As the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Austin FC's debut campaign in MLS served as a timely reminder: Expansion seasons are not easy!
They spent money, they made a number of smart signings (both domestic and international) and had the infrastructure in place with plenty of time ahead of their ramp-up. Still, they'll finish far below the playoff line and will approach Decision Day fighting to not be bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Atlanta United, LAFC and Nashville SC joined MLS and demonstrated success immediately from day one in recent years. Austin didn't reach those heights, but at least they didn't quite find the depths of FC Cincinnati, Minnesota United FC or Inter Miami CF from the jump. They were somewhere in the middle. And that's normal.
Austin have plenty of building blocks off the field, including a beautiful new venue (Q2 Stadium), rabid fan base and huge waiting list for season tickets. They head into the offseason looking to put the final touches on a team that could make some noise on the field, too.
This question is particularly unfair – Sebastian Driussi was not on the market until late in the summer. Moussa Djitte was not being offered until his domestic campaign wrapped up, either. But Austin have looked like a different team with their two key summer signings.
In five games with both Djitte and Driussi in the starting XI, Austin averaged 1.4 goals per game. It's a sample size, but the eye-test suggested all season they needed a striker and it's pretty clear to see Driussi and Djitte's quality. Even in the 12 games that only Driussi started, Austin have averaged 1.3 goals per game, compared to 0.7 without him.
We've seen too many DP signings go wrong to shrug our shoulders and just say "sign anyone." And Nashville laid out a model of deliberately holding assets and flexibility for the summer window of their expansion season, to not be stuck if things didn't go according to plan. They wanted that option to assess where their final DP spot would be best utilized, something sporting director Claudio Reyna chose to emulate.
Cynics may point out that determining Austin's needs should have been simple after heading into the spring with Danny Hoesen and Aaron Schoenfeld as the club's only two natural center forwards. Hoesen played five ineffective games before suffering a season-ending hip injury. Schoenfeld never got on the field due to injuries of his own.
Early in the season, Austin struggled in attack. They were fine defensively, thanks in part to Brad Stuver playing at Goalkeeper of the Year form for a while.
A young coach getting his first taste of being a head coach in MLS, Wolff experienced his ups and downs in Year 1. His game model was deliberate and distinct.
Wolff's first season will end without a playoff push, but it came with the normal ups and downs.
“We’ve hit, certainly, a path and a pattern here that’s been difficult to overcome, difficult to come out of,” Wolff told media in a virtual press conference in September. “There has been a lot of good. We’ve certainly had some adversity along the way, with being on the road, certainly some injuries – key injuries. And again, those are part and parcel, those are adversities that you’re going to face as a team. And I think a little more so because we are a new team. We don’t have the depth there built out yet. But that’s what we recognize we’ve got to continue to build and layer in because I think our identity, the way that we play and certainly the emotion that our guys consistently show, barring a few poor performances, has been pretty good.”
Wolff arrived in Austin with a strong résumé, including serving as an assistant under Gregg Berhalter in Columbus and with the national team. What will Year 2 have in store?