Austin FC’s second home game has now come and gone. Much like the season thus far, the quality of play against the reigning MLS Champion Columbus Crew was a mixed bag, with plenty of positives and negatives coming from the scoreless draw.
Anytime a brand-new expansion franchise grabs a result against the champs it defies the odds. This is especially true when said franchise doesn’t give up a goal. Though Columbus haven’t been the most dynamic offensive powerhouse so far this season, they boast a laundry list of threats including Lucas Zelarayán and Gyasi Zardes.
Though another nil-nil draw at home may not be the easiest thing to swallow for fans, there were a lot of bright spots for the boys in verde and black this past weekend, and they take those towards a long home stand, and an open transfer window.
Let’s break down four things that stood out to me about this match with Columbus.
The False-9 is becoming an ordeal
A false nine is, to be honest, not quite working.
It was better against the Crew than it has been at pretty much any point in the season thus far, but it just isn’t getting the job done. That being said— what’s the answer?
That’s exactly the question Josh Wolff will be asking himself heading into their next matchup. At times in the false nine, we’ve seen Diego Fagundez (who played an incredible game, for what it’s worth), whether unconsciously or out of necessity, having to drop too far back into the Austin ranks to collect the ball. By doing this, two issues arise.
The first issue is that with no proper outlet up top, the play and ball must go outside to the wings if open space is to be found. Even when the creative wingers in Green beat their man on the wing, the play is stuck without an outlet in the box.
The second problem arises with congestion in the midfield, as when the ball eventually comes back from the wings to the midfield, Fagundez is drawn back into the fold, once again leaving no outlet to make divisive runs towards goal.
It’s a tough job, and this week was definitely the most impacting performance thus far, but something has to give. We’ll talk more on a potential answer in a moment.
The link-up play is there, and improving fast
One very, very noticeable difference in Sunday’s game was the improvement of the implementation of Josh Wolff’s game plan.
Coming into the season we knew the game plan was meticulous, and possession-based. The success in this type of scheme is heavily relied upon by consistent passing, front to back, patiently picking apart the opposing defense.
There was a very noteworthy improvement in that category against Columbus. At times, the link-up play was down-right beautiful. Multiple sequences during the game we saw top-to-bottom crisp, creative passing, avoiding the desperate long-ball of recent matches, instead opting for accurate stretch passes and runs behind the high-press of Columbus.
Amidst all of his other incredible qualities leading this team forward so far, some may not know that Brad Stuver has also been one of the MLS’ top keepers in pass completion, as well. Despite one shaky moment in pressure, he continued that trend this week.
The midfield followed the trend also against Columbus, with link-up play between the midfielders coming together, and even more noticeable connections forming between the back line and the wings in high-pressure situations.
The improvement is great to see, especially against a high-press from the reigning champs. With so many home games coming up, look for the boys to get even more comfortable on the pitch, and continue to string passes together at a higher rate.
Is squad depth an issue? Probably
There is one issue that continues to puzzle me week in and week out: why doesn’t Josh Wolff use all of his substitutions?
Perhaps the most logical answer is that with only three substitution opportunities per game, Wolff just doesn’t feel that such a large tactical adjustment is necessary — which, admittedly, is fair for a deadlock of a game such as this. The starting line-up, despite the unfortunate lack of goal scoring, held their own the entire game.
However, they were gassed by the end. Much to their credit, they gave their all the entire game, and were very impressive doing so, but over the course of a long season, that just can’t happen too often, especially with substitutions left unused.
In all fairness, when all of the substitutions have been used, it’s been to ill-effect, as Austin FC have struggled to stop teams from scoring in late-game scenarios.
Is it a lack of squad depth, or just faith in the starting eleven and the few substitutes that see the pitch? Going forward into the transfer window, we’ll start to get some answers.
Let’s talk about desire
Can I just say, wow?
In all my years of watching the game, there are only a few games (maybe a bit biased here) that have managed to capture my attention sheerly by the desire shown by the players involved. Desire is a hard thing to describe in words, but as Ted Lasso says about the offsides rule “You know it when you see it.”
I can safely say none of those aforementioned matches, until Sunday, had come from an early season MLS match. Despite my love for the league, and my hopefulness that it grows, it just fails at times to carry the same draw as others in terms of dedication.
That changed seeing the entire roster of Austin FC, running on fumes, yet still on a mission on Sunday.
The level of dedication, love for the club, and supporter appreciation I saw from the entire roster of Austin FC made my jaw drop. For such a new team (just now playing it’s eleventh game, mind you) to have such dedication levels from all involved — the management, the fans, the players, was a sight to see.
To the end of the game, the entire cast and crew gave their hearts out to see Austin FC grab an equalizer. Nothing is more showing of how bad they wanted it than by the late-game runs of Diego Fagundez and the midfield, who somehow ran with fresh legs even in injury time.
The love for the game, the love for the team, even the live for each other — Austin has it all. It’s only a matter of time until that tree bears fruit.
Could it be that we see the beginning of that against Portland on Thursday?