Four takeaways after a collapse in Q2: Austin FC vs FC Dallas

Austin FC received perhaps the most wounding loss of their short existence against a young and fearless FC Dallas on August 29, losing 5-3 in front of a still supportive Q2 Stadium.

Like most games, the scoreline fails to tell the whole story; losing by two goals in a high-scoring game makes it seem like an open-ended game where Austin lacked the firepower to compete, but for once, the offense did not disappoint.

Dallas’ scoring blitz would be somewhat undercut by a very impressive spell of offense and scoring later in the second half, but not before conceding once more. It’s safe to say few positives will be gleaned by Austin fans, with bitter absolutes or resigned lamentation likely making up most of the comments online after the game.

Since neither harping on the very apparent negatives nor blindly focusing on the positives will add anything of value, a more nuanced look into why the collapse happened so suddenly and the surprising amount of positives will give a clearer picture of our current outlook.

That Defense. Oof.

An abysmal showing by the Verde defense ruined the night before it got started, letting in three goals in just 4 minutes to fall befind 4-1 40 minutes into the game. The backline looked simply incapable of doing their job, leaving the latest FC Dallas prodigy, Ricardo Pepi, free to roam into the box at his leisure during both the second and fourth goals.

Head Coach Josh Wolff sent out his best backline, too, so no real excuses can be made. A typically sound — or at least, not porous — defense stood idly by while players like Pepi and Jesus Ferreira danced around them. The identity of the goalscorers is of note, especially when looking at the combined experience in the Austin defense. Julio Cascante, coming off a string of great games, is an MLS veteran. Matt Besler has more than 300 appearances in the MLS, Nick Lima over 100. Žan Kolmanič, despite a beautiful assist for Cascante to level the game at 1-1, ceded immense space to a charging Pepi, who charged at Stuver with zero trepidation and stress for his second goal.

Temerity in the face of hungry youth will get you eaten alive in a fast-paced league, even against downtrodden opponents like Dallas.

Austin simply looks lost in transition, scrambling to regain some sort of shape while sprinting back against much quicker forwards or leaving acres of space near the top half of the box while attempting to cover the initial runs. Pepi’s first goal is a great example of this disorganization. Cascante, Lima and Besler rush to provide some sort of cover against a cross, but leave the space in front of them wide open, usually protected by Alex Ring or another defensive midfielder.

Perhaps a more zonal marking system was in place, but someone had to mark the biggest goal threat on the pitch. Getting torn apart in transition so frequently really only has two explanations: poor discipline by the players or poor coaching. Against Dallas, it very well could have been both, especially when diving into how the first goal came to be.

Dogmatic Devotion to the Build Up

There is no acceptable reason for the first goal to happen. Brad Stuver made an awful error and his mistake was immediately punished. Analyzing why the error might have been made reveals an issue just as prominent as our consistent droughts on offense.

Wolff’s been insistent on playing from out the back since Day 1. Stuver, a perennial sub before moving to Austin, got his breakthrough because of his ability with his feet, later solidifying his place with his shot-stopping.

It’s clear we have a set football philosophy, yet it appears Austin simply is not capable of executing the romantic play Wolff desires. Like every modern keeper, Stuver is supposed to soak up pressure and force numerical disadvantages further up the pitch after breaking the press. The issue lies with panicked passes and the failure to abort our dogmatic approach to possession when plays sour. 

All Stuver had to do was boot the ball up the pitch or out of play and hope his defense reset in time. Cascante bears some of the blame as well, failing to sense the incoming Dallas players closing into the six-yard box and putting Stuver in an almost no-win situation.

Should Wolff be more pragmatic and shift philosophies? It’s difficult to say, as it really depends on the expectations put onto him by the club board and owners. If Wolff has time to tinker, rooting out which players can and cannot deliver his vision is what a first season is for, especially when previous issues like a void at striker soaked up all of his resources during the transfer window. How patient should the fan base be, however? 

Although the goals mercilessly poured on, Austin looked more offensively competent than in pretty much all of their losses. Are fans more willing to lose every game 1-0 with 61% possession, or 5-3 and praying the defense holds up with every midfield player and ful back scrambling back into position? Either way, Wolff needs to go back to the drawing board.

The Reliance on Ring

The Finnish holding midfielder and Austin FC captain is emblematic of the inconsistencies in Wolff’s football tactics when they are put into practice. 

Ring made his living earlier in the season as a typical “6” in a 4-3-3, screening passes, winning the ball back in front of the backline and staring quick passages of play with long, raking passes to attackers in transition. He’s superb in that role, in fact, Austin FC looking particularly miserable in the engine room whenever he was absent.

His role’s evolved since the goals withered away later into the season, now carrying the ball further upfield but still using his long passes to find one-on-one match-ups on the wing or darting forwards on the defense’s shoulder. He thrives in this role as well, especially when receiving the ball in space near the middle of the pitch after the defense or Stuver successfully break the press.

Ring himself is not the issue — it’s the void he leaves wherever he’s not. Ring the defensive midfielder provides the protection an increasingly inconsistent backline needs when we commit more and more men forward, but very few players in the squad possess his skill set in the traditional CM spot. Diego Fagúndez now plays his best football on the wing, so moving him back to the “8” spot would just be shuffling our problems around. Tomás Pochettino’s lackluster for while partnered with Fagúndez might dissuade Wolff from partnering with Ring, even if he’s found his form in the last few games and after coming off the bench in the second half on Sunday.

Daniel Pereira seems to be unable to fill either of the roles Ring plays for Austin, despite a competent performance against the Portland Timbers. After running down the list of options, it’s apparent Wolff needs a ball carrier so Ring can defend or another excellent anchor so Ring can carry the ball.

Ring’s goal made the double-edged nature of his play much more resonant. An MLS veteran like him will pick up scrappy goals and recharge an impotent offense if needed, but leaves a backline exposed to clever runs like Pepi’s second goal. Without Ring higher up the pitch, we defend well but remain the lowest scoring side in all of MLS.

Ideally, players like Pereira or Pochettino learn to track back better and become much more defensively solid players, but that seems unlikely to happen. Wolff might give Sebastian Berhalter, a much more traditional defensive midfielder, a try as an anchor to let Ring play freely, but to say Berhalter is still a raw player is an understatement.

The Positives

Saving the best — or at least, not the worst — news for last, several Austin players impressed despite the figurative thunderclouds over Q2.

Pochettino continued his impressive run of form during Austin’s lowest point, constantly finding cutbacks and interplay with other players on the right side of midfield. Why he did not start is unclear, but it is entirely possible Wolff valued Ring’s impact on the game more than Poch’s when weighing both of their defensive contributions (before they let in five goals, of course).

Moussa Djitté proved he, in fact, existed, after coming as a sub for Cecilio Dominguez, who played one of his more innocuous games. His playtime was not a sufficiently sized sample to make judgments, of course, but he did attempt a very powerful, driven cross into the box in the last minutes of added time, a useful tool to have — even if he was brought in to meet the rain of crosses Austin usually provides.

Sebastián Driussi livens Austin’s play whenever he’s on or around the ball. Decisive passes and clever through balls are his bread and butter, the risk-taking Austin so desperately needed to assist Fagúndez (another standout, as usual) for 5-2 and spark the tiniest ember of hope.

Although Austin seems to only rearrange their burdens, our foundation is not rotten or hopeless by any means. There are quality players in almost every position, but Wolff can’t seem to make them click in a consistent or convincing fashion. How he moves forward after a watershed loss, and in a derby, too, is all but in the air.