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In Conversation: Tim Holt, San Antonio FC

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/20/21, 3:30PM EDT

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Ahead of the USL Mid-Year Meetings, we spoke with SAFC’s Managing Director about hosting the event, youth development and club identity


San Antonio FC Managing Director and SS&E Vice President Tim Holt has overseen the success the club has achieved both on the field and in the San Antonio community, building on his work previously as the USL's President at the launch of the Championship i

Since its launch five years ago, San Antonio FC has in numerous ways become one of the model modern clubs in the USL Championship. From its embrace of local culture in selling itself to the city’s community to the progression of an Academy program that is now starting to see top local talent arrive on its First Team roster – including professional signings Jose Gallegos and Leo Torres – the club has built a strong following and sturdy base for the future.

At the helm as the club’s Managing Director and a Vice President within the Spurs Sports & Entertainment organization is Tim Holt, formerly the USL’s President and a longtime league employee before his move into the club side of the game in 2015. Under his stewardship, alongside that of the club’s technical staff, San Antonio currently sports the youngest average age of a roster among the Championship’s independent clubs at 23.1 years old, while counting 40 percent of the club’s roster as having developed within the San Antonio market, either in the youth or college ranks, and in some cases both.

As San Antonio prepares to host the USL’s Mid-Year Meetings this week – the first time the league has held the event in collaboration with an independent USL Championship club in its home city – I went in depth with Holt on the way San Antonio has approached its youth development structure, the evolution of the league and potential for USL Championship and League One clubs to take leading roles in helping players reach the top levels of the game, and how San Antonio is aiming to further build its following within the city’s broader soccer community.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nicholas Murray: We’re now starting to see kids who are 15, 16, 17 years old that are starting to sign professional contracts and play in the league. It’s so different to when I started at USL in 2010, what has it meant for you – as someone who has seen so much of the USL’s history – to see that be an inflection point and part of where the league is now?

Tim Holt: From my perspective, it’s unbelievably exciting and encouraging to see the proliferation of young players – teenagers, literally – that have been developed at USL clubs that are now impacting the First Teams in all kinds of different environments. I think we’ve seen that happening in MLS, we see it now happening in USL and it’s radically different than it was 10 years ago, even five years ago. I think it speaks to deliberate efforts among USL clubs that began years ago that are starting to pay off. It’s a long-term game, young pro player development is a long-term game.

So, if you take San Antonio in this situation, we launched our Academy in 2016, we did it two months after we started the franchise here, and we did it with a group of 12-year-olds, 2004s and 2005s. We knew there would be no benefit to our First Team – there’s no guarantees of it – but if we did it right and were patient and players were committed, then this would become part of the club’s identity and it could potentially bear fruit in terms of having hometown pros in five, six, seven years. We’re seeing the front end of that, we’ve seen some kids that have jumped out ahead of the curve on it like Leo Torres and even a few like Jose Gallegos, Ethan Bryant who were ahead of our Academy, but now we’re seeing more players that have been full-time with us since the original days – Bradley Dildy comes to mind, Abraham Lincon, who has been in the First Team environment, Rocky Perez – that have been with us from the beginning that are now starting to not only prove themselves in training everyday but earning opportunities to be with the First Team.


Nominated for the Championship's Young Player of the Year award in 2020, Jose Gallegos is leading the precocious talent emerging from San Antonio FC's Academy system. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

I see that in Louisville right now in a great way, I know Phoenix is being aggressive, there are so many different clubs – and I’m sure I’m leaving a few out – both at the USL Championship level and in the USL League One level. It’s particularly exciting, especially for someone that was involved with the launch of the Super Y League back in 1999, personally, professionally it’s always been something that I’ve been passionate about. It’s just so fulfilling to see it not just in San Antonio but around the league. They’re impacting the league and they’re changing the perception of what this is all about.

