AUSTIN, Texas — The first time Josh Wolff joined a first-year team, it worked out quite well.
As a member of the expansion Chicago Fire in 1998, Wolff contributed to their debut double, bringing both an MLS Cup title and U.S. Open Cup victory to the Windy City. In the U.S. Open Cup final, he was particularly instrumental, drawing a penalty leading to the opening goal in the Fire's 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew.
He's hoping for similar success as the first head coach with Austin FC. It's Wolff's first head coaching job, coming after nearly eight years as an assistant coach, and he's excited to step in and teach as well as lead, even though opening kickoff in a still-to-be-built stadium is 20 months away.
"Building our culture is going to be about setting parameters, who we're going to be, what our identity looks like," Wolff said in an interview with MLSsoccer.com Tuesday. "As head coach, I'll be driving that home, with our staff living and breathing the culture that we're building.
"We want players that buy into that, who are receptive to that. We're going to play a way that's different than other people. I want players to be comfortable with that, but know they're going to challenge themselves. It's not going to be perfectly comfortable, we're not going to maybe have every single player that fits the system perfectly, but it's about us teaching and educating. And for me, that's what's most impactful."
Wolff sees the "different path" for Austin, stylistically, as being "more possession-based, being offensive, having balance while you're attacking." Other hallmarks of the Wolff style of play, as he sees it, will include "good spacing, good connection, and flexibility, flexibility in both your position on the field and your role, but also in your responsibilities."
While Wolff, as an assistant coach with Gregg Berhalter during five years with the Crew and currently with the US men's national team, has been in tune with Berhalter's system and way of approaching the game, he also wants to put his own stamp on the brand of soccer Austin FC will play.
"I don't shy away from that," Wolff says of learning from Berhalter. "There's a lot that I'm going to try to utilize and incorporate in Austin. But I also think, my understanding of the game and my evolution of being a coach ... is going to be on display."
Wolff's excited about the nascent Austin FC academy, and credits an evolving MLS academy system in making the national team better as well as elevating play throughout the league. He explained that the academy will have three youth levels in play by 2021, after starting with just an Under-14 team in September.
"When you look at some of these 21- and 22-year-olds that are now playing in MLS, I believe it has to do with being in good, strong academy-driven cultures," he said. He says it's key to have an "identifiable playing style reflective of the first team" as well as a good talent pool to draw from.
Though Wolff says he'll miss working with the national team after finishing up his time with the team at the end of the year, one of the key distinctions he draws between coaching an MLS side and an international outfit is how relatively little time a national coach gets with players.
And for Wolff, though first-year success is something he's like to recapture from his debut year with the Fire, he believes the measure of how well he does will go beyond just those first 34 matches.
"It's about building an organization, first and foremost," Wolff asserts. "Understanding what that's going to look like, how we build out our staff, how we build out our roster. And then, as that starts to take fruition, it's getting on the field and seeing what we have, seeing how the players are playing and seeing how quickly I can teach methods and certainly a style of play.
"But then, it's also being able to be flexible on the way, to make adjustments during the year, and have the ability to bring in players as needed. And if we do those things, well, we'll be in position to make a run in the playoffs. You want to be in that position; that's every team's goal at the start of the year is make the playoffs. For us, I think that that will ultimately be a goal, and then we'll see how the season goes."