What once seemed like a dream is now an impending reality as Austin FC comes home to Q2 stadium to host the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, June 19 at 8 p.m. Eight grueling, consecutive road games against the best MLS has to offer left the 27th franchise in the league with a 2/2/4 (W/D/L) record and a decent impression of what the squad can give to Head Coach Josh Wolff.
Although still early in the season, we have enough information to give the Black and Verde some tentative grades through eight road matches.
Undisputedly, Brad Stuver’s been Austin FC’s best player and saving grace during the extended road trip. Game after game, the former backup goalkeeper solidifies his spot in the starting XI, his star brighter than ever after a career-high nine saves against Sporting Kansas City during the last away game before the team formally arrives at Q2 Stadium. “Wall” does not even begin to describe him.
Despite the strong start, the role of starting keeper was not a govern for Wolff at the beginning of the season, but Stuver’s been undroppable since the season started, second in the MLS in saves with 38 and only two behind the leader, LA Galaxy’s Jonathan Bond, with 40. Only two clean sheets may seem like a blemish for the keeper, but an occasionally shaky backline and lapses in concentration from the team as a whole cannot dim Stuver’s star.
Stuver’s been instrumental in building from the back, a key part of Wolff’s tactics, so his role in the team goes further than shot-stopping. For such a young team, having the man in goal be a reliable and calming presence is worth its weight in gold.
Despite the lack of clean sheets in the first eight games (albeit against top-tier opponents), the defense is reliable and solid when need be, their struggles coming more from moving the ball forward when shifting gears from defending to starting play anew.
Žan Kolmanič’s been admirable going forward in place of Ben Sweat, who suffered a long-term injury early in the season. Kolmanič’s struggles have been mostly defensive, but the reassuring presence of MLS warhorse Matt Besler. Young yet dominant, Jhohan Romaña’s minutes have withered in the last few games, likely due to an injury and a solid performance by Julio Cascante against Seattle after the recovery from said injury finished.
Nick Lima’s defensive contributions leave the right side safe, but his offensive output seems to fall short of what Kolmanič can produce. It isn’t for want of trying, as he’s frequently found himself near the opponent’s box, but his crosses haven’t been as on point as they need to be.
The defense overall has held its own against some of MLS’ top sides, so nothing too negative can be said of the backline, although the insistence from Wolff to pass out from the back and consistent pressure from insistent opponents have weathered the side down on occasion. Increased playtime only betters the chemistry between a backline, so a positive start bodes well for the young club.
It’s been difficult to judge Austin’s engine room as they’ve rarely had the opportunity to dominate games and set the pace, In the team’s victories, players like Diego Fagúndez look lively and pose a goal threat with late runs into the box. Fagúndez himself scored the first goal in franchise history, and steadily improves his defensive work from game to game, putting in a solid performance in the second Sporting Kansas City game as an early line of defense.
Alex Ring, one of the most important players in the 4-3-3 most commonly seen in the first eight games, tends to wax and wane performances from week to week. He’s not been invisible in any game, per se, but it has been apparent he needs to play a more active role at times instead of simply shielding the back four. Long, raking passes finding runners in space like the one against Kansas City in their most recent encounter proves how useful the Finland native is on both sides of the ball, but perhaps counting on him to facilitate most of the game causes the team to fall short every once in a while.
A red card against Sporting Kansas City the first go-round and the subsequent 2-0 loss to the LA Galaxy proved his importance to the side, a load hopefully lightened by improving performances from the players in front of him.
Perhaps not as big of a lightning rod as our other designated player, Tomás Pochettino’s been fairly underwhelming in the few games we’ve seen him. Maybe the quality of opposition so early into his MLS career is dampening the review, but a lack of tangible output is hard to ignore. Being asked to shuttle up and down the pitch could be hampering the Argentinian’s creative play, who may be better suited to play as a 10 with a double pivot behind him. Regardless, there’s more to be desired.
Other midfielders like Daniel Pereira lack consistent play time to make a proper judgment, while others, like Sebastian Berhalter, seem to leave more of a negative taste in the mouth in the little minutes played. A long season awaits the productive core of the team, so reputations will change — hopefully, for the better.
Individually, this grade may seem low for the players and their performances thus far. Jared Stroud’s been relentless in attack and defense, while designated player Cecilio Domínguez is Austin FC’s leading goalscorer with three goals. Jon Gallagher was electric of the bench in the first few games and even scored a goal when his name made Wolff’s starting XI.
The pessimism comes from the lackluster performance by ATXFC’s other forward, Danny Hoesen. Meant to be a high-quality signing, and to lead the line, saying the Dutch striker’s failed to impress would be putting it lightly. Hoesen does have an assist to his name, but that’s been the only real positive a fair Austin FC observer could surmise. Jon Gallagher’s impressive performances off the bench came after Hoesen did very little in front of goal. The consensus between most active Austin FC fans online is to use the third designated player spot to replace Hoesen. Hoesen improving and allowing the club to not render their top signing redundant after eight games would solve all this, naturally, but only time will tell.
Those without a sterling reputation yet, like Kekuta Manneh and Rodney Redes, will get their opportunity to shine in the coming games. Manneh’s limited minutes don’t allow for a fair assessment, while Redes’ situation is quite the opposite. Redes, much like Hoesen, now fights for consistent minutes. Redes’ struggle for form is likely not as focused on as he takes up a significantly smaller portion of the wage bill than Hoesen, but he’s been unimpressive nonetheless. A recently missed sitter against Sporting Kansas City and his (lack of) contribution to an often uninspired offense is telling, as any professional forward should smash easy chances home, regardless of the number of consecutive away games or quality of opposition.
Overall, the attack’s lack of firepower may be down to fatigue and quality of opponent in such a brutal opening stretch, so a “low” grade may seem a bit harsh once the Black and Verde get a few good home wins under their belt. Underperforming big names is an unfortunate problem for an expansion side to have, but Wolff’s men fare better than many expansion teams of the past, regardless of sport. Nothing rejuvenates players quite like the roar of a fiery home crowd, so more accurate appraisals of our squad are soon to come.