With just over a quarter of their sophomore season played, things are going pretty swimmingly for Austin FC.
The Verde currently sit in second place in both the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings with a 6W-1L-2D record, a 2.22 points-per-game pace that has them just two points back of league leaders LAFC as they prepare to host the LA Galaxy in Sunday’s nationally-televised clash at Q2 Stadium (7 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes). Sebastián Driussi leads both the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race and the early MVP prognosticating, and ATX have produced some of the league’s most aesthetically pleasing passages of play.
It’s a very different picture from just a few months ago, when Austin were weathering heavy criticism after their inaugural campaign ran aground. A 2W-11L swoon from late July to late September killed off their postseason hopes and led some fans to call for Josh Wolff’s job, as the first-year head coach felt the double-edged sword of the loyalty and media relevance the club experienced from day one.
“Success is a fine line,” Wolff told MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging one-on-one conversation last month. “I've seen a lot of friends that have gone through the coaching roller coaster. I was talking to Jesse [Marsch] the other day, Felipe was talking to him on the phone. I have a lot of friends that are coaching in the league, that are coaching abroad, and it's a journey. I don't think you're defined by one moment. This is a moment right now, and I'm trying to maximize that as much as I can, for as many people as I can.”
"Our fans are incredible"
Struggles like Austin’s last year are the rule, not the exception, for MLS expansion sides. The newcomers had to open with eight straight road games as Q2 was completed, and the injury woes and roster flaws exposed down the stretch were par for the course.
That offered precious little satisfaction for the raucous supporters who made the new venue a kaleidoscope of noise and passion, however, especially as Wolff doggedly stuck to his methodical system of possession-dominant positional play despite painful finishing woes.
“Our fans are incredible. There's no doubt about it,” he said. “I’ve said it many times: When people come to Q2, they see what that really means. On TV, I think you can see it, but being there, you can feel it, and it's awesome. In the community, they're incredible. With our players, they've been incredible. I’m a coach that takes some heat, but I also get some applause here and there as well. But that's just part of it.
“The most important thing is our guys, our team and the way that we're viewed and certainly our responsibility inside our community.”
Now, with the most goals scored (22) in the league after nine games, staying the course looks to have paid off.
“If you're getting chances and getting opportunities, and the guys that they’re falling to aren't able to take them, that starts to weigh. The inability to win, I think affected confidence in front of goal, but also the ability to kill off games, to win games,” Wolff recalled. “As we added in some quality, and even as we gained a little bit more confidence, some of those results could turn, or did turn, towards the end of the season.
“It puts us in a space this year that I think philosophically, the way we play and the ideas that we have, I think, are quite good. We’ve got to keep evolving and keep adapting and keep getting better. But from that side of it, I was pleased with a lot of what we could do in year one. But there still was, and still is, a lot of room to grow.”
A new generation
Having started and finished his playing days in MLS on either side of a sojourn in Germany, Wolff – who began his second career even before hanging up his cleats, as a player/coach with D.C. United in 2012 – recognizes the evolution that makes his current job a different animal from those who once managed him.
“The visibility of the sport now and the viability of the sport is also what's driving this,” he said. “We lived in a time where coaches, you got three, four years to kind of build and do things. Now owners want success, they're spending a lot of money and understandably so. It's starting to look like what you see around the world, and they want to see results, and they want to see sustainability, they want to see trophies.”
As he sees it, coaches now have little choice but to track how they and their teams are perceived by fans and media, what “narrative” takes shape around their projects, like it or not. Wolff discusses such topics with his players and staff, and noted a text conversation he recently had with Jimmy Conrad, a former teammate who now works as a pundit and content producer.
“When you see what happens to players, or people, in sport or out of sport, this cancel culture,” Wolff said, “the thirst for negativity and angst and division and hate is unparalleled today [compared to] it was in the past. And I think it's sad. We live in a world where mental health is being talked about and questioned all the time. And this leads to a lot of that – I mean, it's really, really challenging.
“These are players, they’re human beings and it's unfortunate. It's part of it, we have to be aware of it, but I don't think it should necessarily control how we talk to media, or certainly how we talk to our players. But you got to be aware of it. I think that's anything. Everyone has a platform these days. And they show you who they are and where their soul is, and where their spirit is, by the way they deliver things.”
