As eagerly and warmly as their city welcomed a new club and its players, as diligently and colorfully as the home fans flocked to Q2 Stadium all season, as much free publicity as part-owner and “minister of culture” Matthew McConaughey ginned up around the world…
There was no escaping the reality that 2021 was ultimately disappointing for Austin FC, at least when it came to the aggressive goals set in the locker room.
Amid lots of pretty, proactive, possession soccer, the new kids and their first-year head coach Josh Wolff struggled without a true striker for long periods and slipped out of the playoff race down the stretch, finishing with a 9W-21L-4D record – good for second-bottom in the Western Conference.
Club captain Alex Ring has seen enough to commit his future to the project in central Texas, however, inking a new contract this week that could keep him in Black & Verde through 2025. And the organization has done much the same by elevating him to Designated Player status, which will necessitate a move or buy-down for one of their three existing DPs.
Ring signed on for a from-scratch expansion voyage, and he’s gotten what he bargained for.
“If you're realistic, knowing how MLS is and with the salary cap and whatnot – you can’t just go out there and buy anyone you want. So you know what you're getting into,” the Finn told MLSsoccer.com after his new deal was unveiled on Monday. “This was, for me, a long-term project. I'm really pleased to be here from the beginning. And I think yes, it's a statement on my side that I really believe, believe in what we're doing here.
“Of course, it was hard, and I'm not used to not playing to win, if you know what I mean. Without being arrogant – I think I've been brought up humble and whatnot – but it was tough. You learn a lot about yourself and other guys playing along through that first year.”
As the team’s leader and midfield anchor, Ring bore as much of that weight on his shoulders as anyone in Wolff's lineup, completing a volume of tempo-setting passes at an 86.2% clip, leading ATXFC in tackles, duels and interceptions and chipping in 4g/3a.
But two red cards hinted at the frustrations of a driven competitor coping with a much different situation than he’d experienced across four seasons with a New York City FC side steadily growing into consistent contenders, then finally breaking through with an MLS Cup triumph last month as Ring watched from afar.
“New York made me the player and the man I am today; I will forever be grateful for them,” he said. “Playoffs is what makes MLS special in terms of, for example, European leagues. And I think they fully deserved it. I was really happy for the fan base, for all the players I've played with, the staff that was there with me from when I went there. I don't feel like something was taken from me, because like I said, they truly deserve it. I'm really happy for them. And now I want to chase them myself.”
Ring trusts Austin sporting director Claudio Reyna, who also recruited him to NYCFC when he held a similar post there. He's been impressed with recent reinforcements like Moussa Djitte, Maxi Urruti and Ethan Finlay and maintains that there was no FOMO as his former mates hoisted hardware in Portland – other than the vision of replicating the feat with his current squad.
“There's a lot of responsibility coming in here, I knew that. I put pressure on myself, I put pressure on my teammates because you want to set certain standards and you play to win, you play to compete,” he added. “I hope we'll get there and I'm very positive for the future.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed long periods of separation from their loved ones back in Finland – Ring hasn’t been in the same room with his father for three years now – but he, his wife Lila and their two young daughters have quickly become proud adopted Austinites. That harmony, combined with his professional sense of fulfillment, made staying the straightforward choice over other options back in Europe.
“I feel really appreciated here in the US,” said Ring. “I really appreciate the privacy off the field they maybe don't have in Europe. I have two little kids, so that's something that I really like, and just the vibe around MLS – I mean, if you look around other leagues that have been really hurting, obviously financially and with people coming to games, where you see MLS are setting a really good example in that.
“I'm happy we figured something out. For me, it was clear from the beginning that I want to stay here, I've always stated that. If it were up to me, I don't want to switch teams within MLS. If that day comes, then I’ll leave, probably.”
Ring’s fiery demeanor on the pitch belies a more easygoing personality that he considers a good match for Austin’s famous quirkiness. He’s happy to report that the fam spent a sunny Christmas by the pool, a decent tradeoff for the city’s sultry midsummer temperatures and a far cry from their ice-bound homeland, even if Ring expects to eventually return to Scandinavia whenever his playing days are done.
“I don't know if you can really get used to the Texan summer heat. But I've always enjoyed warm weather. I always tell everyone I’m a Mediterranean Finn, so I'd rather spend my time in the warm than in the cold,” he deadpanned.
“We bought a house here, we’re settled in, my kids love Austin … the laid-back attitude Austinites have, I don't know, it speaks to me. And it's the way I think I am off the field, especially. I know on the field, I'm acting very intense and everything but off the field, yes, I like to relax. And there's a lot of things to do here. The life is big around the city, not just for our football club, but everything else that is happening around with Tesla and whatnot.”
Ring admits that ATXFC had to learn some core MLS lessons the hard way in 2021 and pinpoints roster depth, league experience and a more clinical mindset in front of goal as crucial areas of improvement for their second season. He takes heart from NYCFC having just proven that a possession-oriented team can successfully navigate the treacherous postseason gauntlet.
“We've added some interesting, good pieces around and I know the club is working to get more players, more competition,” he said. “I think that, depth-wise, is the key for us this year – it’s harder as a first-year team to have depth like other teams that have been in MLS for a number of years, which is given with the salary cap situation.
“Obviously there are games and situations that require you to adjust, like I think New York did as well in the playoffs. That's why they won,” Ring continued. “Sometimes you need to do the dirty work, what’s needed. And I think [NYCFC] did that really well this year. And I think that's something we can learn from as well. Because I'd prefer always to play out of the back, but some given games and given situations require something else. And that’s game intelligence, that's more down … to the players to recognize the situations within the game, and adapt. So that's something we'll probably be working on.”
After 10 brief days of offseason downtime, Ring has begun to ratchet his fitness work back up with an eye towards 2022’s earlier start to preseason. And he sounds determined to leave the expansion woulda-coulda-shouldas behind from day one.
“I've always run my own route, maybe a little bit of an unusual route. But so far, I've been happy with my career,” he said.
“We have everything in place here and now it’s up to us to deliver.”