Austin FC lost its first regular season game to a heavily favored LAFC side 2-0, but delivered a much more impressive and hope-inducing performance than expected.
The 27th team in the league’s 26th season of operations ceded little ground in the first half of their existence, going blow-for-blow with the MLS Cup favorites. Early contention turned into second-half defensive errors, however, as fatigue and a lack of cohesion set in for the Black and Verde.
Corey Baird scored on his first LAFC start after his shot deflected off a defender, past ATXFC goalkeeper Brad Stuver’s reach and into the net in the 61st minute. Austin looked shakier and shakier as the game went on, the backline unable to play out of their own side of the pitch and past the LAFC press for long stretches of the game.
An injury to Eduard Atuesta with four minutes remaining in regulation, and no substitutions, left LAFC with 10 men, a golden opportunity for Austin FC — almost seized during a few chances in the last 10 minutes of the game. LAFC would dash any hope of a comeback after an errant clearance — one of several for the backline — met a pressing Kwadwo Opoku, who passed it to an open José Cifuentes for an almost open net goal and the 2-0 final score.
Head Coach Josh Wolff and goalkeeper Brad Stuver spoke on several aspects of the debut and what could be improved upon during a post-game presser on Zoom.
Austin FC Head Coach Josh Wolff
On whether he’s happy with what he saw on the field:
“I think there’s a lot of moments in the game that we’re gonna find were pleasing,[…] We could get a little bit more clarity as to what we’re trying to get, what we’re trying to achieve when we’re either getting closer to the end line or crossing, and just do a better job of creating more chances – but there’s a lot to work on as well, and I think that’s just part of the process.
“Where we are in six, seven weeks, you can’t address everything with the detail that’s needed, but I think there were moments out there that our guys felt well and were positioned in. We were able to move through LAFC in a pretty competent way, and then it’s about scoring goals which at times can be the most challenging, but today we weren’t able to get one, but we had a number of really good chances.
“I think the goalie had a good day as well, made some good saves. We’ll continue to work on it, need to create more chances and that’s something we’ll see this week.”
His assessment on the performance of Austin FC’s two designated players, Cecilio Domínguez and Tomás Pochettino:
“[I think] they’re both new to the league. Obviously, they played at high levels, they played for extremely, extremely good teams around South America and in Mexico, and for us it was good to get them out to see what our league is like, […] how they can push the tempo and what they try to achieve.
“Offensively, I thought they both had good moments. Tomás [Pochettino] was probably a little unlucky to not get a goal there in the first half. Part of Tomás is he moves around a lot, him trying to find the game. We just have to find the right balance around him, because when he does that, we can lose a little bit of our organization, and I think that happened a little bit today in the first half.
“Cecilio [Domínguez] plays his heart out, plays with a lot of personality, character, and I think he did a good job of mixing up coming inside but also getting behind the line. He had some good moments and we gotta find better opportunities to give these guys more goalscoring chances.”
Did he and LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley say anything to each other?:
“Not much, it was just small hellos. Obviously, we’ve known each other for a long time. I’ve known a lot of that staff, with Ante Razov and Mike Sorber […] They’re all friends, they’re all, at some point, former colleagues and former teammates, but Bob was Bob. Focused on the games, focused on his teams, his players, not a ton of small talk. That’s fine, I understand where he’s coming from.”
Whether Carlos Vela’s accidental substitution in the 22nd minute changed the game plan:
“I mean, clearly, when he is out there and [Diego] Rossi out [you’re] certainly more conscious of the balance while [they’re] attacking. [It] will take a little bit less offensive posture when we had the ball, so we have fullbacks pinched in a little bit, just to make sure we had some cover in the back because those guys can transition, and they’re extremely good. […] We also got a little bit further advanced with our fullbacks and our wingers getting in different spots. So, that probably led to it.
“Well, we could have done much better. I think, again, he’s a quality player and for him to be missing, we probably could have maximized that a little bit more from an offensive standpoint, but they’re a good team. There’s still a good team without Vela. They’re well-coached, and they perform well today.”
On coaching his first MLS game and leading the franchise into its first match:
“It’s exciting. You get into a bit of your own little game mode in your head., so you get pretty dialed in on communicating to the players and staying focused on what’s at hand so you don’t get caught up with the moment and kind of what it really is because it is an exciting moment. The first time this team is playing a game in its existence, it’s on national TV, and we have a number of new players to our league.
“It was exciting for a lot of reasons. And obviously, the results didn’t go our way, but hopefully, there’s some quality in there that makes the fans excited, and we’ll continue to get better. We’re young in our existence, but we have big ambitions and we’re hungry to improve. we will push that certainly this coming week and the many weeks that lie ahead.”
