Matthew Gray looked around the half-empty Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex from right behind Eberly’s Army on Sept. 5.
“Who’s house? Our House!” the supporters’ group chanted below.
The chant, however, was more ironic than iconic on this occasion.
Technically, this was the home of the United Soccer League’s Austin Aztex and Eberly’s Army. But for Gray, who cofounded the group in 2008, the 40 or so members in their section and the team, it’s anything but home.
The feeling at Kelly Reeves was different. Instead of standing right next to the sidelines behind the bench, the group was forced to sit down by the corner flag, away from the action and in a place that doesn’t understand soccer supporters culture.
“We’re almost refugees,” Gray said.
“It’s really a testament to the people that they are.”
On Memorial Day, a massive downpour sent Shoal Creek over its banks in downtown. Among its victims was House Park, the home to the Aztex since the original team was founded in 2008.
Since the forced move to Kelly Reeves, Eberly’s Army has struggled keep the same vibe they had at House Park. The move has added to the commute for many of it’s its members and the traditional march to the match has been replaced with a five-minute bus ride.
It’s become a struggle for them to keep supporting the Aztex. But the group has been built on struggle.
Built on Struggle
From the start, Eberly’s Army, then known as Chantico’s Army, had to fight for survival. One of four supporter’s groups for the original Austin Aztex FC, the group managed to keep going as the other three fading away.
Then they went through a situation that no group wants to go through — being left without a team.
In October 2010, the ownership group of the Aztex announced that the team [singular] would be moving to Orlando. Despite the situation, Chantico’s Army remained together watching different soccer leagues.
But the group went a step further, working with a new set of owners to bring back soccer to Austin. In September 2011, their efforts paid off when new owner David Markley announced plans to start a Premiere Development League squad the next season.
“It was our recommendation letters to USL that was one of the key pieces to getting David Markley the PDL franchise back in his control,” Gray said.
The group went through a rebranding during the absence, changing its name to Eberly’s Army. The name change, however, was more than a simple name. The name comes from Angelina Eberly, who in 1842 fired a cannon into the General Land Grant office, starting the Texas Archive War which kept Austin as the Capitol of Texas
“For us it was very emblematic of our role in firing the cannon across Austin to say we’re not going to let someone take live soccer from Austin,” Gray said.
“It was like watching a family slowly die.”
Move to USL
This year, the Aztex made the move up to the USL PRO division. The team struggled compared to the success it had in the PDL, but the biggest blow to the Aztex and Eberly’s Army came on May 25, 2015.
That afternoon over four inches of rain fell in the downtown area. Shoal Creek couldn’t hold all the water and eventually flooded a portion of the west downtown area, including House Park.
Gray remembered the terrible thoughts that came after viewing video of the flood.
“It was like watching a family slowly die,” Gray said.
The stadium was deemed unusable, forcing the Aztex to play elsewhere. Despite the urging of the leadership of the group, the team eventually selected Kelly Reeves in Round Rock.
More than a home
For Eberly’s Army, the move was more than losing a home — it also meant the loss of many of its regular members., The group averaged 45 attending members during the time at Kelly Reeves after nearly selling out its supporter’s section at House Park for the season opener in March.
Gray had to make an hour commute from his home in Buda for games. James Morgan, who leads the group in the chants, lives in downtown. With no car, his trips to games took well over an hour via Capital Metro Rail.
But Morgan’s involvement with the team, going back to when it started in the PDL, kept him coming back even with the difficult travel.
“I’ve been dealing with this team for the last three years,” Morgan said. “I’m not going to give up anytime soon.”
The effort made by Morgan, Gray and the rest of Eberly’s Army hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players. Midfielder Andres Cuero, one of the carryovers from the PDL team, said it means a lot to the team to see the supporters still come out game after game.
“It’s really a testament to the people that they are,” Cuero said.
But in early October, Eberly’s Army ran into yet another struggle, one that has an uncertain ending.
An Unexpected Turn
On Oct 2., the Aztex announced that they would not field a team for the 2016. With an exemption from USL to be able to use a non-soccer specific stadium expiring and no plans to build their own stadium, the team made the decision to focus their efforts in getting a stadium in 2017 rather than compete in 2016.
That decision, however, now leaves the group without an Austin team to support… again. In a letter to supporters posted on the group’s website, Gray said he blamed the USL primarily for the team “going dark” for a year.
“USL has done little in support of soccer in Austin and are either guilty directly or indirectly for soccer leaving Austin twice in 5 years,” Gray said.
In the remainder of the letter, Gray took a more positive stance. He said he believes this could be a chance for rebranding, similar to Sporting Kansas City’s in 2010.
“USL has done little in support of soccer in Austin and are either guilty directly or indirectly for soccer leaving Austin twice in 5 years.”
Whether the team can get a stadium built by 2017 is still up in the air. Gray stated in the letter that the front office only has three workers now. As for what the group wants in a new stadium, Gray said they only have a few requests — a location next to mass transit and a hospitable environment for everyone.
While there is still no guarantee that the team will come back in 2017, Gray said Eberly’s Army will remain, whether it’s taking road trips to games in Dallas, Houston or San Antonio, or gathering to watch games at a bar.
“We will always continue to support live soccer in Austin,” Gray said.