AUSTIN — By this time next year, Austin FC will be preparing to send its newly-assembled squad into training camp for its inaugural season. Determining just who that team will be will largely fall to sporting director Claudio Reyna and head coach Josh Wolff, who have only been in the same office together for a few weeks, but are already resuming the bond they had as teammates on the US men’s national team.
“I think from a soccer standpoint, philosophically, Claudio and I see the game and talk about the game in a very similar way,” Wolff told MLSsoccer.com. “That's obviously a strength within the relationship, in identifying players that can come in and play within our style of play.”
They acknowledge there’s a lot of work to do, starting with hiring a scouting director in the next six weeks and building that network. But they’re also excited about utilizing the various mechanisms available, including the expansion draft and MLS SuperDraft, to get a team together.
“I’m a big believer in it,” Reyna said of the SuperDraft, noting both he and Wolff developed as college players before becoming pro. “While times have changed in the player development pathway, there’s no doubt there are good players there. If you look through most MLS rosters, there are players that are significantly contributing to teams that have gone to college.”
Though much of the team will be assembled by next January, Reyna notes this can be a critical month for signing players — evinced by the LA Galaxy's pursuit of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez earlier this week.
“The January transfer window sometimes accelerates some of the clubs and MLS to go out and try to get a deal done,” Reyna said. “Someone like him is very attractive. I think it would be a great signing. He’s got a lot of soccer still left in him, and he would bring a lot of star power to the league.”
While Reyna and Wolff would be open to bringing in a Designated Player earlier in the year and loaning him out, it’s more likely that they’ll begin signing players in the second half of 2020, with opinions from their scouting team, the data they’ll assemble on individual players, and even changes that might come about with a new CBA figuring into the decision. While Reyna says they’ll lean toward offense in evaluating which DPs will help define Austin FC, they’re open to who might be out there.
“In a perfect world, if you get your three DPs and you can get 30 goals and 20 assists from them, it's a good starting point,” he said. “But if there's a box-to-box midfielder or a holding midfielder who’s really interesting and that makes sense, and if we both agree he could have a big influence on the team, we would explore that.”
“As the league has proven many times,” he added, “spending the most money doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.” Both are keen on developing what Reyna calls “a player development culture where players come in and get better at all ages.”
With Austin FC’s fledgling academy likely a few years away from graduating players to the first team, Reyna is especially interested in growing the value of up-and-coming players who can make the leap from MLS to top Liga MX or European teams.
Wolff added: “There's nothing more exciting than getting your hands on talent, helping develop it, and that talent flourishing.”
They’re also looking for players with good conditioning, to deal with Austin’s summer heat, and flexibility to play multiple positions in a system where both defensive and offensive formations may be fluid. Reyna points to four players in particular from his NYCFC tenure — Heber, Ronald Matarrita, Maxi Moralez and Anton Tinnerholm — as players who could slot into different roles and create different looks.
“Heber was a player, in the year leading up to when we brought him in [from Croatian team HNK Rijeka], who was predominantly a winger,” Reyna recalled. “Through asking questions and seeing his qualities, we also felt he can play as a No. 9. It was actually sort of his preferred position.”
While a lot of the talented young players in the US U-20 and U-23 pool have commitments to other clubs, Reyna and Wolff are certainly cognizant of the talent present there, and believe Austin FC will have a role in contributing to the national team.
“There will be a lot of pride, not just us, but for our fans, when a player from Austin — and it will happen — plays for the national team,” Reyna said. “It’ll be another first.”
At the end of the day, their mantra will simply be, as Wolff puts it: “Be thorough.”
“We want to have a process, we want to be making good decisions, we want to be using a lot of filters,” he noted. “Obviously, our last eyes are most important, but you're bringing 25 to 30 players in, it's very specific as far as where you're going to get some of those players, and we just have to be very measured and educated about what we're doing. For us, that'll be the process that we establish over the next couple months … but we’re as excited in that process as possible.”