The Oppo: San Antonio FC
Bowie and Crockett would be proud.
In this instalment of The Oppo, we round out the reviews of the Legion’s non-divisional opponents. To do so, we head back to Texas to consider San Antonio FC, currently residing in the Mountain Division. The Three Sparks get a bit of a break here: they head west on May 22nd for an evening game, thereby avoiding the heat and the sun.
San Antonio joined the USL Championship for the 2016 season. In the five seasons since they have made the playoffs twice, in 2017 and most recently in 2020, when they won the competitive Group D over FC Tulsa and Austin Bold, but lost in the first round 1-0 to New Mexico United.
Supporters of the club in 2019 created the Copa Tejas, which is awarded to the USL or MLS team in Texas that compiles the best head-to-head record among those teams. Austin Bold won it in 2019, but it was suspended for 2020 as the Texas teams were split into two groups. With all 4 USL teams together in the new Mountain Division, the competition is back on for 2021. San Antonio also has the South Texas Derby with the Rio Grande Valley Toros.
The team is owned by Spurs Sports, which is the corporate owner of the San Antonio Spurs, not to be confused with Tottenham Hotspur of course. It is also affiliated with New York City FC of MLS, but the partnership is effectively in name only with little collaboration.
San Antonio has had two head coaches in its history, Englishman Darren Powell, who was fired after the 2019 season and replaced with his assistant Canadian Alen Marcina. Marcina is something of a world traveler: in an eight-year playing career he was on the rosters of no less than 14 teams in Canada, Greece, Iceland, Germany, Denmark, Puerto Rico, New Zealand and the US. He also had an offer from Vietnam when he decided to hang his cleats up. He’s moved around a bit as a coach too: he led the San Antonio Scorpions and Rayo OKC of the NASL, then the Des Moines Menace of USL2 before returning to San Antonio.
Despite all that, he managed to revitalize the club’s fortunes in 2020 and has it set for continued success in 2021.
The roster is pretty much complete at this stage, and has some major changes. The biggest loss by far is Argentinian Luis Solignac, the team’s leading scorer last season, who is now with rivals El Paso Locomotive. The core of the team is largely unchanged though. Among the returning squad, the biggest name to watch is Jose Gallegos, a homegrown player who recently had a trial with Bayern Munich, and may not be around much longer.
There are a few strong additions too. The club has acquired Chris Lema, a midfielder and New York Red Bulls system product. Colombian striker Santiago Patiño is also on board; he was the #3 pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft (by Orlando City). The back line has been fortified by Swede Axel Sjöberg (pronounced Shooberry, if you are interested), previously with DC United. They also picked up forward Justin Dhillon, a former Tacoma Defiance player who had a brief stint with the Seattle Sounders. That’s a fair amount of MLS-level talent they have managed to scoop up.
With all of that, they were not afraid to take on MLS teams in preseason, albeit with poorish results. After beating North Texas SC (USL1) 3-1, they had two games against that team’s parent, FC Dallas, drawing 0-0 at home and losing 5-0 at Dallas. They also lost to MLS newcomers Austin FC 5-1. They have one more preseason game scheduled, this Saturday against Rio Grande Valley.
Not that it matters to the Legion, but San Antonio’s rough stretch is late July through early September, when they play ten games over 45 days, mostly in the heat of South Texas. Unfortunately, Birmingham visits them in the 4th game of their season, after face off against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Real Monarchs (who fell off the cliff in 2020 after winning it all in 2019) and the Rio Grande Valley Toros, none of whom are especially difficult opponents. Expect a relatively rested team, and very likely one sitting on 9 points already. At least the Legion hosts Memphis 901 the prior week.
Other than Memphis, Birmingham has a fairly tough May, kicking off with Indy Eleven and Louisville City and finishing with San Antonio. This first non-divisional game is going to be a hard nut to crack.
Final Grade: A+
This team is a serious contender, not the best in the Western Conference but only because Phoenix Rising exists. And for what it’s worth, fivethirtyeight.com ranks them the 3rd best team in the league. Which also makes them the toughest opponent for Birmingham in the entire regular season.