NM: I think it’s important to remember here that this club is only just over five years removed from its launch, how proud are you of how far that development aspect has come, especially the way you have gone about it and what it’s provided to the club in such a short time?

"We desperately are working every day to bring a USL Championship Title to San Antonio, but simultaneously we want to do that in a certain manner, and we prioritize that manner in the long-term of creating a professional pathway for the most talented young players in our market, in our city."

TH: That has been and continues to be a major part of our club’s identity. It’s incredibly important to us. Part of that identity is putting a First Team out there for our fans and the community that is representative and can compete for championships, but one team wins the title every year and I don’t think seasons are totally pass/fail on whether you’re champions or not. We desperately are working every day to bring a USL Championship Title to San Antonio, but simultaneously we want to do that in a certain manner, and we prioritize that manner in the long-term of creating a professional pathway for the most talented young players in our market, in our city.

We’re not trying to be a national academy, we’re trying to be an academy for this city that identifies them, gives them a platform for development, asks a lot from them in terms of commitment and sacrifice, and for those that perform gives them a direct opportunity in here with the First Team. I think we’ve delivered that, and I think for us that’s incredibly important in terms of what we do.

NM: What’s have been the important aspects in the way you’ve not only set up the Academy system but had the upper staff and management understand the why of its importance?


San Antonio FC Head Coach Alen Marcina led the side to the playoffs in his first year at the helm in 2020 and has also offered opportunities to the club's young on-field talent. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

TH: Everybody has to buy into it. The two First Team coaches we’ve had here in Darren Powell, who helped architect this, and now Alen Marcina have had the courage to put players who are unproven in terms of their on-field game performance but have proven themselves in a training environment to give them opportunities. From the Academy to play up and then eventually be in the First Team environment, and if they earn that, then to play. Then especially Nick Evans, who has been our Academy Director from Day 1, who has shaped the direction of these players and his whole staff.

We’re unique in that we don’t have an Academy technical staff and a First Team technical staff. There’s just one technical staff. Everyone’s wearing different hats. Our coaches are involved in our Academy. It’s not unusual for Alen Marcina to be at or running an Academy training session. All of our Academy coaches are at First Team training, so it’s really a connected club. Some of that is out of necessity in terms of our bandwidth to be able to tackle all these things, but the benefit is that everything is very connected, and that’s very obvious to our players. Our pro players and then our 12-years-olds, they all see that. It’s a club environment in the truest sense, and it’s a local club environment in the truest sense.

NM: You mentioned Jose Gallegos and Leo Torres as players who have jumped out ahead of the curve, what has it meant to see them take on that role as the frontrunners and being the example for the players that are now coming up as to what you can be?

TH: I think they’ve recognized a lot of responsibility comes with that, not just in terms of how you perform – they’re both exceptionally talented young players – but the responsibility of how you act, how you interact and give back where everybody’s watching. For us, it’s so important those first few players represent the club and themselves in such a positive way, with all the values of what we want San Antonio FC to be, and we’re very fortunate because both of them do. They’re both very humble kids, they’ve very hard-working, they’re great with younger players, they’re respected by the older players, and I can’t say enough good things about them.

We’re very fortunate in that regard that they embrace that role. Both of their maturity levels are very high, but obviously everybody is watching them and looks up to them, and that effects the next group. It’s terrific every time another player has a chance to train with the First Team or even appear in a game, it motivates the rest of the kids in the Academy to be able to do that also. In Jose and Leo’s cases, there’s a real spotlight on them, but both of them have big enough shoulders and the right personality and character to exemplify what it is what we look for in not just a player, but a young person.

NM: What have you learned in your executive role at the club in terms of how to best set up those players for success now, but also in the future as they look to potentially make moves up the ladder, either within the United States or potentially in Europe?

