Four takeaways from Austin’s reinvigorating win over Portland

Photo courtesy Austin FC

The Verde faithful received a just reward for their tried patience after a convincing 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers on August 21.

An atypical offensive flurry from Austin FC saw three goals in 18 minutes, a perfect execution of Head Coach Josh Wolff’s tactics the team struggled to enact in most of their previous games. Dominance in possession and numerous crosses resulting in few goals scored and several conceded on the counter characterized most Austin games, but fluid front four which took the pitch on Saturday night finally proved otherwise.

Jon Gallagher starting, the Alex Ring and Daniel Pereira double pivot and another solid performance from Brad Stuver all deserve attention, but four key points specifically deserve highlighting after such a successful night. Whether or not Austin will replicate the result against FC Dallas, who beat them 2-0 earlier in the season, remains to be seen. For now, we’ll celebrate.

Sebastian Driussi Unlocks the Offense

Starting with the most apparent positive of the game, new designated player Sebastián Driussi netted his first Austin FC goal after a Gallagher effort was saved off the line and flicked back into the feet of the Argentinian by Diego Fagúndez. 

Driussi operated in a classing center attacking midfield role in a 4-2-3-1 while consistently drifting to wider areas and allowing inside forward runs from Fagúndez and Gallagher. It was evident Austin needed a creative player in the middle of the park to relieve the more deep-lying playmakers from the game before he arrived, but his worth to the team cannot be understated.

Driussi dynamism allows everyone else to simply do their jobs better. His diagonal passing and speed while dribbling provided a destablizing presence very few members of the starting XI could in that position. Before his arrival, Austin seemed married to a “horseshoe” type of football and hammering in crosses, hoping Dominguez could win a header in a crowded opposition box. Now, Wolff’s men trade positions freely and float in and out of the box at will when on the ball.

It’s likely a bit early to designate this formation and starting XI as “the truth”, especially as Portland’s defense is one of the most porous in the league, but early results look promising. Driussi’s ability to play virtually anywhere in a front three or attacking midfield gives the team much needed flexibility moving forward, allowing Wolff to integrate Moussa Djitté at his leisure or even experiment more with Gallagher. Either way, Driussi is critical to Austin’s success. 

Julio Cascante Earns His Spot

Although the defense never drew as many headlines as the offense, it did have its moments of vulnerability when caught on the back foot, especially on counterattacks. But ever since Julio Cascante filled in for an injured Jhohan Romaña, Austin’s defense looks more and more secure by the game.

Cascante turned it up against his former team, cutting out crosses and forcing tougher shots and easier saves for Stuver. The aforementioned double pivot of Ring and Pereira provides less defensive cover than usual, as Pereira tended to run toward the edge of the opposition box and Ring, who usually does the dirty work, drove forward himself. 

Both Matt Besler and Cascante played well in the face of counters, but Cascante’s efforts during chaotic plays lands him in the spotlight. On more than one occasion, Cascante put his body on the line to prevent his keeper from making a tough save. A miserable run of form raised question marks across almost every part of the pitch, but Cascante’s play proves he won’t be replaced by anyone anytime soon.

Cecilio Dominguez Redeems Himself

The Paraguayan designated player’s last few games up top were uninspiring, to say the least, leading some fans to ask for him to be dropped from the starting XI for lackluster performances. Domínguez consistently made the wrong decision in attack in most games and came up short on many dribbles and take-ons with defenders.

Not so against Portland. Domínguez glided past defenders, wreaking havoc when switching with the midfield three supporting him. His efforts bore fruit early into the game when dribbling past a Portland defender and drawing a penalty which he converted in the 11th minute.

Paradoxically, the Austin FC’s scoring woes may be to play without a striker. Driussi and Domínguez almost played like double false nine’s, taking turns moving out wide and laying off passes to late runners. A more defensively disciplined opponent might handle this tactic with more success than Portland, but it is a promising sign.

Driussi’s presence likely gives Domínguez more license to take on defenders and fight in enclosed spaces, but it’s still on Domínguez to win those battles, those fouls in the box and create scoring opportunities. Hopefully, some mental or internal block that prevented Austin FC’s top scorer from performing to his expected levels was hurdled on Saturday, Regression is the last thing Austin needs heading into a stretch of winnable games.  

Diego Fagundez Might be our MVP

Goals are, obviously, nice to have in an expansion franchise. We follow a very simple game, at the end of the day. Put the ball in the net with everything except hands and arms. Such a simple concept hides the complexities and intricacies of a team sport. Tactics must be learned and players motivated; a tall ask for any first-time coach like Wolff.

Luckily, Wolff has a rare commodity regularly taking the pitch — a grizzled, young veteran in Diego Fagúndez, who might be Austin’s most valuable resource on and off the field. The 26-year-old already has a decade of experience in the MLS and is still very much in his prime. That experience for young players like Pereira and new ones like Driussi is invaluable, especially since they all play in similar positions.

Perhaps the value of a “South American contingent” is overstated, but Fagúndez’s flexibility on the pitch cannot receive enough praise. Starting the season as more of an “8” alongside Tomás Pochettino, the Uruguayan now makes his living as a winger/wide attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 and filling where need be when other midfielders swirl around.

Fact is, Fagúndez knows where to be and when to be there, as illustrated in Austin’s second goal against Portland. Fagúndez darted from midfield, through the Timbers’ backline and onto the penalty spot to head home Nick Lima’s cross to whip Q2 Stadium into a frenzy, an unusual play for a traditional 5’8” winger. Austin’s going to need goals from broken plays and hastily lost opposition passes against the big boys of MLS, and a player who has seen hundreds, if not thousands of attacks against the league’s biggest sides is worth building around. Not to mention, he’s still in the middle of his best years.

Across every poor game this season, Fagúndez is rarely invisible, rarely lacking effort or attacking spirit. Many of the criticism fans have of our offense usually do not apply to Fagúndez, even if his defensive efforts, at times, were underwhelming. Regardless, listing him as Austin FC’s most valuable player of the season so far should not be a stretch for any reasonable viewer, even if he’s only our second-top goalscorer with four goals and scored the first-ever goal in franchise history, Small details.