LONE STAR PIPELINE
The state of Texas has always been known as the center of the oil and gas industry in the United States.
Oilmen take risks when they drill down deep to find that very precious commodity before dispensing it back to the entire world through a pipeline.
That same philosophy has now been adopted in the world of soccer by another successful Texas businessman, Phil Rawlins, who happens to be the owner of the Austin Aztex of the United Soccer Leagues.
Rawlins is a native Englishman who has spent the last 16 years in the Lone Star State where he sold his software consulting business to Siebel Systems [now Oracle Corp.]. That professional success allowed him to start the venture that he had always dreamed about – owning a soccer team.
That dream was realized two years ago when his purchase of the Aztex coincided with the establishment of the franchise as a PDL club and then one year later, the Aztex moved up to their currently held USL-1 status.
Much like his success in the technology industry, Rawlins has positioned himself as a visionary within the American soccer landscape where he can leverage his existing role as a board member of English Premier League club Stoke City and business partner with Mexican club Monterrey to solidify the Aztex as a refining hub for young American and foreign players who have aspirations to play overseas.
"It was part of our core philosophy that when we established the club that we would be a development club," Rawlins recounted to YA. "We are a club of networks and relationships. Stoke makes sense because of my involvement and [Aztex head coach] Adrian Heath's background as a former player there [in England].
To borrow another analogy from the petroleum industry, Rawlins views his club as both a supplier and a producer.
"For us, there are two types of relationships, there are upstream and downstream relationships," Rawlins explained. "Stoke and Monterrey are upstream. They are upstream to us. They take talent from us, or are advised by us in regards to talent here in the US.
"The other is downstream with clubs who feed talent to us. We have several of those, including the Victoria Highlanders in Canada."
The Aztex players have also had the opportunity to play friendly matches overseas last year and were able to expose their skills to the European marketplace, a benefit that is one of Rawlins' biggest selling points to prospective players.
"Our pitch to players is if you come to us, and you work hard, do the right things and develop properly, then there's no better place to be than here because we can be the feeder system to the next step in your career and we can expose you to the right country or right club," he noted. "As long as you want to pursue that and if it's legally available to you, then we'll help you and I know the players appreciate that.
The model that the United Kingdom native is using is already in place by another USL club, Crystal Palace Baltimore, who share a similar arrangement with their parent club in England.
It is no surprise then to Rawlins that a trend is developing where other English teams and clubs from south of the border are looking to take advantage of the American talent pool.
"Many English clubs are actively looking at the US for relationships like ours," continued Rawlins. "Derby County currently have a relationship like that. Cruz Azul was up here a month ago looking to see if they could build a relationship from Mexico with a US base club.
"I see that trend increasing not only with the big clubs but also the medium sized clubs who see the US as a viable marketplace to get talent from and to bring talent through.
"I think a personal relationship with a club where you build ties like what we do with Stoke is the way to go. We scout for Stoke and keep tabs on players in our league, MLS and USMNT and then send reports back to Stoke since that player might be someone Stoke wants to look at. If you've got those ties, you can do that. I only see those increasing. I would not be surprised to see another five or six clubs do what that we have built with Stoke."
For Rawlins, the largest asset that the Austin club possesses is its flexibility when dealing with the international soccer landscape where he is able to establish relationships with clubs all over the world. He notes that the Aztex would never be afforded that opportunity if it were an MLS club.
"If I'm looking at it as a business person, it doesn't make a lot sense for a European club to have a relationship with a MLS club as a source of talent," Rawlins discussed.
"You're much better off doing it with a USL or NASL club because of the contract requirements in MLS. We have control over our own players and registration rights. MLS teams don't. And even with a relationship, you won't necessarily get a player because of MLS contract restrictions."
Building off of that argument, the Stoke City director already has his sights set on other major upstream relationships all over Europe.
"The one that is most on the cards is Italy," he said of his next overseas venture. "We recently met with a president of a Serie A team and we are looking at formalizing a relationship.
"The Aztex are unique in that we have one of our main board members based in the UK whose job is to build and manage these relationships in Europe. That's what he focuses on and we are in a position to take advantage of that."
The achievement of the US national team reaching last summer's Confederations Cup final along with the individual success of American players in Europe this past season have garnered the attention of soccer's worldwide audience.
Those successes are all the more reason Rawlins feels that European clubs will increase their efforts to scan the budding talent pool in the US.
"They can take US youth system seriously and they should," Rawlins affirmed. "The system here is good and there is a huge pool of talented athletes who can dedicate themselves to soccer and if they've got the right coaches, they're going to be quality players and if you can transplant them into the right environment, you can make a great player out of them."
Yet perhaps the topic that evokes the largest reaction out of Rawlins is college soccer in the US.
He does not devalue the merits of earning a college diploma, but rather believes that if a player truly wants to be a professional in the game after rising through their local youth system, then the formative years from ages 18-21 need to be spent in a professional environment.
"I think the biggest obstacle for young American players is the college system," he firmly states. "I don't want to sound like in any way that I'm putting down the benefits of a college education, however if you are set on being a pro soccer player, this is the worst time in your life to go off to college and not be involved in the pro game.
"This is the age when you transition from being a youth player to a professional player. Your key development as a player comes during those college years. The final step is taken on that ladder. As a professional soccer player, you'll be asked to play nine months. It's a stamina based sport and skill based, not high impact.
"With the college system, you only get three months. They cram the games in where you play two games a week and that leaves no time for recovery and development and training which are the key things you need at that age. It's counterproductive. If a college player is a good player and becomes a professional, it's because of the player's sheer determination, not the system."
One argument that has surfaced many times is whether or not to start a MLS Reserve League, a common practice in countries like England and Italy.
While many point to this as the best way to cultivate young American talent, Rawlins contends that MLS and the USSF should take a page out of Major League Baseball's framework where teams in the USL and NASL would serve as direct farm teams for MLS clubs.
"I think what we need to do is start developing along the lines of baseball," Rawlins said of America's supposed pastime. "MLS could be like MLB and the USL and NASL could be like the minors where the teams play in smaller cities or good secondary markets. I really would like to see MLS develop closer ties with our league. I know MLS teams would love to have four or five players getting game time so they can truly evaluate what the player is like in game conditions. Today, they can't do that. MLS reserve league doesn't work because of having to fly players across the country to a game no one wants to see, it's cost prohibitive."
While the wait for MLS to ever reach a decision to start a farm system could last for years, if not decades, Rawlins is already planning his strategy to work the limitations of both MLS and the college soccer system in his favor.
As a man with so much success already in his background, it would be hard to argue against Rawlins' rationale and his steadfast belief that young American soccer players everywhere have a more straightforward path to bigger and better things if they believe in his vision.
"If you're smart and you think it through, there's not better place than coming to a USL or NASL team," he summarized. "Only six of the 60 players drafted in 2009 started regularly for MLS teams while the rest of them either got zero or very little playing time and I'm sure it will be same for them this year. Then, after two years of hardly playing, they'll get released so then they will have played three or four years of college soccer and then sat on the bench for two years in MLS, so they've wasted five years of prime development time.
"With a USL or NASL team like the Aztex, you'll start and play for the team and you'll get on-the-field experience and exposure to the international marketplace," Rawlins concluded. "So rather than spend two years on the bench, you can develop your skills, learn the gameday environment and play in front of scouts… It's really a no-brainer."