National Writer: Charles Boehm

Texas tiff: Austin, Dallas renew hostilities in high-stakes playoff showdown


Austin FC and their fans believe they’ve been doubted and disrespected – on this website and elsewhere – before and during their breakout 2022 season.

Veteran midfielder Felipe has been particularly vocal about this on Twitter. And a few weeks ago we learned that back in February, head coach Josh Wolff went so far as to enlarge and print out’s preseason predictions to underline to his team how they’re perceived – an image that Verde supporters picked up and ran with as their team survived their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Round One encounter with Real Salt Lake, with custom t-shirts and all.

“It was an illustration of what we were thought of,” explained Wolff of his preseason gambit in a press conference on Thursday. “It was just showing and illustrating what we were looking at, how we're viewed by the league, maybe by players in the league, by pundits in the league. It was just an initial, I think, stance and a reminder to our guys: We got a lot to prove. And the way you prove that is consistency, is going out and getting results and earning respect. And I think our guys have done that."

A little respect goes a long way

Ask ATX’s Conference Semifinal opponents FC Dallas about the ‘no one believes in us’ line of thinking, and you’ll hear a somewhat different point of view.

“Well, I think they had more press and more attention than us throughout the season, to be honest,” said FCD head coach Nico Estevez on Thursday. “And even this past week, it was a couple articles talking about all the playoff teams and didn't even mention us.

“Right now, probably they [Austin] are using that as a motivation.”

A founding MLS club who’ve gone through a rebrand, three home venues around the Metroplex and myriad other ups and downs over the past quarter-century, Dallas know something about being overlooked, maybe to a far greater extent than the new kids on the block down I-35 can conceive.

“I think they Austin\] have done enough to be respected. They had a good year,” said FCD midfielder [Sebastian Lletget, who joined the club via an August trade with New England and thus missed out on the previous Dallas-Austin duels. “I did watch the games where Dallas and Austin played against each other, and I thought it was an honest battle. They’re two similar styles, two coaches who see the game in a similar way. I think it’s going to be a chess match, that's probably the best way I can describe it. When you put that playoff intensity into it, this is going to be another beast.

“The only thing that matters is winning on Sunday.”

A budding rivalry

The question of respect is just one of several intriguing plotlines as the two Texas clubs count down to Sunday’s clash at Q2 Stadium (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), their sixth all-time meeting and by far the weightiest, with a trip to the Western Conference Final on the line.

All parties readily recognize that true rivalries can’t be microwaved into meaning. And Austin have been respectful of the existing Texas Derby between FCD and the Houston Dynamo, a heated affair with 17 years of history and a replica 18th-century mountain howitzer cannon dubbed “El Capitán” behind it.

Yet high stakes tend to elevate things more than any other factor. And somewhat incredibly, Houston and Dallas have met just twice in the postseason in their history, a two-legged 2007 Conference Semifinal that the Dynamo won in extra time en route to their second straight MLS Cup championship.

Add in the context that Austin have been expansion darlings since last year’s launch, with a routinely packed stadium, levels of pop-culture relevance that have often eluded their older Texas counterparts and a fanbase happy to lord all that over their opposite numbers. Earlier this season they hoisted the Copa Tejas, a newer prize contested by all three Texas MLS sides, with corresponding hardware for the state’s lower-division clubs, an honor they wrestled away from FCD.

“Usually these rivalries are coming from time,” said Estevez, “but also fighting for winning something, right?

“As FC Dallas and Austin have these type of games like we will have on Sunday, this rivalry will grow and grow. We can see right now that it is growing and is there and everyone feels it from the games that we've played this year. But as soon as we play these type of games, I'm pretty sure that both sides, fans, players or staff, they will get into that regularly.”

Then consider that while lower-seeded Dallas are the underdogs on paper this weekend, they’ve yet to lose to ATX (3W-0L-2D), and you have the makings of something more explosive. Austin’s decision this week to bar FCD’s traveling supporters from bringing their drums into Q2 proved another tetchy flashpoint along those lines. Some observers are ready to christen this increasingly ill-tempered North Texas-Central Texas matchup with its own moniker – Brazos Cup, perhaps?

“I mean, it’s a young rivalry, right? Two years,” said ATXFC captain Alex Ring on Thursday. “But yeah, games like these, the games we've had this year against them, those will fuel the rivalry, 100 percent. I think the fans are really into it already, so yeah, a derby’s always a derby.”

Estevez, who worked alongside Wolff on Gregg Berhalter’s US men’s national team staff before taking the reins in Frisco last winter, isn’t playing the ‘no one believes in us’ card so much as reminding his squad that a victory on primetime national television on Sunday is the fastest way to put their own project on the map.

“If we want people to look at us and talk about us, we have to do better,” said the Spaniard. “If we do better and we do big things, then people will start talking about us. We try to focus on ourselves, we try to be better every single day, don't put limits [on ourselves], and this is our motivation as a group.

“To [have] people talk [about] you, you have to do big things. And then this game against Austin, it could help us to give this next step, where OK, it is no more a surprise team, it's this team is going forward.”