Four positive takeaways from a tough Sporting Kansas City loss

Photo courtesy Austin FC

Austin FC’s 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City is likely the lowest moment for the new team so far, seeing their early lead crumble into a loss after an Alex Ring red card and two goals, one in the early minutes of stoppage time. 

Although a sour note to return to Texas with, the game wasn’t all doom and gloom for Head Coach Josh Wolff and his players. Here are four takeaways the team (and the fans) can think about while counting the days until the game against LA Galaxy on May 15, 2:30 p.m. 

Brad Stuver is a wall

Brad Stuver once again proved why he deserves to stand between the posts despite the two goals conceded. Riding the pine for years, the 30-year-old MLS journeyman seems to finally have found his roots at the Black and Verde, tallying a joint-MLS-topping 20 saves in four games, tied with LA Galaxy’s Johnathan Bond. 

Bespoke in a textured pink goalkeeper uniform to complement the debut of the Austin home kit, Stuver made a close 2-1 loss look respectable, and even misleading at times with heroic, outstretched interventions against gliding Kansas City players on the counter and in the final minutes where Austin FC looked completely defeated.

Apart from the two goals, Stuver made only one nervy play just before the opening Austin goal where he rushed to meet a Kansas City player in the box and was easily dribbled around, but a hustling Jhohan Romaña closed the angle for the shot. 

The two goals conceded cannot really be blamed on Stuver, whose been critical in every phase of the game — especially the build-up, where he’s fourth among MLS keepers for pass percentage with 78.53%, an impressive figure for a non-outfield player who consistently begins attacks. The defense may need some tweaking, but it must be a relief for Coach Wolff to have a solid goalkeeper.

Jared Stroud, man or machine?

Effusive in his praise in press conferences in games before the loss, Jared Stroud’s earned his spot on the right wing by starting the last three games and earning two remarkable assists in the process. The highlight of Stroud’s game so far is the relentless pressing and standout work rate up and down said right side. 

Indeed, a winger willing to do the dirty work and get the flashy passes makes every player linking up with them better — especially Nick Lima, whose shown promise with both overlapping and underlapping runs next to Stroud. During several points in the Kansas City game, Lima showed a willingness to pivot to his left and attempt crosses to players dashing between the fullbacks and center backs, forcing defenders to respect his left and allow more room to his right. Here, Stroud can make runs parallel to the goal or even get a free cross in after running in behind the fullback occupied with Lima. 

Spread a backline too thin to deal with the danger out wide and Tomás Pochettino is freed up to make darting runs into the box or test his luck from long distance, where he almost found a goal if not denied by the post. All pretty standard for the ideal 4-3-3 system, but Stroud’s been a major player in Austin FC hitting the ground running. 

Jon Gallagher proves the internet right

Even in the minimal minutes Gallagher’s been given so far, he’s looked special. A dry run from the usually-first choice number 9, Danny Hoesen, led to fans on social media clamoring for the impactful Irish forward who proved the armchair managers right, for once. The lively pressing and quick runs behind the defenders left a dormant Kansas City in the dust in the early minutes of the game, eventually cracking to a sweeping pass from Stroud on the right wing, who looked closer to the halfway line than the 18-yard box, and a deft touch plus finish from Gallagher to open the scoring early.

Yes, the pass from Stroud deserves a lot of the credit, but Gallagher’s run and finesse with the ball converted the chance.

Whether or not Gallagher gets the nod moving forward is difficult to call; perhaps he’ll start if Wolff wants to soak up pressure and unload on the counter against a potent LA Galaxy attack, or maybe the absence of Alex Ring ripples throughout the entire team. Either way, the energy from Gallagher and his surely leads to more goals in the future. 

Alex Ring is too important to this team

The loss to Kansas City could easily be blamed on the Austin FC captain getting himself expelled from the game for multiple offenses, or even Wolff’s decision to not remove him from the pitch once it became apparent Kansas City targeted and overwhelmed him in their attacks. Regardless, his ability to reclaim the ball from creative midfielders and move up and down the pitch when needed is about as crucial to the Austin system as a player can get. 

Few players in MLS can drop between the center backs and sweep up the counterattacks or carry the ball for the roaming midfielders ahead of him to find space as he can. Few stifle as many attacks by holding up the ball and drawing fouls as he does. Even on a surface level, losing your captain ahead of a game against one of the best teams in the league is rough, even if other players can easily step into the role, like Matt Besler.

Ring’s defensive solidity often covers for mistakes from the backline — will whoever steps into his role be able to do the same? 

The answer is likely no, otherwise, they’d be in contention for the starting spot, but this is not to say there are not capable depth players. The question is, does the system significantly change with Ring’s absence? Will Josh Wolff be forced to change formations because such a key cog in the machine is missing? Hopefully, for Austin fans, this does not mean the free-flowing football so rarely seen in “expansion” teams makes way for a completely defensive set-up. Wolff and the players have been clear in their belief in the team’s on-the-pitch identity — but do they stick to it?

In a way, this can be framed as a positive — Austin FC is lucky to have a player they can build a system around, who they can rely on to make the team tick and lead by example (in most games). Josh Wolff’s been able to get his players and a city to buy into his tactics — the team and Žan Kolmanič adapted well to the sudden and unfortunate loss of Ben Sweat for the foreseeable future – so seeing how he deals with another curveball could be a harbinger for the long, weathering season ahead.

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