Wiebe: Wolff makes sense for Austin FC, but GM hire just as crucial

Here’s what one player who played for Josh Wolff texted me after the US men’s national team assistant was named Austin FC’s first-ever head coach on Tuesday:

“Probably one of my favorite coaches ever. A great teacher of the game, great person off the field. He will be a coach that is about the details and will be loved by the locker room.”

That’s close to consensus among the folks I spoke to this week, and it helps explain why Wolff is one of the brightest rising stars in the US coaching ranks. The best managers – yours, mine or a professional athlete’s – are, above all, effective teachers and communicators. Bonus points for being likable. Those traits ought to come in handy as Austin build a club from the ground up.

That’s basically what I would write if this column was just about Josh Wolff, who I think is a good and logical hire for Anthony Precourt and Austin FC. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, and Precourt knows Wolff better than any coach not named Gregg Berhalter, who, remember, he also took a chance on, to great success in Columbus.

It’s a natural succession and comfortable gamble for Austin FC.

Anthony Precourt, Josh Wolff and Andy Loughnane | Austin FC

Same goes for Wolff, who had the opportunity to choose where and when he would push his chips all in and take a head coaching job. The 42-year-old could have bided his time with the national team while he waited for the right fit. He didn’t wait long. His first shot at the job will come with an owner fully invested in his success and an opportunity to create a soccer environment from scratch.

Like I said, good and logical hire, but not one without risk, which is what this column is about.

“There’s always a risk, whether we hire Tata Martino or Josh Wolff,” Precourt told the Austin American-Statesman. “You don’t know the person until you work together, and we happen to know Josh very well. I think we’ve de-risked the situation a great deal. We know what we’re getting. We’re a new club and, we think, hiring one of the rising stars in MLS. I might equate it to something like the LA Rams [in the NFL] hiring Sean McVay.”

Tata Martino. Sean McVay. That’s darn good company, and I agree that Austin FC have de-risked the situation considerably given that Wolff’s five seasons with the Crew were basically an extended tryout. Precourt is right. There’s risk in every hire.

Still, Austin are clearly going against the grain of recent expansion hires in hiring a first-time professional head coach*. And more importantly, against the grain of objectively successful expansion hires, of which I count four (five if you count Dominic Kinnear as a “hire”) from 16 since the expansion era kicked off back in 2005: Bob Bradley, Tata Martino, Sigi Schmid and Frank Yallop, to a lesser extent.

In case you’re interested…

  • FC Cincinnati (2019) – Alan Koch (dismissed after 11 games w/ 2-7-2 record)
  • LAFC (2018) – Bob Bradley (30-12-13 record, made playoffs in Year 1 and Supporters’ Shield leaders in Year 2)
  • Atlanta United (2017) – Tata Martino (36-16-16 record, won MLS Cup in Year 2)
  • Minnesota United (2017) – Adrian Heath (31-45-13 record, 0/2 playoffs appearances)
  • New York City FC (2015) – Jason Kreis (dismissed after one season w/ 10-17-7 record)
  • Orlando City SC (2015) – Adrian Heath (dismissed in second season w/ 16-18-16 record, 0/1 playoffs appearances)
  • Montreal Impact (2012) – Jesse Marsch* (dismissed after one season w/ 12-16-6 record)
  • Vancouver Whitecaps (2011) – Teitur Thordarson (dismissed after 12 games w/ 1-5-6 record)
  • Portland Timbers (2011) – John Spencer* (dismissed in second season w/ 16-22-13 record)
  • Philadelphia Union (2010) – Peter Nowak (dismissed in third season w/ 21-30-24 record)
  • Seattle Sounders (2009) – Sigi Schmid (dismissed during eighth season w/ 115-79-56 record, 7/7 playoffs app, Supporters Shield, 4x US Open Cup winner)
  • San Jose Earthquakes (2008) – Frank Yallop (dismissed during sixth season w/ 58-61-54 record, 2/5 playoffs app, Supporters’ Shield)
  • Toronto FC (2007) – Mo Johnston (dismissed after one season w/ 6-17-7 record)
  • Houston Dynamo (2006) – Dominic Kinnear (dismissed after nine seasons w/ 112-90-86 record, 7/9 playoffs app, 2x MLS Cup winner)
  • Real Salt Lake (2005) – John Ellinger* (dismissed during 3rd season w/ 15-37-16 record)
  • Chivas USA (2005) – Thomas Rongen (dismissed after 10 games w/ 1-8-1 record)

Reading through that list is a stark reminder that these things often don’t work out, no matter how experienced the coach. And to be clear, while there’s risk in hiring Wolff, I think the bigger risk – the tipping point between success, respectability and failure for Austin FC’s first few years in MLS – will come in the next 15 months and the next soccer hire.

That’s because, in some ways, Austin put the cart before the horse in hiring a head coach before a general manager, technical director, sporting director or whatever they’ll call the person who will eventually be the top soccer executive at the club. A person, I assume, that would have preferred to hire – or at the very least influence the hire – of the club’s first head coach.

“Some of the GM candidates we’re talking to knew we were likely to hire Josh and think that’s an attractive aspect to the opportunity,” Precourt told the American-Statesman. “He’s a coach our GM candidates would like to work with. He’s a rising star in MLS. He’s a young, bright coach that is on a lot of teams’ radars. I think he’s actually an asset as it relates to bringing in the right GM.”

Matching the GM to the coach is a bit unconventional. The right GM will be one who can work well with Wolff. And Wolff’s success, meanwhile, will hinge on the quality and depth of the squad that the GM is able to build in what is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the club.

That’s because the real, demonstrable risk for Austin FC is failing to take advantage of the blank slate offered to expansion teams.

Wolff with Federico Higuain in Columbus | USA Today Sports Images

2021 is a long way away. There’s more than a year to scout and build a squad with no games, no distractions. Austin will have a treasure trove of allocation money to play with and a new set of rules. They’ll have three open Designated Player slots. They won’t have any bad contracts weighing them down.

They’ve got to get this right.

What do Bradley, Martino and Schmid have in common? They all had decades of coaching experience and their front offices, with their help, hit on the big signings, built depth and quality throughout the squad and matched the players to their coach’s personality and vision. They laid solid foundations, and sustained success followed.

What do Koch, Heath, Kreis and so many other head coaches on the list above have in common? Poor squad construction led FC Cincinnati, Minnesota, Orlando and New York City FC, among others, to hit the reset button less than two years into their respective projects. Ask their supporters what those growing pains feel like.

Wolff won’t be Koch, out after 11 games. He almost certainly won’t be Martino, either. He’ll be himself and he’ll help plenty with squad construction – he’s responsible for scouting Concacaf in his current post with the USMNT – but he can’t do it alone, especially in his first go-round in the top job.

I think he’s a good and logical hire. Now Austin FC have to make another one.

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