Josh Wolff, taking a pause, comments Austin FC have experienced “a lot of different emotions in two years.”
That might be understating it.
Year one, as a 2021 MLS expansion team, ended by finishing 24th of 27 clubs in the overall league table. Raucous crowds flooded to Q2 Stadium and a clear game model followed suit, but results slacked as the goalscoring well dried up. Growing pains defined the club’s infancy.
Year two was, well, a different story. The Verde & Black made the 2022 Western Conference Final, challenged for the Supporters’ Shield through early fall and received 34 goal contributions in 37 matches from superstar Sebastián Driussi, the Landon Donovan MLS MVP runner-up. A 25-point turnaround underlined their remarkable progress.
Year three, Wolff hopes, ends with even more growth as measured by one act: raising silverware.
“We know we have to keep evolving and haven't done anything other than have a very good second year,” Wolff told MLSsoccer.com on an unexpected preseason off day, forced by icy conditions in the Texan capital city. “There's ambitions inside our club that we want to be recognized as one of the best. To do that, you've got to do it year after year and you have to lift trophies. That's how you establish it.
“Those things come with consistency and, like I said, we have to keep building our roster out, we've got to keep building the way that we play and we've got to build off of two encouraging years. That's what we're going to focus on. The season starts in 20-something days and we have work to do, just like every other team.”
The latter part comes, perhaps, from the increased role Wolff now finds himself in. With Claudio Reyna resigning as the club’s sporting director and shifting into a technical advisor role, Wolff has ‘interim chief soccer officer’ tacked onto his head coaching duties. In practice, Wolff said he’s more closely driving scouting and decision-making on players, but notes he’s been involved in these processes as an early Austin FC hire. Working with owner Anthony Precourt and interim sporting director Sean Rubio, the club’s brain trust has a slightly new look.
Driven by trophies, Wolff seems focused on increasing the club’s depth heading into 2023. They’ll compete in four competitions this year – MLS, Concacaf Champions League, Leagues Cup and US Open Cup – so there’s ample opportunity to fill the cabinet beyond last year’s Copa Tejas title (a Texas-based rivalry trophy that FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC also compete for).
“Our depth will be tested greatly this year,” Wolff said. “It's the longest MLS season ever, potentially, and we're working on that depth now. It's an ongoing storyline for most teams. We've added to our group already after losing some quality pieces, some personality pieces. It doesn't change.”
As for outgoings, Wolff said they’ve dealt with a “couple of surprising” player exits due to family reasons. They lost center back Ruben Gabrielsen after a strong MLS introduction in 2022, transferring him to Lillestrøm SK in his native Norway. Young striker Moussa Djitte was also recently loaned to Ligue 1 side AC Ajaccio, who are fighting to stay in France’s top flight.
To replace Gabrielsen, Austin acted quickly by signing Finland international center back Leo Väisänen from Swedish side IF Elfsborg. That proactive recruitment even came with Väisänen’s introduction being announced before Gabrielsen’s departure.
“It was disappointing but totally understandable,” Wolff said. “Replacing Ruben a little bit unannounced was somewhat challenging, definitely, but that's what we have in our scouting department, guys lined up for those types of things. We went after another player we were quite familiar with and had in mind even last year.”
Austin could stand to add another striker after Djitte’s loan, which lasts through June 30. They’ve already enhanced the position, however, signing longtime US international Gyasi Zardes in free agency. Wolff, reunited with the 31-year-old from their past Columbus Crew days, has clear goals set for Zardes.
“He's somebody that we expect to score 15 to 20 goals,” Wolff said. “We have 40 to 50 games this year. If we can play this right and compete in all four competitions, and we hope to, his quality in front of goal, his movement in front of goal, his work rate without the ball – that's all so important.”
Wolff also doesn’t shy away from proclaiming what 2023 could mean for Emiliano Rigoni, their Argentine winger who joined last summer as a Designated Player. He had no goals or assists in roughly 450 all-competition minutes, struggles Wolff feels won’t linger after this preseason camp.
“In some way, shape or form I expect him to contribute 15 or 20 goals, whether that's scoring himself or assists,” Wolff said. “He has that game-changing quality, his service is very good, his understanding has gotten much better.
“We also have to be mindful of the expectations when he came to us and hadn't played for two months, then it's the end of summer with eight games to play. I'm playing him because he needs to get fit and hopefully he can get to a place where he can perform in the playoffs. It was challenging for him. He worked tirelessly, and now we will get a much better of Emi in 2023. I have no doubt about it.”
Asked a similar question about Driussi, Wolff expressed in numerous ways how they need to give their talisman support in the final third – from Zardes, Rigoni, Diego Fagundez and more.
“The success of the team can't revolve around one player,” Wolff remarked. “I understand how influential he is with 30-something goal contributions last year … and we want to score a lot of goals, we want to win a lot of games, we want to be entertaining. That revolves around a player like Sebastián, but it still involves the entire group too.”
A "great responsibility"
As the roster comes together and motivated by last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs exit – Wolff said he didn’t watch the complete 3-0 loss to LAFC for several weeks and it “still doesn't sit well because it wasn't our best version by any stretch of the imagination” – there’s clarity on how Austin’s upcoming season will be measured. Perceptions of what they can achieve, both internally and externally, have shifted.
“We've moved the expectation of who we were, as Austin FC and the way the league and other teams look at us,” Wolff said. “But it's a great responsibility now. It's an opportunity, but there's a great amount of responsibility to carry it forward.
“We want to play for a trophy, in some way, shape or form. That's a big goal of ours. It won't come easily, but performance, consistency and sometimes a bit of luck helps get you there. We've got a good group and we'll see what lies ahead.”
As for how the year-three story might end? Wolff knows how picturesque it could be, raising a trophy at another Q2 Stadium sell-out.
“It would be an empowering moment for this city, these fans,” Wolff said. “They deserve it and are incredible, absolutely incredible. Players that come here, TV, media, other teams, they see it and understand it. We're privileged to be playing there. There'd be nothing better than to reward them for everything. A trophy is a great reward.”