Austin FC traveled south to Houston on September 11 and endured the bleakest night in their short yet eventful existence, losing 3-0 thanks to shocking defending and wasted opportunities in front of goal.
The downward spiral continues for Josh Wolff’s men who looked truly outclassed by their fellow Texans and Western Conference basement dwellers in every aspect of the game. Offense and defense failed to live up to the brief flashes of competency in previous games, conceding almost immediately and stunning the horde of traveling Verde fans in a sparsely populated BBVA Compass stadium.
In previous games, Austin could at least hold their heads high in defeat, knowing their possession-based philosophy simply needed a clinical striker to make all the pieces click. Against the Dynamo, there was not a single part of the field without blame for the collapse, wiping all of the progress the team made against sides like Portland.
It’s tough to come up with many positive observations after such a convincing loss, so we’ll keep it to three separate dissections of our low points.
Starting with the most obvious pitfall of the game, conceding so early against a team nearing MLS loss-streak records is disheartening, to say the least, but the wound deepens when seeing how lethargic the Verde backline looked in the chaos preceding the goal.
Darwin Quintero sped into three Austin defenders and (admittedly, with a bit of luck) dribbled past Julio Cascante and forced a good parry by Brad Stuver. The deflected shot bounced slowly past Jhohan Romaña and Hector Jiménez, both gawking and slowly approaching the ball is it fell in the path of a hustling Griffin Dorsey.
Defenses fall asleep in every game, unfortunately, and Austin’s main defensives struggle is defending during the transition, but rarely do these issues show up seconds into a game. The issue persisted in the minutes following the opening score, the Dynamo’s shifty dribblers entering the Austin areas with ease.
Romaña remained a weak spot in the armor for most of the game, as lofted balls in behind exposed subpar positioning from him and Cascante. Besler was sorely missed, as his years of experience often helped him clean up after his or Cascante’s mistakes. Romaña frequently lumbered back at full speed to make up for lost ground, dragging Cascante or Jiménez out of position and leaving spaces in the box for Houston runners.
The second goal, while definitely more tragic, warrants a much simpler explanation. Cascante thought he could bring down the ball and shield it from an encroaching Fabrice Picault, but his lead touch put it on a silver platter for a 2-0 advantage. Cascante’s blunder isn’t rooted in tactics or poor coaching, but it does tie back to those two persistent issues plaguing Austin. Cascante simply lacked the ability to control that ball and restart play like the ball-playing center back Wolff wants his central defenders to be.
Picault’s second is the perfect encapsulation of all of Austin’s shortcomings. Cecilio Dominguez hit the post on a chance he should have easily scored — reminding the fans the void up top is still very much there — and the clearance led into another counter with favorable numbers for Houston, the ball into the net and the nail in the coffin.
At this point, harping on Austin’s inefficiency up top is beating the most long-deceased of horses, but goals simply fail to flow, dragging this issue up again. Diego Fagúndez uncharacteristically did little before coming off later in the game, and Tomás Pochettino created one or two opportunities before coming off at the half for Rodney Redes, who marginally improved the attack.
Dominguez missed two wide-open chances, the second directly leading to the third Houston goal. In a world where Dominguez converts those chances — or someone better is in his spot — Austin draws level at 2-2 and with momentum going to half time despite an abysmal early performance. The mythical Moussa Djitté didn’t make much of an impact either after coming on for Dominguez, same for Sebastian Berhalter. Jon Gallagher provided a late source of inspiration, but nothing tangible enough to provide some respite for the fans.
It must be said, Wolff’s substitutions at the half were questionable at best. Betting on a defensive midfielder in Berhalter and a frequently out of form Redes when down 3-0 to a poor Dynamo team reeks of face-saving and not the will to trudge through a rough start and get any sort of positive result. His job is unlikely to be under any real danger, as growing pains are to be expected, but even low expectations can be missed.
Austin still dominated possession with 66%. They still earned many more corners, 10 to 3. They stuck to their style. They still lost. Empty possession is as tied to Austin’s identity at the moment as much as Black and Verde.
There are rough patches and there are rough seasons, and we seem to be leaning toward the latter. Hopefully, such a frustrating chain of results does not shatter the team’s confidence. They can execute Wolff’s ideas, they can score goals, they can defend well, just not on a consistent basis. Stability is one thing any startup venture, whether it be a sports team or a business, needs to grow. Austin, being both a business and a sports team, needs to get their feet under themselves.
Discussing the intangibles surrounding the beautiful game is difficult, as they often do not translate to goals, possession or xG. We can do our best as humans to empathize and understand what players and coaches feel in such dire straits but never really know the inner workings of any given individual.
That being said, it’s very apparent Austin FC players are not in the best of spirits. The first goal seemed as if the players simply were not ready to start the game, an odd circumstance given they likely just heard the game plan from Wolff.
Austin seems to have the wind taken out of their sails fairly easily, sinking into poor habits after conceding, letting the looming black cloud of poor play linger over the team. The figurative rain came hard and fast at BBVA Compass Stadium, leaving Austin with only a watershed loss after all is said and done.
If Saturday was a rivalry game, no one told Austin FC.