TH: Anyone that’s gotten themselves to that spot has tremendous soccer talent, in terms of how we would evaluate who’s a good player. That part is undeniable. The important part from a preparation standpoint is just preparing them to not take anything for granted, to have humility, to work hard, to be part of the team first and put the team ahead of the individual, and understand that there’s going to be adversity, and you’ve got to work through that adversity because nothing’s going to come easy. We’d be doing any of these players a disservice if they were put into any of these levels without earning that opportunity to be at those levels. They earn it through their performance at each stage, and the toughest thing is when you get to the pro stage and earning your way onto the field, earning minutes in USL games. Those are the most important games we play, our league games, so nobody gets handed that no matter who they are.

That’s a process. It doesn’t happen no matter how talented you are, what potential you have, that’s what happens, and that always resets when you go to different clubs and different levels. It doesn’t always go on your timeline, so grinding every day, the commitment to do that, working through adversity and just continuing to make yourself better and have a positive impact on your team whether things are going your way or not at any given time. I think if they take those factors away and apply them to future situations, then they’re going to be best positioned for success.

NM: We’ve seen the pipeline that FC Dallas has built in sending players overseas, and some other clubs are starting to do that in MLS like the Philadelphia Union. Do you believe there’s similar potential for clubs like San Antonio, and to use another example Orange County or Louisville, to set that trend in the Championship?

TH: Sure, we absolutely do, and I should have mentioned Orange County when I was rattling off some of the clubs earlier because they’re certainly committed to and invested in that space in a smart way. Let’s keep in mind that the FC Dallas’ and Philadelphia Unions and New York Red Bulls are years ahead of where we are, and it took all of those clubs time from when they started making significant investments in their academy and their structure – seven, eight, in some cases 10 years – before players were being transferred to Europe, before significant numbers of players were impacting their own First Teams.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not something you get into that yields immediate returns, it’s a long play. It’s a strategy that requires patience, it requires support from ownership or the executives within a club or a franchise. We’re very fortunate to have had that here, a belief in what we do so we can consistently do that over time. That’s the hard part, can you do that year after year, constantly building toward something? We’re in year five of that, and I think it was year eight where FC Dallas really started to realize that, or the Union started to realize to where we are here now, and it seems like every month we’re seeing another player that they have that’s going to Europe or starting in a First Team game. They’ve crossed that threshold.

Now, not only is it realistic to expect that, but it will happen for the clubs in the USL that are putting in similar resources and commitment and patience into those programs. It will pay dividends. The execution has to also be good and smart, but the clubs you named and even some others there is that, and that’s going to be an exciting time in USL. That’s the next five years when we’ll start seeing that happen, and I think we can agree that the credibility of the young American player abroad is now different to any time than it was before. Some of that has been paved by MLS players that have gone there, but now it’s not just youth national team players that can cut it overseas. It’s a much broader cross-section of players that are growing up in professional clubs, that are being developed in professional clubs. Exponentially, the number of American players – especially if they get over there early – that can be impactful is greater than ever before.

Not only is it realistic to expect that, but it will happen for the clubs in the USL that are putting in similar resources and commitment and patience into those programs. It will pay dividends. The execution has to also be good and smart, but the clubs you named and even some others there is that, and that’s going to be an exciting time in USL.

It’s an exciting time for American Soccer, it’s an exciting time for the pro clubs – in particular the USL clubs that are either in this space, or who are starting to get into this space, and are getting going. That’s why I think a league like USL Academy is so incredibly important because for clubs that haven’t been in that space, it gives them a real turnkey way to get into that without necessarily having to start their own club with multi age groups, you can focus on one group that can be U-19 but that can also capture U-17, U-16 talent from the community. It’s a great entry point to be in this space because I do see it as a competitive advantage for teams that can make this investment, maybe not immediately but several years down the line.

NM: San Antonio is hosting the USL Mid-Year Meetings this week, what does it mean to the club to be the first to get this opportunity as the league branches out into hosting its own event?

