After proving their doubters wrong with a scintillating 2022 MLS season, Austin FC have so far slowed down in 2023, underperforming their lofty expectations with an early Concacaf Champions League exit to Haiti’s Violette AC and a 2W-2L-0D record in league play.
Their most recent disappointment was a 2-0 loss at previously-winless Houston Dynamo FC, a bitter result to take against an in-state rival.
After the match, head coach Josh Wolff aired his frustrations, challenging numerous players by name to raise their level. That list included high-profile attackers Diego Fagundez, Emiliano Rigoni and Gyasi Zardes.
“It falls on the responsibilities of everyone, but Sebastián Driussi can't be the only guy that scores for us,” said Wolff. “So we have to have more contributions, and guys need to be honest with themselves. There's some performances that are poor; there's some efforts that are poor.”
With Wolff’s strong critique setting the stage for a gut-check home matchup against the last-place Colorado Rapids this Saturday (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), the Extratime crew debated the true cause for the team's slow start.
What's gone wrong for Austin FC?
As a former player with an 11-year pro career and over 100 caps for the Canadian women’s national team, Kaylyn Kyle’s first thought went to the locker room and the potential knock-on disturbance of starting 18-year-old homegrown Owen Wolff in central midfield over last year’s captain, Alexander Ring, back in Matchday 1.
“I mean, sitting your captain that has never really done wrong for the club, wasn't playing bad football and then putting him in a center back role, you can't be happy with that,” speculated Kyle about Ring's state of mind.
Though the Finnish midfielder has since returned to the lineup as a center back due to multiple injuries at the position, Kyle believes the consolation minutes may ring hollow for the veteran leader: “Yes, you're still on the pitch now, but you're on the pitch because of an injury.”
Kyle acknowledged the younger Wolff, whose father is the coach of the team, has proven his minutes were deserved through strong overall play and a stunning Matchday 3 golazo.
She also believes the club will ultimately right the ship, but the decision to start Wolff over Ring “does have a rippling effect in a club.”
Beyond Ring’s diminishing role on the team, Kyle questioned the timing of the head coach Wolff's harsh rebuke of his team’s performance, explaining, “As a player, I get it. You need to have a little bit of bark, but this team is down at the moment. They also need a little bit of nurturing as well.”
Poor depth or unlucky injuries?
For all of Austin’s attacking woes, it’s the backline who gave up three goals to expansion side St. Louis CITY SC, three goals to underdogs Violette AC and two goals to the new-look Dynamo (one goal through their first two matches) that sparked a true debate within the Extratime crew.
Andrew Wiebe and Tom Bogert both point to poor depth as the key issue; David Gass and Kyle point to injuries, noting how few clubs in the league are adequately prepared for two senior-level center backs to go down – in Austin’s case, Julio Cascante and Amro Tarek.
“If Alex Ring is playing center back, that's an issue,” said Bogert. “That's a failure of a roster build right now. Like, I'm not sure that's going to get better. And they're going to score goals, sure … but you can't pick up enough points without a better defense.”
For Gass, the struggle to find adequate replacements deep on the depth chart is not unique to Austin.
“Who is the fourth center back on Seattle? Who is the third center back on Dallas? Who is the third center back on Minnesota?” the Extratime regular asked rhetorically.
Whether or not defensive struggles can be chalked up to poor depth or bad injury luck, Austin FC haven't wasted time taking action. On Wednesday, they signed center back Aleksandar Radovanović on loan from Belgian top-flight side KV Kortrijk through June 30 with a purchase option.
But now the question remains: Will that signing deliver? Based on the uneven returns of acquisitions like Rigoni, Zardes and Rodney Redes, the answer remains to be seen.
What’s more certain is with higher expectations than ever, pressure continues to ramp up for Austin FC, not just to impress in the regular season, but to compete for trophies in the biggest knockout tournaments.
“The key for them is to show they could win in knockout competitions,” said Gass. “They did it in the playoffs last year, so to come back and lose in CCL is so much bigger for them because I don't think it was about Supporters’ Shield this year. I think it was about legitimately being a Leagues Cup and MLS Cup contender.”
For more MLS Matchday 4 analysis, check out the full Extratime episode on MLS Season Pass.