After Sunday’s frenetic 1-1 home draw with the Seattle Sounders, Austin FC sit exactly where they were at this point in last year’s debut campaign, with two wins, a loss and a draw giving them seven points from their first four games.
On paper, at least.
On grass, the actual reality looks and feels worlds apart to Josh Wolff and his 2022 squad.
“Well, I think it's a different team,” ATX’s head coach said in response to a question along those lines at the end of his postgame press conference. “I think it's clear. I think if you watch the games it's pretty clear. It's a different team.”
There was perhaps a hint of testiness in the answer, maybe because Wolff and everyone else around the Verde know full well how things went south as year one unfolded in the Texas capital. First a six-game winless skid hit them, then a patch of four losses in five matches shortly thereafter. Before long the dream of an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth faded into the distance as holes in the roster got exposed, the expansion euphoria waned and the Ls stacked up.
Austin believe they’ve now got a much more complete group in just about every respect. And hard-fought back-to-back slugfests with Cascadian contenders Portland – a tight 1-0 away loss which Wolff on Sunday called “a solid performance, mature, responsible” – and Seattle over the past two weeks provide a decent early snapshot to that effect.
“This group has more spine to it, there’s more character,” said Wolff after his team rallied from a first-half deficit to draw level via substitute Diego Fagundez, a deserving reward for long periods of heavy pressure on the Sounders’ rearguard.
“You’re going to learn some things from the first year, you’re going to have some gaps. We build a roster based on some of the mechanisms and we’ve corrected some of those things in the offseason. Right away, I think there’s a different mentality, there’s better leadership, and we’re going to continue to develop that. But there’s more character and resolve.”
Full of purpose, roared on by another lively home crowd at Q2 Stadium, Austin were superior in most statistical areas on Sunday. But as Liga MX's Club Leon, the LA Galaxy and others who’ve faced this Seattle side have learned the hard way, the Rave Green don’t need much of the ball or have the game states on their side to beat you.
When Cristian Roldan fed Will Bruin for a bundled close-range finish just before halftime, it appeared they would do just that again, even with a rotated lineup and plenty of miles on their legs from their midweek Concacaf Champions League trip to Mexico. But unlike their meeting at Q2 last year – a 1-0 Sounders win achieved with several green teenagers on the pitch – their hosts were more resilient.
“What I saw important was how we reacted as a team. You can tell we're a group, we’re united, everybody's together, everybody fights for each other,” said Fagundez, usually a starter but this time asked by Wolff to make an impact off the bench. “So we knew that we'd come back. And like I said earlier, the guys who come off the bench, these are the guys that we need to bring energy, we need to bring a spark to the game, change the game up, whatever it is. And I thought that we did that.
“Last year I think it was hard, when you're going down a man or down a goal. Our mindset maybe wasn't the same as this year. But like I said, this group, we have a really good group and I think we can go far.”
Wolff revealed that the intensity spiked on the training ground in the lead-up to this match, for him another encouraging data point.
“It was a good week, we had some dust-ups in training,” he said, “so you know you're in a good place when your guys are fighting and competing in training and there's a little bit of fights going on. And that's a sign of a good team. We lost 20 games last year, there wasn’t a dust-up. I think those are the things that really show a different maturity in our group, a different mentality to winning and competing every day – and we just also have more quality.”
That said, these results cut in both directions: they have ample work to do to maintain a place in the Western Conference aristocracy. Austin will now use the March international break to hone finer points and give the players some time off. While Wolff emphasized that he’s unable and unwilling to look any further ahead than their next match, a visit to the second-from-bottom San Jose Earthquakes on April 2, a heightened sense of possibility around the second-year club is apparent.
“This year, I see a whole different group and I don't know what it is, if it's mentality or if it's just the work or heart rate or whatever it is,” said Fagundez. “Everybody's there, and you see it in training, how competitive it is. You could be in the XI, then the next day you might not be in the XI, and that's part of it. I mean, that's what that's what good teams do. And that's what we want.”