National Writer: Charles Boehm

Austin FC roar into Western Conference Final: “It was incredible”

1023 ATX sider

AUSTIN – The bright lights turned luminous green, several players on both sides crumbled to the turf in exhaustion and the waves of noise from the sellout crowd – their 36th straight – crescendoed when referee Joseph Dickerson blew the final whistle at Q2 Stadium Sunday night.

Austin FC had finally beaten FC Dallas on their sixth attempt, and in their highest-stakes encounter by far: a Western Conference Semifinal, a result that advances the Verde to just one step away from an MLS Cup Final in only their second season of existence, four years and two months after the Austin City Council approved the land deal that laid the groundwork for this glittering venue on the city’s northwest side.

“The culmination of four years,” said ATX head coach Josh Wolff after his side’s 2-1 victory over their Texas rivals. “Four years of work, of building this thing. I told [owner and CEO] Anthony [Precourt] last week, I was like, man, if you dreamt of it looking like this, it's exceeding expectations.

“Tonight's atmosphere was incredible. It was incredible. But to Anthony, Eddie [Margain], again, much thanks and appreciation goes to them. They charted this path for us and obviously put us in an unbelievable space, in front of the most incredible fans in the greatest stadium in the league, and they’re much appreciated for that.”

Tactical solutions

Known for his meticulous, possession-oriented game model, Wolff shares many philosophical similarities with his former US men’s national team coaching staff colleague Nico Estevez – yet here he beat his opposite number with a tactical about-face.

“You saw that we were playing with two defensive midfielders today, and our wingers were kind of tucked inside a little bit, just kind of preventing the middle,” said goalkeeper Brad Stuver postgame. “And you could tell that it frustrated them a little bit. They had to go around us and they just didn't have an answer there in the first half, and they couldn't break our lines. So credit to the game plan and credit for the guys for going out and nailing it.”

Humming with purpose and intensity, the Verde went direct from the opening kickoff, snatching a 2-0 lead via Moussa Djitté and Sebastián Driussi's strikes before half an hour had passed. They then dropped into a narrow 4-4-2 block in defense that frustrated FCD’s pressing and buildup play.

“It's just really, really annoying playing against a team that sits down,” said Austin’s young central midfielder Daniel Pereira. “But that was the plan, just kind of sit low and try to counterattack.”

Q2 Stadium "fortress"

The results brought both vindication and joy for a club, and a fanbase, convinced they’ve conjured up something magical in this beautiful venue, that their progress has not been properly recognized by outsiders.

So much of the discourse around Austin FC has centered on their defiance of skeptics, the chip on the shoulder they’ve cultivated on their climb from expansion also-rans to legit contenders. On Sunday afternoon their supporters' groups brandished a "Keep doubting us" banner on their pregame march to the match.

But this match was about celebration for the West's No. 2 seed just as much as vindication.

“Q2, we made it a fortress. Our fans definitely did a huge part of it,” said Diego Fagundez. “And we're just having a lot of fun playing. I think everybody saw it, how much it meant to us to win here and to move on.

“You look back to everything that they've been doing for two and a half years, three years, to get a team here in Austin is amazing. The fans see it and we see everything that they've done. They show so much love to us, not just on the field, off the field and in the community. And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to show them back, give them everything we have and hopefully bring a cup home.”

Year 2 growth

And progress they have. At this time last year, Austin’s inaugural season was petering out amid frustration and recrimination. A litany of aggravating losses left them near the foot of both the West and overall league standings as Wolff’s tactics led to plenty of dominant stretches of play, but insufficient end product. A segment of their passionate new fanbase was angry enough to make “Wolff out” a part of the conversation around the club.

“The first year was a learning year, try to see what kind of style of soccer we're going to play, see what kind of environment we're going to be in,” said Pereira. “And it was just new, just trying to learn how things were going to be. Year two was about this – try to improve, try to make it into the playoffs, and now we're going into that deep run.

“I mean, I love Josh,” the former SuperDraft No. 1 pick added. “Obviously I heard the rumors. A lot of people wanted him out, but you’ve just got to trust the process. It's year one, you can't judge him the first year. And yeah, I'm glad everybody gave him another chance.”

Wolff himself admitted his state of mind was a whole lot grimmer 365 days ago.

“I'm sure it wasn't in the best place,” he said with a brief flash of a smile. “But I think there were positives from year one, and we talk about it often, Claudio [Reyna, Austin’s sporting director], myself, the staff. There's the growing from an expansion team, from nothing – from nothing. It's challenging and this league, these coaches, and these players are so good.

“We showed some of that quality last year and that learning, as I call it, is part of what put us in this place this year. And we've taken some things away, we've added some things. The group's been very responsive to most everything we've done. We still want to play good soccer, we want to entertain, but you know you have to win games and that's what validates it for players, for fans, ownership, everybody. So we're in a much different place.”

LAFC await

Wolff, his colleagues and their squad have shown a capacity to adapt and evolve, and it’s taken them farther than even they dared to imagine last winter.

Now, they're on the doorstep of MLS Cup on Nov. 5. A win at Supporters' Shield leaders LAFC next Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN 4, TVA Sports in Canada) seals that ticket, possibly even hosting if NYCFC knock off the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference portion of the bracket.

“We had certainly the idea and the hope that we could get to here. Was it in the Semifinals, and you're on the verge of MLS Cup? I don’t know if we put our dreams that far,” Wolff said, “but we knew we could compete and make it to the playoffs. And I always say, you get to the playoffs in this league, you have an opportunity. And we’ve got a great opportunity.”