February is normally the time when teams in Major League Soccer head off to sunny destinations in Florida and Arizona to play preseason tournaments and get ready for the upcoming season. This year, Austin, Texas, was the site of a preseason tournament, a first for the city.
Yet instead another humdrum affair among four teams -- D.C. United, Columbus Crew SC, FC Dallas and the hometown Austin Aztex of the USL Pro -- there was clearly an emphasis on claiming the top prize. Was it the satisfaction of winning a championship? Um, not really. Were the winners going to get checks for finishing first? No, but not a bad idea with a strike looming.
It was actually something far greater, far more prestigious, the type of thing that is the stuff of dreams: a trophy in the form of a dual pistol-holding, cowboy hat-wearing armadillo.
And for those in Austin, it made total sense.
"We like to do things differently here," said Jeff Burns, the director of marketing of the Austin Aztex. "Austin is known for being weird, and we wanted to show that and give fans an idea of what Austin is about and how we stand out."
There was no lightbulb moment when it came to the armadillo trophy. As any visitor to Austin will tell you, when you stroll past the souvenir shops on Sixth Street, you can buy just about anything armadillo-related. It's a creature that calls the Central Texas area home and often can be seen waddling about along state highways. For Burns, there was no hesitation that an armadillo trophy would make teams try that much harder on game day.
"Other tournaments have cups and plates, but we felt teams would really subscribe to fighting for an armadillo," he said. "It reeks of Texas. When we had the opportunity to make it a pistol-wearing armadillo with a cowboy hat, there was no way we could say no to that. I mean, who doesn't want an armadillo in their trophy case?"
Unknown to many, the armadillo holds a cherished place in the hearts of Austin soccer fans, which makes the critter's presence all the more synonymous with the city.
"I joked with [club founder] David Markley that maybe we should get a chupacabra but then thought that might be too far out in left field, so we looked for something with an Austin soccer tie, and the armadillo is just that," said Burns. "Years ago, there was a team here called the Austin Soccerdillos, so we are paying homage to Austin soccer history. It puts a stamp on it. We're aware and we cherish the soccer history in this city."
With a 1-0 victory in Sunday's final, DC United claimed the first ever armadillo trophy. To allay any fears, the Aztex are shipping the armadillo to Washington D.C. so DC United's equipment manager does not have to haul it down to Costa Rica for the club's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal next week against Alajuelense.
That's good news for everyone involved, because the last thing that anyone wants is to potentially damage and cheapen the armadillo trophy.
"I like to think that the championship game was not just a preseason game, but rather it was a battle for the armadillo," said Burns. "This was a cool, fun way to give the tournament an extra flavor of Austin. I'm glad it was a hit for fans in and outside of Austin. I think we nailed it."