Soccer returns to Austin, but the path forward is perilous

On March 7th, 2020 the Austin Bold opened their season with a tidy 1 – 0 victory against New Mexico United in front a rowdy band of travelling New Mexicans and the passionate home support at Bold Stadium at Circuit of the Americas. A few days later on March 11th, Rudy Gobert would test positive for the novel virus Covid-19 and the NBA would suspend play starting a cascade that culminated in the suspension of all sports in the United States. Caught in the wave was the USL Championship (USL-C), announcing a minimum 30 day suspension of play on March 12th. In retrospect, that short stoppage was a naive underestimation of a virus that has shocked the world.

Flash forward to July 17th, four months later, when the Bold return to Bold Stadium to face-off against OKC Energy FC. Gone are the raucous supporters. In fact the only supporters in attendance are club owner Bobby Epstein and some COTA employees and their families. Masks are required and the sparse attendees social distance easily among the deserted grand stand. The Bold start well, but fade as the evening goes on and fall 3 – 1 to visitors.

The schedule provides a short wait for a shot at redemption with a match against FC Tulsa only six days away on July 23rd. However, on July 22nd the club announced that this match and the following, scheduled for July 26th against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, have been canceled due to a positive Covid-19 test among the Bold squad. This is another gut punch for a team and league that find themselves navigating an uncertain new world order.

The plan is to play a condensed schedule with league clubs divided into eight groups of four to five teams each clustered within regions. Austin Bold have found themselves in Group D which includes opponents OKC Energy FC, Rio Grande Valley FC, San Antonio FC, and FC Tulsa.  The groups are sure to get chummy with each club facing off four times (two home, two away) over the 12 weeks. At the conclusion of the group stages, the top two teams from each group will advance to the 2020 USL-C play-offs.

That’s if everything goes to plan which it already is not. A July 17th match between San Antonio FC and Rio Grande Valley FC was the first to be postponed due to a positive Covid-19 test. Now, the Bold will have two matches postponed. These matches will have to be rescheduled into an already crowded schedule. As the pandemic continues to worsen, can clubs keep their players free from the virus? Only an optimist could answer in the affirmative with any confidence. It seems the league is undertaking a brave, some would some brazen, experiment.

For now, Kicker ATX wishes a quick recovery for the affected player. Life as we know it is akimbo right now. Sports provides a little bit of normalcy, intrigue, and excitement. Sports are healthy. Let’s hope these early bumps in the road lead to an achievable path forward for Bold FC and USL-C.

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