National Writer: Charles Boehm

Ambitious Austin left disappointed but encouraged by MLS debut

Moral victories are a thin gruel for expansion clubs and their fans to subsist on. But as they savored the milestone of their inaugural MLS match on Saturday, Austin FC and their fans might take heart from the fact that the fledgling team are distinctly peeved to exit Banc of California Stadium empty-handed after a hard-luck loss to LAFC.

“We got into the fire pretty quick,” goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who had to make a sharp save to deny Diego Palacios in the game’s opening minute, told reporters postgame. “I think we reacted pretty well. I mean, to lose 2-0 to LAFC and to leave LA thinking that we deserved more out of that game, getting a little bit lucky on both of those goals with a deflection, then just kind of a wonky play on the second one – happy that we make history.

“This is the first game, but I honestly think that we can walk away here with points, and that's the most disappointing thing.”

Showing sequences of fluidity as they implemented head coach Josh Wolff’s methodical possession-and-position philosophy – and given a boost by the premature exit of Carlos Vela – ATX kept pace with the 2019 Supporters’ Shield winners most of the afternoon, even with five of their starters making their MLS debuts. Gradually coming to grips with LAFC’s aggressive press, Austin circulated the ball confidently as Designated Players Tomas Pochettino and Cecilio Domínguez showed flashes of real quality.

As has so often been the case for the league’s newcomers, however, much of their good work fizzled out when they reached the final third. Wolff vowed to address that area in the weeks ahead.

“Once we settled in, we were able to do some things offensively and challenge LAFC\] and push them a bit, and it was fairly back and forth in the first half,” said the former [Columbus Crew SC and US men's national team assistant, who also marked his first competitive match as a head coach. “But I think this will help guys. We have a lot of new guys to the league that aren’t familiar with what the style of play is in our league, the tempo and certainly the climate. So this will go a long ways in their adaptation.

“We’re a young team, we’re right now at the infancy of our existence and I think there are certainly some things to be proud of and certainly some things that we can work on.”

Stuver, who got the starting nod ahead of Andrew Tarbell, rewarded that faith with seven saves and an 89.4% pass completion percentage as Austin strived to build out of the back despite the hosts’ pressure. One of the more experienced veterans on the roster, he emphatically underlined the scope of the “Verde” side’s year-one ambitions.

“To finally get out on the field and play an actual game that matters, it's truly special and we'll take that home. But at the end of the day we want to win, and at the end of the day we want to make playoffs, and that's our goal. And every day that's our mindset,” he said.

“We don't have a mentality that this is the first year of our club. We have the mentality of, we have experienced players that have all won games and won championships, and we all came here for a reason. We play a distinct style and I think you guys saw that today. We played extremely well. I don't think LA played us off the field. … We think that we can go toe-to-toe with any team in this league and come away with points.”

Austin seem to have their home region’s attention. On Saturday the squad were buoyed by the presence of small but vocal clusters of traveling fans in the stands at the Banc, and a large media contingent traveled to Los Angeles to cover the match in person. Wolff expressed optimism that his team’s style and personality will keep everyone tuned in even amid the uphill battles of expansion life.

“Obviously the result didn’t go our way, but hopefully there's some quality in there that makes the fans excited,” he said. “We have big ambitions and we're hungry to improve. And we will push that this coming week and the many weeks that lie ahead.”