AUSTIN, Texas — Tyson Wahl, named the Austin FC academy's general manager in January, is finally getting his opportunity to shape the future of the team.
Wahl led the Under-14 team assembled in May — the first players to wear the badge for the Austin franchise as they prepare for their 2021 MLS launch — through their first official practice on Thursday evening. It's the first phase in building an academy from the ground up. By Fall 2020, Austin FC will have three youth teams in its pyramid: The current squad which will graduate to the U-15 level, a new group of U-14s and a group of U-17s positioned as most likely to make the leap from academy to first team.
The 19-player squad, winnowed from a group of 52 aspiring academy players from 12 Central Texas clubs who tried out in the spring, will start U.S. Development Academy play in September. The plan is for Austin to represent at the Generation Adidas Cup in 2021 with U-15 and U-17 teams. The current squad will train four times a week and play a match a week in moving toward that goal — first in scrimmages, then against other DA squads.
Though Wahl will look to be competitive, noting that "it's important to learn how to win," he'll focus on teaching players and helping them develop. His approach centers on the concept of players becoming "problem solvers" on the field — being able to perceive in-game situations and know how to address them.
"It's about how to deal with being outnumbered and how do they create a numerical advantage," Wahl explained. "It's about how they find space playing three in the back, about how to play with two central midfielders when they're facing three central midfielders." He notes that this approach, admittedly cerebral, allows players to understand strategic tinkering they might see from, say, a national team coach like Gregg Berhalter who might invert fullbacks or otherwise attempt to innovate.
"What he's been talking about is the same thing I've been talking about since January," Wahl said of their similar philosophies. "We want to be possession-oriented, unbalance the opponent, be attack-minded and fun to watch. Those are really general concepts, and there's a lot of work that goes into making that happen. From the player development perspective, it's important that these kids know how to think through the game and have strong game insight."
Wahl, a 12-year MLS veteran whose career included three U.S. Open Cup wins between 2009 and 2011 in the Seattle Sounders' first years in MLS, and four title-contending years between 2013 and 2016 in Columbus, knew Wolff as both his teammate and his coach.
"I've known Josh for a long time," Wahl noted. "He's very competitive, he's very sharp, he's a quick thinker. And I think that the players will enjoy working for him and playing for him. He's very bright, and witty as well. I think we have a bright future with him leading the first team."
Wahl met Wolff during his rookie season at Kansas City in 2006, when, as Wahl puts it, "He was a World Cup player, and I was a role player. I had a good career, but [we were] entirely different players."
"I was trying to essentially fight for contract and prove my worth, and sometimes, it was matching up against Josh, because he was a starting forward," Wolff recalled. "So we competed on the field and got to know each other. It was fun to compete against him."
He noted that Wolff was particularly good at making intelligent runs and knowing which spaces to attack, which made him a challenge to defend, and which Wahl feels will translate well to how Wolff will coach attacking players.
Wahl notes that Wolff made him better, helping prepare him to face some of the best forwards to ever play in MLS, especially in the final stages of his playing career. With Columbus, he remembers going up the likes of Thierry Henry (who he described as "the total package, even slightly out of his prime"), Didier Drogba and David Villa.
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In particular, he noted that Villa "made intense and sharp runs; he worked tremendously hard for someone at his experience level. It was impressive to see his passion at an older age after he'd already proven himself."
Though Wolff sees the game through the eyes of an attacking player, Wahl notes that perspective helped tremendously in the coaching Wolff gave him.
"We had a lot of conversations because he typically did focus on the attackers and scouting the attackers, but that directly relates to the defenders, because he would know the type of forwards that we're playing against, and he would help me prepare against them." This included insights on a player's physical attributes, sometimes boiling down to "Is he a physical guy that you want to wrestle with?" or "He's way too strong for you; you shouldn't wrestle with him."
Wahl's excited to work with Central Texas players, and he's complimentary of the local clubs that have paved the way for the U-14 players to join the new academy.
"There are a lot of very good coaches here in Austin," he observed. "Austin attracts a lot of people who want to live here, so there are a lot of highly qualified coaches in the local market. Youth soccer is competitive, and at the end of the day, clubs are competing with one another, but we're all in the same world. At Austin FC, we don't see ourselves as competing with them, we see ourselves as working with them."