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Friday, May 14, 2010
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."
Tuesday May 18, 2010 11:00 am
Good article...MLS does need somekind of development system. Look at how they screwed up Freddy Adu's development.
Monday May 17, 2010 1:19 pm
Baseball's minor league system is a great model for soccer development in this country. Its existence hasn't killed college baseball, and college baseball provides a route for kids who aren't elite talents to get an education and compete at a relatively high level. Truly exceptional talents, however, get a chance to train and practice with other elite prospects and pros, and get international exposure.

As noted by several posts, guys like Tony Taylor don't need to sit on an MLS bench for 2 years when they can be getting regular games in USL, NASL, or another feeder system.

It'll be interesting to look back in a few years and see how guys like Taylor and Agbossoumonde have developed in comparison with Jack McInerney and others who go the MLS route and/or college route.
Crazy Al
Monday May 17, 2010 1:05 pm
First, great interview Arch. Good job. Second, I don't believe Phil is making an indictment of college soccer. I believe what he is saying is that if your dream is to be a pro, then you need to consider other ways of getting to your goal. Again use baseball as an analogy, players leave college early or don't go at all to pursue their pro careers (starting in the minors). It doesn't mean there should not be soccer programs in college. It just means that some of the "more" gifted players may want to pursue turning pro sooner rather than later.

I hope Phil's plan for supplying players to teams further up the ladder is successful. The NBA and MLB have scouts looking all over the world for talent. They also have feeder teams to help them. Soccer is the most international of all sports. Why not have someone in the U.S. helping our talent be found? Good luck to Phil and the Aztex.
Monday May 17, 2010 11:14 am
I think a lot of people agree with him about the college game. I would like to see a team or teams set up partnerships with some local colleges/universities where a player could get a scholarship from the team to pursue his degree while playing professional ball at the same time.
Sunday May 16, 2010 4:52 am
I second Dan's last line...what a great time to be a player in the states. I am 42. Played in high school. After that it was either college or nothing. Nothing! I'm continually blown away by all the changes that are occuring in the sport here. I'm jealous too. But I live vicariously as well.
Saturday May 15, 2010 5:02 pm
I didn't even know the debate on college soccer was still alive. I thought that was killed off a long time ago I didn't know there were still any supporters of the system that is the biggest hindrance to the development of our game in this country. Hats off to Mr. Phil Rawlins. Sorry Coach Ric I think you missed the point of the article which is about developing feeder teams, not about the decrepit collegiate soccer system.
Saturday May 15, 2010 12:18 am
@ coach ric,
first, if you look, you won't find one player in the MLS who has gone to a two-year college. how many of those even have a soccer program anyway? second, you talk about what he didn't address. yet, you failed to address his argument. those are the years during which players make or fail to do so. instead of working on their touch under pressure from professionals, they're studying for tomorrow's test. it is a terrible environment for those people who intend to become professionals. and he's absolutely right when he says that players who do make it only do so through determination and not because they are being developed. it's not just "some Brit," it's nearly every other country in the world. and it is that way because it's best way for players to develop. the MLS will never be anything until we move past the oxymoron that is the student-athlete. our national team may get better; but it will only come from those players who have left college early (nearly all of the national team players from college are generation adidas players), or players who left for europe or south america.
Saturday May 15, 2010 12:18 am
I have to disagree with coach Ric. I think that college soccer is a big obstacle to elite player development at a critical time in their careers. It doesn't matter how long they play in college. The fact of the matter is that the environment and the restraints- NCAA regs- under which coaches must work does not help those who want to have a successful professional careers. As a former college coach, who now has some former players playing professionally I have seen how the college experience slowed the players development.

This club does have a lot of similarities with Traffic Sports. I hope both organizations find success. I would say that I think organizations like these should look to other countries aside from England when building relationships as the work permit requirements often make a move more difficult. As Dan said 'exciting times to be a young soccer player in America.'
Coach Ric
Friday May 14, 2010 6:47 pm
All of this is fine and dandy, however, as a recently retired college professor, soccer coach and athletics director at a large Los Angeles based community college, Rawlins doesn't seem to have a full grasp on the collegiate scene. True, in a country as vast as ours, his statements lead the reader to believe that everyone here goes on to college, something that is way off and erroneous. To put full blame on college soccer four-year or two-year college soccer - he doesn't differentiate it, nor does he point out the vastly humungous NACAA or the NJCCAA that are the controlling collegiate sports organizations - is to me, self serving. I don't begrudge his inroads into soccer, however, to me he is just another Brit who claims to know all there is to football-soccer here in the US and who has grabbed the gold ring as he spins on the US soccer merrygoround. Lastly, I appreciate the analogy of the oil pipeline to a sporting activity. Good luck though and PLAY ON!
Friday May 14, 2010 5:03 pm
Rawlins sounds like he holds a similar philosophy to Fernando Clavijo and Traffic Sports, who own and operate Miami FC in the USL Div-2 as well as Estoril FC in the Portuguese 2nd Division, and they have affiliations with a club in Brazil, too, I think. From what I can tell, Traffic Sports recruits young American talent and then feeds them into its system, sending the most promising ones abroad: Tony Taylor and Gale Agbossoumonde are two such players that come to mind.

Anyways, Traffic Sports seems to have the same kind of pipeline mentality that Rawlins is talking about. Exciting times to be a young soccer player in America.

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