A day when young Austin-area soccer players can dream big

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By Kevin Lyttle - American-Statesman Staff

It was a positive sign for the grass-roots development of soccer in Austin.

On a Saturday afternoon opposite a Texas home football game, an estimated 1,500 people attended the FCB Escola academy opening ceremonies and an FC Barcelona watch party at Circuit of the Americas.

Katja Heim, COTA’s chief operating officer, grew up in world soccer hot spots, born in Germany and living for years in London.

“There’s no doubt the sport is growing in this country,” Heim said. “You can feel it coming on. So many people in the States have roots in different places where soccer is the sport. Look at the diversity here today.

“I’m sure these kids are enjoying a chance to march up the front stretch of a Formula One track and face these grandstands.”

Oh, they did.

“This is exciting,” said Audrey Ndoye, a 14-year-old camper from Senegal who lives in Austin. “I wish we could see the cars, but I never thought I’d be standing on a racetrack like this. It is so big. I’ve already been texting pictures to my friends.”

About 500 young players, chosen from tryouts involving nearly 2,000 players, are in FCB Escola ATX, which has operations at new soccer facilities at COTA and the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex. They marched up the straightaway in a long procession of red, gathering at the finish line.

“It’s impressive — the field, the facility, all of it,” said Monique Garcia, a transplanted Californian who, with her husband, Oscar, has two boys, Christopher, 11, and Alexander, 14, in the camp. “What I like best about FCB Escola is the camaraderie, spirit and the level of professionalism shown by the staff and coaches. This is a well-run program here.”

FCB Escola, the development arm of FC Barcelona, has academies around the world. COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein wants Austin to be its North American headquarters.

“We’re the only ones who can offer a soccer facility at an F1 track,” Epstein said.

Barcelona native Marc Segarra, co-founder of ISL Futbol, the largest partner of FC Barcelona in the United States, said Epstein’s goal could become reality.

“What’s not to like about Austin?” Segarra said. “People want to come here, and the soccer market is wide open.”

Epstein stirred the crowd with his remarks.

“Perhaps you’ve heard, but we’re bringing pro soccer back to this city in 2019, and USL Austin will play at a stadium right here,” he said to applause.

Then he drew a cheer from parents in the stands when he told the campers, “Maybe you’ll be playing on that field one day — getting paid to play.”

After the ceremonies, the La Liga match between Barcelona and Espanyol was shown on COTA’s big-screen TVs. Lionel Messi notched three goals in a 5-0 Barca rout.

“He is magic. I want to be like him,” young camper Jorge Rodriguez of San Marcos said.

Don’t they all.

Michael Cox