Already four games into their expansion journey, there are tangible signs of Austin FC hitting mostly the right notes as they enter the world of MLS.
Much could change in the coming weeks and months, of course, but there’s momentum behind what head coach Josh Wolff’s team is executing before their Q2 Stadium opener in mid-June.
When you assess each time Austin FC have stepped on the field, you’ll see that the sum of the roster is greater than its individual parts. Wolff and sporting director Claudio Reyna had two years to put this roster together, and that time was well spent.
Win or lose, Austin FC have opted for a proactive 4-3-3 formation in each game. They’re a possession-oriented side that’s been creating chances through death by a thousand passes. They build out of the back and exploit the space left by opposing high defensive lines with dynamic wingers.
Since Austin have so many players who are comfortable on the ball, at times they’ve committed too many numbers in attack. So I’d like to see more protection in defensive transitions. They can accomplish this by having an additional center midfielder committed to recovering or keeping the non-attacking outside back more connected to the two center backs.
Reyna has put ownership’s money to good use in building this team. I’ve been really impressed with how he’s used every method of player acquisition within MLS, ranging from the Re-Entry Draft and the offseason trade window to the MLS SuperDraft and free agency. The crowned jewel looks to be defensive midfielder and captain Alexander Ring, who they got via trade with New York City FC for up to $1.25 million in General Allocation Money if performance-based incentives are hit.
What’s even better is that most of this roster is entering the prime years of their career, where their peak athletic ability meets their growing soccer IQ. Only three players – center back Matt Besler, most notably – are over the age of 30. Their two DPs from South America, midfielder Tomas Pochettino (25) and winger Cecilio Dominguez (26), are right where you’d want players of that profile and pedigree.
Overall, Reyna has focused on players that fit into Wolff’s system rather than paying for names and résumé. They’re making good on investment so far, and it’ll be interesting to see what Austin have in store as the Primary Transfer Window ends June 1 and the Secondary Transfer Window unfolds from July 7 through Aug. 5.
It’s uncanny for an expansion team to start year one without filling all three DP spots. They're usually the first signings a club makes to create excitement around the city and draw fans into the stands. Instead of opting for high-profile names, Austin went for a Paraguayan international (Dominguez) and a Boca Juniors youth product (Pochettino).
Dominguez showed what he’s capable of with two goals against the Colorado Rapids. He's been a constant thorn in opposing team’s sides, picking up the ball in half-spaces before running at defenders. Pochettino is still taking some time to adapt to the physical demands of MLS, but has shown flashes of brilliance like when he nonchalantly hit the crossbar from 35 yards out against Sporting Kansas City. Had he scored that goal, I would have definitely spilled my beer.
Now that Austin seem to have found a potential goalscoring threat in Jon Gallagher, Reyna will be hoping he can hold onto that remaining DP spot until the Secondary Transfer Window opens. At the very least, they’ll be precise and intentional with it.
Every expansion team has players who seemingly come out of nowhere to play pivotal roles. After a few games, goalkeeper Brad Stuver, midfielder Diego Fagundez and forward Jared Stroud have become the unsung heroes of this team.
Stuver has stood on his head at times, all while breaking lines with passes into midfield or pinging diagonals to outside backs pushed higher upfield. Fagundez pretty much cemented legendary status after scoring Austin’s first-ever goal, then followed it up with a neat finish from a precise cross by Stroud. The former Revolution homegrown’s runs from midfield have thrown defenses off and add a different dimension to Austin’s offense.
Lastly, Stroud has been one of my favorite players to watch. The ex-Red Bulls attacker gives the team balance on the right side by playing as a true winger who can whip in some killer first-time crosses. Oh, and did I mention how he’s a team player who works his backside off on both sides of the ball?
FC Cincinnati/Inter Miami contrast
That matchup offers a window into some cautionary tales around beginning life in MLS, as Cincinnati are still looking to level up after struggling in 2019 and 2020. Miami, now led by head coach Phil Neville, underwent a reboot this past offseason and faced plenty of challenges by starting during the COVID-compressed campaign.
Both clubs can look toward how Austin have brought in players with winning MLS experience to form the core of their team. Miami relies more on big-name stars, and it remains to be seen if that’s done to a fault.
Stay tuned for both nationally broadcast games this weekend, knowing expansion projects are never easy. But Austin, in the season’s early goings, look to be striking the right formula.