0730 ATX Sider (1)

Austin FC gave the rest of MLS yet another demonstration of their drastic year-two turnaround Saturday night, surviving a strange and difficult visit to Sporting Kansas City to bag their league-leading eighth away victory and keep pace in what’s shaping up as a very tasty Supporters’ Shield race.

En route, their leading light reminded everyone why he’s leading another contest or two: the hunts for the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi and the Landon Donovan MLS MVP trophy.

Sebastian Driussi capped another lively display by scoring ATX’s late clincher in the 2-0 win at Children’s Mercy Park to run his season total to 14 goals, pulling one ahead of the midfielder’s nearest active pursuer, FC Cincinnati striker Brandon Vazquez.

“He continues to demonstrate why he deserves that,” said Austin head coach Josh Wolff of his prized Designated Player postgame. “And within our team, what I like is now his understanding inside our game model, how he can continue to affect the game. Teams want to take away our [No.] 10s, they want to prevent the pockets, we have to have other ways of getting the ball to him, we also have other ways of getting him on the ball.

“I thought his mobility to get on the ball, coming low or going wide. Him and Diego \[Fagundez\], they have had some excellent combinations out wide, interchanging positionally and looking for some of our wing progressions; unlucky to not get probably a second goal for him tonight, but extremely impactful for our group. The guys around them have to help him and in turn, Sebastian makes players around him better – his intensity, his responsibility, his maturity is always on display, the team is always most important to him and he’s a great human being.”

Driussi arrived in central Texas almost exactly a year ago from Russia’s Zenit Saint Petersburg, joining a new club laboring through some of the darkest days of their frustrating inaugural season. The picture is dramatically different today, and while Wolff took care to note the other changes that have fueled this turnaround, the Verde’s real X factor is clear for anyone to see: The smiling Argentine attacker in the No. 7 kit.

“He’s a special player,” goalkeeper Brad Stuver said of Driussi postgame. “I mean, his attitude is contagious. His work ethic on the field is something to admire. He’s such a talented player and you would never know it speaking to him, he’s so humble. He is probably one of the hardest working players on our team and he makes us better and he makes the players around him better.”

Stuver’s heroics

Stuver played a massive role of his own with a save of Daniel Salloi’s 62nd-minute penalty kick, a priceless opportunity to level the match at 1-1 that the luckless Midwesterners spurned, leaving them languishing at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. It’s Stuver’s fourth save in his eight career PK takes.

As painful and infuriating as all that was for a Sporting squad that had lost a marathon US Open Cup semifinal on penalty kicks just three days before to USL Championship side Sacramento Republic, their visitors were resilient and resourceful in a manner that was foreign to them in 2021.

“This team, we just keep finding ways to win,” Stuver said of their second-place (West) bunch. “We keep finding ways on the road to win, which is huge and it makes a playoff push, it makes a top of the West push, a lot easier.”

Road warriors

Austin are now 8W-3L-2D on the road in league play in 2022, a level of success on their travels that only New England and Seattle reached in all of last season.

“We've certainly added some players, some character, some experience, some leadership,” said Wolff. “We've also really tried to build the chemistry and set our group this year by doing things in training, before we're training and allowing these guys to come together post-training or on their own.

“When games are tough, I think that's when you see that camaraderie and that resiliency. The response tonight, again, after a difficult game last week where we lost 4-3 at home to the [New York Red Bulls], it's always going to be about the response and the urgency and the purposefulness when you come on the road. I was really pleased with our guys’ discipline and the ability to execute.”

No one, not even explosive LAFC, has scored as many goals as Austin’s 47 goals to date this season, and their growing stack of statement-type results has underlined the legitimacy of their Shield and MLS Cup hopes alike.

“I'm really pleased with the maturity of the group, again, going on the road,” said Wolff, hailing “the calm and the professionalism that the guys maintained” under pressure. “We talk about what's made us good on the road, being tough to play against, tough to break down. We created a number of chances tonight, to only grab two was disappointing.”

Austin are among a small pack of teams with serious Shield aspirations; they're just four points off the pace set by leaders LAFC, with Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia and New York City FC also in the reckoning as the campaign enters its final third. The Texans will aim for another three points when San Jose visit Q2 Stadium next Saturday (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).