TH: It’s an honor and a privilege for the league to have the confidence in our organization and our city to bring the Mid-Year Meetings here to San Antonio. We’re really looking forward to the opportunity to host everyone, both in the city downtown where the meetings are and to have a very high number of those folks in our stadium when we host the national television game there on Wednesday. I think for the league, this is just the beginning of – post-COVID – really being able to expand on this event in terms of its scope and stature in years to come. The league’s been great to work with on this, Court Jeske, Brittany [Stolzenberg] and the whole team are so well organized, they’re doing most of the heavy lifting, our job is to be exceptional hosts both here for the meetings and at the event and make sure all of the attendees, the owners and the executives that are here, enjoy their time in San Antonio. We’re over the moon that everyone’s going to be in our city and our stadium, and we’ll have the chance to show off a bit.

NM: After the past 18 months, is it going to be fun to get to hold these meetings in person rather than over Zoom calls?

TH: Absolutely. You really miss that, and you miss a lot of that interaction. Sure, there’s a beneficial part to the meetings themselves, the business matters that you tackle and the agenda items, they’re necessary in terms of league governance and moving things forward, but what has really been missing over the 18 months are the conversations you might have in the lobby that you just have informally, where you might be able to catch up with an executive, one of your other colleagues from another team, and just learn. Compare notes, share information, get to know them better, and from where we sit learn from them and understand what they’re doing, and you always take away more than a few things that you can then apply to your own space. At the game on Wednesday night, we’re going to have more than 120 consultants that we’ll be able to pick their brains on our event and how everything goes here, which is pretty cool. I’m personally looking forward to the interactions outside the meetings rooms as much as the meetings themselves.

NM: As the USL’s former President, how do you view the way the organization has evolved since you moved on and the progress that’s been made by current President Jake Edwards and the executive team here?

At the time I transitioned out from the organization in 2015, the league was on the ascent, a lot of positive things were happening, I had been involved in that first five years of reshaping the professional division and there was the potential of a bright future. The current management team has turned it into a bright present, and an exciting future still to follow.

TH: Jake, Alec [Papadakis], Justin [Papadakis], the whole leadership group there has done such an extraordinary job. At the time I transitioned out from the organization in 2015, the league was on the ascent, a lot of positive things were happening, I had been involved in that first five years of reshaping the professional division and there was the potential of a bright future. The current management team has turned it into a bright present, and an exciting future still to follow. When you talk about the ownership groups that have been brought into the league, increased stability, the biggest thing for me has been the broadcast exposure of the league, the availability of all the games, the quality of the productions, the product – which is our games – is so much more consumable for fans with the ESPN package and all the work that’s gone into Vista. The profile of the league is just so much more substantial both domestically and internationally. That doesn’t happen by accident. There are obviously a lot of smart people at the league who are working very hard, working in collaboration with team owners to set direction and then executing, making things happen.

I’m proud to have played any role in where the league is now and I’m enjoying very much the challenge of the club side of things, which is a different challenge and important because the strength of the clubs impacts the league, but I have such great admiration and respect for the current group of leaders that are in charge at USL and all the people who work at that office day-in and day-out, which is probably three or four times what it was when I was there. Undeniable growth, and such an exciting time for the league, and I think the best days are still ahead of it.

NM: There’s plenty of discussion out there about where the Championship – and the USL overall – is headed in the next five years ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup on these shores. What do you see the next stage in the league’s growth looking like?

TH: What I would tell you is from a performance standpoint, more of the same. I think from a facilities standpoint, it’s become important. There’s still a lot of disparity, you’ve got a lot of new facilities that are coming online which is important for the future, you’ve got a lot of teams that are in interim situations that they’re trying to improve. I think getting teams into stadium situations which both from a game presentation standpoint as well as from a business performance standpoint allow them to maximize is important. The league’s not there yet, it’s a work in progress, so that’s important for the league moving forward.

