A year after finishing 12th in the Western Conference standings and miles away from the playoffs in their inaugural season, Austin FC are being talked about as a title contender in year two and are on pace to finish second in the west behind LAFC.
The inflection point for this fledgling club came a little over a year ago when Sebastián Driussi walked into the dressing room as a Designated Player. A player reared in River Plate, arguably the biggest club in the Americas, and then a successful member of one of Russia’s top clubs, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Driussi brought unmistakable quality.
The 26-year-old has been in the Landon Donovan MLS MVP conversation for most of the season and is now considered one of the favorites to claim the league’s most prestigious individual trophy thanks to his 20 goals and seven assists in 31 games. At one recent point this season, he contributed to at least one goal in 11 straight matches, the third-longest streak in MLS history.
He’s certainly gotten the attention of everyone around the league, including star Argentine players in MLS from past and present.
Driussi’s path to MLS
Driussi’s journey to elite status in MLS started in his native Argentina. The fact that Driussi rose through the youth ranks of a club that produced the likes of Pablo Aimar, Gonzalo Higuain and Hernan Crespo and then made it to the first team is noteworthy.
That he was then able to become a regular fixture in the starting XI is even more significant.
“In the youth system of a country like Argentina, especially River, there are many clubs with good youth systems,” Valeri said. “That system of competition is very difficult. It is very hard to get to the first division and play in the first team, and then once you get there, staying there and playing well is very difficult.
“That is part of the reason why he is in the moment that he is sporting-wise,” added Valeri. “He is mature, he has a lot of experiences, he’s very competitive – all of that collaborates into his performance, but certainly there is a lot of value in what he has already conquered.”
The pathway of rising through the ranks in Argentina, making the leap to Europe and then eventually arriving in MLS has borne fruit for many players, not just Driussi. Valeri did the same, as did New York City FC midfielder Maxi Moralez, who emerged from the youth system at another one of Argentina’s big clubs, Racing, and went to Europe before ultimately landing at NYCFC and excelling since 2017.
“It’s so hard to make it within a big club in Argentina,” said Moralez. “I was lucky enough to do it and Sebastián as well. We both made debuts as young players, we both went to Europe as young players, him in Zenit and me at Atalanta.
“Those European football experiences teach you a lot, and that gives you a lot to move forward in your career,” added the MLS Cup 2021 winner. “It helped make me who I am today and you can see what it has done for Sebastián. I think he’ll continue to be an even more important player as he continues to get to know the league and adapts to it."
Driussi’s ever-present danger
As a player in MLS, Guillermo Barros Schelotto was a headache for any opponent. The former Boca Juniors man arrived at the Columbus Crew in 2007 and a year later led Columbus to their first MLS Cup title, earning MVP honors for his wizardry during the 2008 season when he scored seven goals and served up a whopping 19 assists.
Barros Schelotto could leave opposing defenses feeling helpless at times, a trait that he sees in Driussi.
“The feeling that is generated when one plays against Austin and Driussi is that he creates a very big worry,” said the former LA Galaxy head coach. “The performance of Driussi also has to do with the performance of the team. I was there in the stadium for the first game when they beat Cincinnati [5-0].
“I saw it live and I realized then the sensation that Driussi created when he got the ball in the area or near the area. He was a notable player who could impact the game with every move or action on the field.”
The 2022 MLS schedule has made it so that Moralez hasn’t had the opportunity to go up against Driussi and Austin FC, but the NYCFC midfield maestro has been following Driussi’s exploits from afar. Driussi’s ability to change speeds almost seamlessly within the tightest of confines leaves Moralez in wonder.
“He’s a very tactical player, with a lot of power,” said the 35-year-old playmaker. “He’s not a big No. 9 but rather knows how to manage his speed in very small spaces, but you can clearly see the quality that he has in front of goal. Is he the MVP? For me, yes. There are still a few games to go, but what he is doing is superb.”
A perfect fit
Valeri’s MVP season in 2017 saw him tally 21 goals and contribute 11 assists, numbers that align more with Driussi’s current campaign. The movement that he sees from Driussi playing within head coach Josh Wolff’s 4-3-3 system is what is separating him from the pack and evokes memories of Valeri’s exploits in Portland.
“What stands out is the crispness in how he moves on the field, how he finds those spaces and places where the opponent can’t find him,” Valeri said. “Any time that he touches the ball he tries to create a goalscoring chance. When I watch him, you can tell that he understands his teammates very well. He understands what the team needs from him, he knows how to find that numeric superiority at the right moment, because his role is very free and he can go wherever he wants.
“He's always up for playing, he always asks for the ball, he wants another chance, he wants to have the bulk of play, but always while complementing the team. He fits very well into that style,” elaborated the MLS Cup 2015 winner.
Credit is also due to Wolff for aiding Driussi’s transition into the league. It is widely accepted that even top players like Driussi require a period of time to adapt to the league. In that regard, Austin FC handled that process very well.
“I think in his first season, when he got there, it was a period of transition and getting to know the league,” said Barros Schelotto, who now coaches Paraguay’s national team. “I think the coach knew how to bring him along little by little, and I think he is one of the main reasons why Austin is having the season that it is having. He is definitely in the MVP debate.”
Next in line?
With the 2022 MLS season now in its stretch run, the MVP race seems to be down to Driussi and Mukhtar – two stars who meet again Saturday night at Q2 Stadium (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) in a rematch from the latter’s recent masterstroke performance in a 3-0 win at GEODIS Park. But there is no question that Driussi will be one of the finalists and a strong final push might be enough to tilt things in his favor.
There is a long history of success among Argentine players in MLS, but only three from the South American country have earned MVP honors: Valeri, Barros Schelotto and Christian Gomez with D.C. United in 2006.
It is all there for Driussi to become the fourth.