National Writer: Charles Boehm

Austin FC's secret weapon? Why the MLS expansion club turned to Dave Tenney

Dave Tenney - Orlando Magic

Austin FC have been making big plans and writing big checks, both of which signal their ambition to join the league’s upper echelon when they make their MLS debut next spring.

From their $260-million stadium project at McKalla Place to the St. David's Performance Center, their custom-built $45-million training facility in Northeast Austin, the 2021 expansion club is building out impressive infrastructure before they’ve kicked a ball. But human capital is a significant part of that process, too, and last week Austin secured a potentially foundational piece.

Dave Tenney was a key figure behind the scenes in the Seattle Sounders’ rise to MLS royalty. Joining Seattle as fitness coach at the dawn of its MLS era and founding what many would regard as the best performance department in the league before departing for the NBA’s Orlando Magic in 2017, he and his staff adeptly merged advanced data and analytics. It influenced ideas and decisions around injury management as well as scouting and recruitment, bringing ideas and technologies like Catapult and Omegawave into the soccer conversation.

Now Tenney is returning to MLS with Austin FC, donning the title of High Performance Director like he once did for the Sounders. An acquaintance of head coach Josh Wolff’s dating back to their days with the Kansas City Wizards more than a decade ago, combined with the prospect of constructing a club from scratch, proved decisive after three years in the NBA’s bright lights.

“I think Josh is going to be an excellent coach, so for me, to have the ability to work with someone I consider a bright young coach in an organization that is exciting as Austin looks to be, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Tenney told as he drove from Florida to Texas last week.

“And then it's exciting because it is becoming another tech hub city, tech-centric city,” he added of his new home base. “I think the organization has bought into that as well, and Josh very much plans on utilizing data to make decisions in figuring out his game model and how he wants to play, and then us being able to collect data on what that actually means, and how do we sustain the ability to play Josh's game model in different climates, different parts of the year in Austin.”

With their “culture of data,” Tenney and former Seattle colleagues like Ravi Ramineni and Sean Muldoon shifted the sports-science paradigm in North American soccer, particularly in their efforts to manage stressors imposed on players by artificial turf, long travel, marathon seasons and veteran legs. Now he’ll seek the right formula for the bright sun and dry summer heat of central Texas.

“Lots of different challenges in terms of when do you practice, how long do you practice, how hard do you push the guys. And then also the effect that it has on the actual game,” Tenney said. “How you keep guys fresh over a nine-month season is incredibly important. I think it's easy to get wrong in the heat of the summer, when teams can lose their legs in some of the warmer climates. So that’s something Josh and I have talked about, really from day one.

“The ultimate goal is how to use that to your advantage,” he added, “whether that comes from recruitment or whether that comes from how athletes are trained to have the ability to thrive in that environment.”

Extreme heat has proved itself a fearsome factor and midseason slumps have coincided with scorching summertime conditions in MLS markets like Dallas, Houston and Orlando. Tenney is a scholar of the “Antifragile” concept brought to notoriety by scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2012 book, and that mentality may prove useful as Austin aims to build a competitive and entertaining roster, then coax the most out of it.

Working at the nexus of science, soccer, tactics and training holds appeal for the former goalkeeper, who found himself more detached from the coaching side of things in basketball.

“The role of the NBA high performance director can have a highly medical emphasis. It's a lot of dealing with doctors and surgeons, it’s a lot of calls with agents. I would probably talk to three to five agents every week about the status of their players, status of their athletes' rehab,” Tenney explained, “versus the high performance sector within this league and within this sport. In soccer the role is more focused on training, it’s trying to get this group of players from point A to point B together with a coach and hit the physical goals, technical goals, tactical goals, et cetera.”

He’s kept an eye on MLS’s rapid growth, which he suggests can be traced by the changing nature of its physiological blueprint.

“It’s shifted from where it was more older players you have to manage, to a league where you do have a group of teams that are investing heavily in young, or mid-aged, high-profile players that physically can do a lot more, because you're getting them at different points in their career,” he said. “Teams are investing in players in their early- to mid-20s, which you can train differently, you can press differently. And also I think there's just more higher-quality players coming in.”

Tenney joins a list of promising hires for ATX, where the combination of an intriguing expansion project and the city’s budding quality of life looks like an appealing mix.

“The investment Austin has put in is incredibly attractive, I think, for players and staff, if you look at their stadium, if you look at the training facility,” said Tenney, noting the trend of increasingly sophisticated new builds of its kind around MLS. “That's another place where I think the league has really changed and evolved in terms of the financial commitments the league is having towards the player.

“The league has evolved to a space where the players are just better taken care of. That’s also why it’s also an exciting time to come back to MLS, because it is rapidly evolving. It’s a better place to work."