I also think we touched on one of the other ones, which is an investment in the player development space. I also like the initiative that is being taken on the women’s side that the league has launched which will allow clubs to expand in that respect. Obviously as well the labor relationship with the players is an important one, and one the league has spent a lot of time on for the future to make sure that collectively all the key stakeholders for the league to be aligned. There’s always more opportunity for progress in the commercial space both at the league and national level, also from a broadcast standpoint. We have an unprecedented opportunity in 2026 when the eyeballs of the world will be on American soccer. I know the USL is going to grow in the next five years even more substantially than it has in the last five years, so we should be in a good spot. There will be challenges, things don’t stay the same, the marketplace – especially with the number of leagues – is growing. There are challenges with that in markets and also nationally, but I’ll reiterate that the league is best positioned to be able to take that on. There’s a lot of work to be done, but by the time 2026 rolls around it will be an even furtherly evolved version of what we currently enjoy here.

NM: You recently hosted a pair of international exhibitions against Queretaro FC and Pumas UNAM at Toyota Field, how important are games like that for both the club’s identity locally but also the financial aspect of what that brings?

TH: On the financial side, we want to make sure the fulcrum of what we have is our USL games, which are the key to all of this. Our fans love them, they’re meaningful games and in this league now as competitive as it is, every game matters. It’s a race to get into the playoffs so that’s great. Then beyond that, each season we’ve tried to have one, two, three additional games after the preseason to supplement that package that are interesting to our fans, that are unique. We had Cardiff City in 2019, we had Santos Laguna – that were Liga MX champions – in 2017. We’re three hours from the Mexican border so there’s a built-in support base where many people in central and south Texas identify with Liga MX clubs.

We were fortunate to bring two this year – Queretaro and Pumas from Mexico City – in here and do a little festival of sorts, which was a little bit different. We didn’t have a lot of time, this all came together pretty quickly, COVID presented some challenges in getting ahead of it as much as we might have liked and how open our stadium could be. Despite that, we took great advantage of it and had three great nights of soccer. I think for us, we brought a lot of different fans. A lot of our season-ticket members and base were at our two games, but there were some new faces and not just fans who traveled with those teams, but other San Antonio soccer fans who don’t yet have the affinity with San Antonio FC that we would like. It’s important that we compete in those games, that we put on a good show, and any time we’ve done that with teams we’ve been competitive. You can’t win them all, but we had leads on both Queretaro and Pumas in the 70th minute against top teams and with us playing a pretty diverse roster. I think we used 10 players that are also simultaneously in our Academy in those games, and a few in the Queretaro game that went 90 minutes and acquitted themselves very well.

We’d like to do more of it – we had FC Dallas and MLS teams here in the past, and we’d always like to diversify it – but obviously there’s always going to be a healthy dose of Liga MX opponents coming into Toyota Field to play each other or play us during the season, which I think is fun for the fans, but for us the focus is the league and going into two nationally televised games in five calendar days is where our head is at this point.

NM: You mentioned that casual fan. Liga MX is the gorilla in the room when it comes to American soccer as easily the most popular soccer league north of the border let alone south of the border. How do you go about reaching those fans and make them San Antonio FC fans when their support is familial, and potentially goes back generations to the teams their parents and grandparents grew up with?

TH: That’s deep-seated and cultural, and there’s no intent to change that. We’re not trying to convert people from being a fan of a club in Mexico that may be first- and second-generation San Antonians. What we’re trying to do is get them to support the local professional clubs where they live also. You can be a Tigres fan and actively support Tigres living in San Antonio, and also be an avid San Antonio FC fan. The work is on our end. We have to connect with those folks, we have to get them to our stadium, they have to enjoy the experience, they have to feel connected in some what that it’s their club. Some of that’s reflected in how we present the game, what our roster looks like, there’s so many different ways you can do that and it’s not just going to take one time, but when you play these games against the Mexican teams it makes it a little bit more familiar, it connects it a little bit more.


