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The Injustice in Portsmouth, and the Indifference in Austin

Portsmouth F.C. 1898 - 2010. Probably.

Austin Aztex. 2008 - 2010. Probably.

I have to admit, I feel like a jerk just writing this post. There can be no possible comparison between an Austin fan losing a team he's cheered for in the past couple seasons to a Portsmouth fan losing the team his great-grandfather cheered for. The emotional baggage, in both the good and bad senses of the phrase, just isn't there in Austin. I know from the Edmonton Aviators that you can build up a surprising amount of loyalty for a team with such a short lifespan, but that's nothing... nothing... next to 112 years of history.

Everything I have to say about Portsmouth essentially comes down to one anecdote. This summer I went home to Edmonton to see FC Edmonton take on Portsmouth at Commonwealth Stadium. I met up at an awful bar by Commonwealth with the FC Edmonton supporter's club. I'd already met most of the guys there, primarily through national team games, and you could count the number of FC Edmonton supporters (as opposed to "fans") on your fingers. You could also barely hear your conversation over the roar of English accents, because the Portsmouth supporters were out in force. No, not the Edmonton wing of the Pompey fan club, but Portsmouth supporters from Portsmouth. They had flown thousands of miles to watch their recently-relegated club's reserve squad take on a team that wasn't even in a league yet. They heavily outnumbered the FC Edmonton supporters, who faced a journey no more arduous than a quick jaunt on the LRT. No complaints about them, either: these were true blue supporters, not stereotypical English football hooligans. They were there to have a good time and as far as I could tell they did: as a former Edmonton native I found myself helping a large squad of them get to a party downtown after the game. Most of them went on to Washington, D.C., where they watched their team get pantsed by D.C. United 4-0 and probably had just as great a time. Anybody willing to get on a plane from England and go to Edmonton and Washington just to support the very dregs of their organization deserves to keep their club.

Having said that, just a few weeks ago I was in the Will Call line at Swangard Stadium when I saw a group of five or so behind me wearing Austin Aztex gear. Bewildered, I asked them if they were from Austin, and with classic Texas brogues they answered in the affirmative. They'd made the trip up from Texas to support their team in its last visit to Swangard Stadium, and that's not exactly a short trip either. Fewer of them, of course, and the game was for higher stakes. But just because it's a smaller group of fans doesn't mean they weren't real fans all the same.

There are different sized teams in the soccer world. Next to 99% of the world's professional soccer clubs, even a relegated Portsmouth is still a giant. The Austin Aztex are a relative minnow. Yet the soccer world has come together as one to cheer for the salvation of Pompey, while the Aztex will be allowed to move to Orlando with nary a puff of protest.

By all means, Portsmouth F.C. must be saved if it lays within our power to save them. But spare a thought, and spare some support, for poor little Austin too. A small injustice is still an injustice.

The hot rumour surrounding the Austin Aztex is that they're on the verge of a move to Orlando, Florida. It's odd from a business perspective, given that Florida has two professional soccer clubs in Miami FC and FC Tampa Bay and both have been titanic failures on the field and at the gate. But Austin, who have had decent but not profitable home crowds in the 2,000 range to support a very competitive team, is in search of additional revenue and is willing to take a chance on Orlando.

It's easy to say that we in North America have been desensitized to teams moving by the franchise model which is so dominant here. But every team in the USSF D2 is playing to the fans for whom it was founded: not a single one of the twelve clubs has ever packed up their bags and bolted in the night to greener financial fields. These clubs hardly have Portsmouth's history, and only three of them even date back to the twentieth century. For the most part in the second division's history a failed club has simply folded rather than force itself into another community. No USL First Division club ever attempted a move, and it was unheard of even in the old, constantly unstable A-League. Most second division clubs have been owned by local businessmen, not big-time magnates looking to turn a quick buck and get his face in the newspaper. They were formed in a community by a part of that community, and if that community was unable to support them they withered away. By most standards, the Aztex have been pretty successful in Austin. Moving them to Orlando would be literally unprecedented in the modern history of the North American second division.

None of this is to belittle what Portsmouth fans are going through. The scale of perfidy, small-mindedness, and malicious greed that has characterized Portsmouth's descent into administration beggars belief compared to Austin's owner trying to make a few more bucks. The issue is not the scale of the twin dramas, it's that both situations illustrate the two major hazards of modern, professional football from a supporter's standpoint.

Austin is a classic example of what detractors call "the franchise model": the idea that sports clubs should be moved from community to community based on whichever community is willing to offer the largest incentive. Most soccer fans rail against it furiously, and back in England Milton Keynes's club has never been accepted after the city stole the old Wimbledon team to satisfy their ambitions. But Portsmouth's example, one of an owner who buys a club to be a billionaire celebrity rather than for love of the sport or the city, is no less dangerous. Whether the club is moved to Orlando or wound up, it is cut off from the fans who raised it up and cherished it.

Just two years ago, Austin owner Phil Rawlins rang in his new club by saying "My goal is to make the Aztex a community-based club that the Austin area can be proud of." Pulling up stakes and taking his team to Florida after two years of decent, growing attendance and a competitive team is not exactly compatible with that aim. Rawlins was born in England and in fact sits on the board for Stoke City: presumably he's heard a thing or two about the franchise debate in England. The idea that he'd try to emulate it is appalling.

Portsmouth still has a chance. The inflamed opinion of the world's soccer community doesn't count for that much but it counts for something. They still boast tens of thousands of die-hard fans and a long, fabled history. The fight to save Pompey is a fight that we should all hope is won, for our own sakes as well as theirs. But, on its own scale, the fight to save the Austin Aztex is just as important. We cannot protest the destruction of a forest while ignoring the loss of the trees.