has a history with soccer as well, even though they may not remember it. I will simply say two words: Austin Aztex. My friend who I stayed with knew that history, and he doesn’t really watch soccer.

Not seeing one banner, one shirt, or one advertisement was quite a shock. Could I have been on the wrong side of town? Could people just not know? It was a puzzling thing to bear witness to, and made even less sense after visiting the home of the Timbers.