On Daniel Pereira’s performance:
“I think Danny did well. I think again, it’s a difficult game in the middle of the field there where they had [Latif] Blessing, and [Mark-Anthony] Kaye and [Eduard] Atuesta, so for him to feel that and see that is important for him. I think it’ll show him what this league is about, some of the things that he’s going to need to continue to improve on, but Danny’s a good player. He’s good on the ball, he accelerates well with it.
“But the reality is, in there, you got to be extremely aware of your position, extremely aware of your surroundings. And there were moments where I think he got caught, he also fatigued which is expected. But again, I thought Danny, for his first experience in MLS and against a team like LAFC, I thought Danny did pretty well.”
Austin FC Goalkeeper Brad Stuver
On the goals and the result:
“[We] got a bit unlucky on both of those goals, with a deflection and just kinda wonky play on the second one. Happy that we [made] history, this is the first game, but I honestly think that we can walk away [with the points], and I think that’s the most disappointing thing.”
What were his and the team’s emotions during the game, and did they appreciate the moment?:
“I think everyone was excited. I think everyone was a little nervous. We’re here to play soccer games, once you step out into the field everything just fades into the background and you just get to do what you’ve been training to do. Leading up to the game, I think we all took a moment to realize how special this was. This team is two years in the making for [the owners]. They’ve been working on this project for so long, and getting out on the field and playing an actual game that matters is truly special. We’ll take that home. But at the end of the day, we want to win. At the end of the day, we want to make playoffs. That’s our goal, every day that’s our mindset”
On who started in goal:
“So we had some communication with the coaching staff late this week about who’s going to be the starter this week, but I think Josh has touched on it before. Andrew’s [Tarbell] an experienced goalkeeper, and he’s a great goalkeeper, and the competition continues. Just because I got this game, it is my job now to continue playing well and to start getting results.
“I mean, ultimately, my job security comes from my performances, but it also comes from a team collective, on getting results on the field. I’m happy that I got the first opportunity to do that. And as we continue on here, I continue to work as hard as possible to make sure that I’m on the field every game and to make that choice easy on the coaching staff. But I know Andrew is going to be right on my heels chomping at the bit to get in goal as well because we both want to help this team, and we both want to win trophies.”
On the squad’s mentality:
“[W]e don’t have a mentality that this is the first year of our club. We have the mentality that we have experienced players that have all won games and won championships, and we all came here for a reason. We play a distinct style, and I think you guys saw that today. We played extremely well. I don’t think LA played us off the field. They got a little bit of luck on the two goals. We missed four or five chances that went off-frame and Pablo [Sisniega] made a couple good saves.
“So, I think the overall tone in the locker room is we went toe to toe with LAFC, who a lot of MLS pundits think are going to win the MLS Cup this year. I mean, we put in a 90-minute shift where we feel disappointed to give up two goals and to go away without any points. That’s the mentality that we’re going to have every game. We think that we can go toe to toe with any team in this league and come away with points.”
On the traveling fans and support during their first game:
“The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium outside. And then during warm-up, you can just look around, and you saw different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium, all with their jerseys and their scarves. It’s just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. I was texting with my wife a little bit back in Austin, and she said that she was walking around, and she saw a Black and Verde everywhere. So it’s amazing the support that we have. And we know that we want to give the fans everything because we play for the city and we played for them.”
On what can be improved and the valuable experience gained:
“I think we missed some simple passes, we were a little bit sloppy. Sometimes we were taking too many touches when we can just play one-two time. Defensively, we didn’t really get broken down too much, but sometimes we were letting too many passes go through the midfield core to get to guys in the pockets. That’s something that we can work on stay tighter. But overall, it’s a great learning experience for a lot of these guys. I know like [Pereira] this is his MLS debut, and he’s just gotta learn with every minute that he plays. [Jhohan Romaña’s] brand new to the league, [Pochettino, Domínguez]. These guys are brand new, and I think they’ll get more comfortable as we go, and they’ll see just how quick we need to play.”
On communication between him and the backline and the goals:
“Yeah, the communication was good, credit to LAFC fans for making it a very loud environment, so it was very difficult to hear over them. But I think we have a good group. Myself, [Matt Besler, Nick Lima, Ben Sweat] that we’ve all been learning some Spanish commands so that we can use them on the field to help Romaña, [Rodney Redes], Cecilio and Poche, them telling us what works for them, and we try and switch back and forth between English and Spanish so that we’re all on the same page at the same time.
“I think the goals are just unlucky. The first one is a ball across the eighteen [yard box], and Nick goes on to confront Corey Baird, and Corey just kind of mis-hits into Nick’s leg and it deflects to the post. It’s not really a breakdown in defense. And then the second one, we were pushing guys forward, we’re trying to get an equalizer we get caught out a little bit. […] It’s just a little bit lucky that our clearance goes straight [to them] and it bounces toward the goal. I think the communication was good, though. I think we held them to chances that were easy. And we didn’t give up too many sloppy balls in front of the box. […The communication] can always be better and we’ll be working on that every week.”