San Antonio FC's fans have made Toyota Field one of the most exciting venues to visit in the Championship as the club's identity has brought forward the culture of the city and community it represents. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

We’re not trying to convert people from being a fan of a club in Mexico that may be first- and second-generation San Antonians. What we’re trying to do is get them to support the local professional clubs where they live also. You can be a Tigres fan and actively support Tigres living in San Antonio, and also be an avid San Antonio FC fan.

I think that’s a process that takes time and it takes us getting into some areas of the community where the people aren’t a lot of the people who make up our season-ticket member base that we’ve had traditionally. We continue to work at that, that work will never stop each and every year. That’s why these games are valuable, but it’s a 12-month-a-year deal, and I think we’re starting to see some success with that. We’re not trying to convert Liga MX fans into San Antonio FC fans. That allegiance is always going to be there, that’s deep-seated, but there is space for there to be a similarly avid supporter of their local professional club and be both things.

NM: One way that you have tried to do that is to tap into the city’s culture with the Fiesta Nights and the Viva Kits, whenever they come out they always draw a smile – at least for me – because the designs are always great, the colors are great. What has it meant to bring that aspect into the club and use that as a selling point for fans?

TH: So much of what San Antonio FC is as a club is we’re hyper-local in our focus. We’re not trying to be Texas’ professional soccer club, or the professional soccer club in the South, we want to be for and about San Antonio in our identity. That’s what in part drives the youth movement of San Antonio kids, it’s what we’re all about and that should reflect itself in what our uniform designs are, what we wear. Obviously with the Viva jerseys that we have with the Spurs having their Fiesta jersey and that becoming so iconic, it logically makes sense that we would do something with that – it’s wildly popular – but that’s not the only thing that we’ve done. We’ve done throwbacks with the old NASL Thunder, so just things that connect either to the history of the sport in this community, or to the culture of the community. A lot of our theme nights are based on San Antonio culture, so the more we can connect the city’s professional club in ways that manifest themselves the more useful it is in attracting fans. They feel it’s their own.


San Antonio FC has embraced its city's culture and soccer history in building a community-oriented club, with its focus on local youth development adding strong ties to the city on the field. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

NM: I think that’s also been arguably a key element to the Championship’s growth overall because it’s not just you, it’s clubs like New Mexico, Sacramento, El Paso and even some more established clubs that are refreshing their identities like the Charleston Battery with their new branding last year, resetting the expectations for what they can be in their local markets, and clearly it’s something that’s resonating with fans around the country that they do want to support these local clubs that play up their local identities.

TH: I think you used a perfect word, it is resonating, and I think the clubs – especially the new ones that have seen that’s resonated with successful USL clubs have adopted that approach all-in from pre-Day 1. It’s interwoven, there wasn’t the need for a pivot to be able to do that, and that’s where you see it where I’ve had the opportunity to go to a couple of the games in New Mexico and theirs is local, it’s certainly an Albuquerque thing, but it’s a New Mexico thing. Their pride is a state pride. Our focus is on the city of San Antonio, and you mentioned El Paso, we certainly see that there within our division, it seems like there’s a reinvigoration in Colorado Springs especially in conjunction with their new stadium and in [Rio Grande Valley] this season, and in so many markets around the country.

I’ve had the opportunity to go to a couple of the games in New Mexico and theirs is local, it’s certainly an Albuquerque thing, but it’s a New Mexico thing. Their pride is a state pride. Our focus is on the city of San Antonio, and you mentioned El Paso, we certainly see that there within our division.

I do think that’s something that’s resonating, I think it’s natural, I also think it’s a reflection of where our sport is in this country and again, to my earlier point about Liga MX or whatever your primary club affiliation is, you can be multiple things. Everyone’s from somewhere, for people who are from a lot of these towns, they’ve never had a professional soccer team of any significant profile to support, and it is resonating in a really great way and is driving the passion that we find in our stadiums for these games, which is changing everything about how important the league feels and how important the clubs feel in their community relative to a decade ago, in a good way.

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