Wolff, 45, carries plenty of labels considering his relative youth in the craft. He’s part of a breakthrough generation of retired MLS and US men’s national team standouts who’ve now become managers and executives. He’s arguably the first branch in the Gregg Berhalter coaching tree, having worked as an assistant to the USMNT boss with the national team and Columbus Crew before striking out on his own with Austin.
Being an MLS dad
And he also happens to be a pro soccer dad, with the oldest two of his four children both homegrown players: Tyler, 19, a striker for Atlanta United and Owen, 17, a midfielder for ATX who still lives at home with Josh, his wife Angela and younger siblings Gavin and Ella.
“They've been in this environment, they've seen this sport in this country, grow and develop. They've seen the good and the bad, that us as coaches talk about and see,” said Wolff. “As a father I stay in touch with them all the time, talking to Tyler, with texting, and when he plays and he doesn't play, knowing that that coach has his own ideas. I can be a support as a dad, but also as a coach to these guys as well.”
The long hours and constant travel of his profession forced Josh to miss out on big stretches of Tyler and Owen’s youth careers. While he worked with Columbus and the national team, they spent most of their time in Atlanta, where Josh grew up and still has extended family. The two boys developed different personalities along the way.
“Tyler, being candid, he would always say ‘I don't want to play for you,’” said Wolff. “He wants to achieve it because he's achieved it, and that's exactly what he went and did … He started playing with the [ATLUTD] academy, did really well and he earned some interest to go abroad and train and they were like, ‘let's just keep you here,’ and he signed a homegrown deal. But that's his personality. He's a grinder, he's a fighter.
“Owen was younger and needed us a little bit more. I think that's where these two kids are just quite different than even our younger two that we have at home. But they're both passionate about the game and understand that in order to achieve the things that they want, it's going to take work and it's going to take time.”
After stints in the Crew and ATLUTD academies, Owen became Austin’s first-ever homegrown last September. He’s had to bear the extra scrutiny of being the proverbial ‘coach’s son,’ though Wolff notes that the idea of signing Owen originated not with him but sporting director Claudio Reyna, who knows something about these matters as both a former star player and the father of USMNT and Borussia Dortmund prodigy Gio Reyna.
“Of course there's the angst of a son playing for his coach, and what that can look like perception-wise from the outside. And I've always talked to both our kids about that,” said Wolff. “I tell them openly, it's about playing, it's about performing, and you have the potential and you're going to have now the time to maximize and realize that potential. For young players, they have to play games, they have to get in to show the development, to keep developing. And that's going to be the challenge for Owen and for Tyler, whether I'm the coach or someone else is their coach.”
Owen has struck up a kinship with other young players like Danny Pereira, Zan Kolmanic and Damian Las – Josh has dubbed them the Brat Pack – as he finds his own path after the myriad sacrifices that have become typical for talented teenage prospects in the United States and Canada.
“He needs that interaction. It's an odd space. I don't think he's ever been in high school. He's been doing online schooling since he was in Atlanta,” noted Wolff. “He's been, like, completely out of the social world. And that's what I worry about most. So it's been nice to see him kind of get back into having some friends and certainly more interactions than just being around mom and dad.”
"I won’t put a ceiling on it"
As enjoyable as this spring has been for Wolff and the Verde, the coming weeks figure to reveal a great deal about their credentials as legitimate contenders. Sunday’s date with Chicharito & Co. opens a rugged May slate highlighted by visits to Real Salt Lake and LAFC, and a return date with the Galaxy.
It’s been widely noted that Austin’s early schedule was friendly, and Wolff knows their road form – they went 2W-13L-2D away from Q2 last year – will be “a real determining factor” to their aspirations. As will the productivity of Designated Players Driussi, Alex Ring and Cecilio Dominguez, the latter of whom just returned from a five-game suspension during a league investigation into possible off-field misconduct stemming from a report of a domestic dispute with his partner.
“If you make the playoffs in this league, you have a chance of winning trophies,” said Wolff. “We’ve got a lot of players that have great experience and character that help keep us in the right space.
“I won’t put a ceiling on it,” he added. “But first things first, we want to make the playoffs. And we want to play at home in the playoffs, so there's some things that we need to achieve in order to make that happen.”