After soaring into the Western Conference Final a season ago, 2023 was supposed to be another step forward for Austin FC.
The Matchday 37 result bookends a frustrating campaign for the third-year club, which never quite recaptured the high-flying levels they achieved in 2022 – when, behind a Landon Donovan MLS MVP runner-up campaign from Sebastián Driussi, they finished second in the Western Conference and scored an eye-popping 65 goals.
"Certainly huge disappointment," head coach Josh Wolff conceded postgame at Q2 Stadium. "Obviously missing out on the playoffs, it's a frustrating thing I think for all of us, the staff, the players, the organization, certainly the fans. Understandably so. You have big ambitions, big hopes, and the year didn't play out the way we like. We know we have another game left, but obviously tonight, it stings, it hurts, for sure."
Seasons that fall short of expectations invariably lead to questions about the future, of which Wolff fielded many at his postgame press conference. Regarding his own status, Austin's only-ever manager hopes to remain on the sidelines.
"I love this club, I love working for [majority owner] Anthony Precourt and many of the staff that have been part of this organization since we built it," Wolff said. "It's a project, it's going to be a project, we knew it was going to be a project.
"There's been unbelievable accomplishments in a short existence as an expansion team," Wolff added. "There are the ebbs and flows that we've seen of being a newcomer and obviously now we're in our third season. But I love my players, I love what I do for a living, I love our staff, and I'm extremely proud of what we've built. And I fully expect to continue to be able to build that, but we work and understand what the risks and rewards are of this business. But I'm the head coach here and I expect to be going forward."
Asked what went wrong this season, Wolff singled out inconsistencies in central defense. Austin have gone 1W-6L-3D since a two-and-out Leagues Cup appearance, plus had early exits in Concacaf Champions League and the US Open Cup.
"Our backline has been punished over and over and over," the former MLS and US men's national team forward said. "And we've used eight center backs, so that's a problem. Last year we used three, I think that was about right. We used eight and it didn't work on many levels. Guys were getting asked to do a little bit different than probably what they're accustomed to. But that's what we had and that's what we had to deal with and it made it challenging."
Now, the club's direction is in the hands of sporting director and chief soccer officer Rodolfo Borrell. The Spaniard, fresh off being an assistant coach to Pep Guardiola in Manchester City's historic 2022-23 treble-winning campaign, was formally appointed in late June. Borrell's role replaces inaugural sporting director Claudio Reyna, who eventually exited after taking a diminished role in early January.
"[Borrell]'s come in and built out a scouting department, more of a recruitment – we have better ideas already, better targets," Wolff said. "I think we missed opportunities that in our league, you have to get better, you have to keep getting better, both in personnel, players, you have to keep developing and evolving as a club on the field.
"It certainly has a big effect and I think going forward Rodolfo will put this in a better place. It's just going to take some time."
"It was a really challenging year in a lot of ways," said Wolff.