The holiday season approaches and the leaves fall off trees across Travis County, an apt metaphor for Austin FC’s first season in MLS.
It’s not all winter gloom of course, as raucous fan support and several convincing victories let the rest of the league know the Verde were not to be taken lightly. But like most expansion teams, the road ahead is rough and unlikely to smooth out any time soon.
For now, let’s bundle up for the cold of the MLS off-season and list out what Austin FC needs to do in the coming months before Feb. 26 and what’s sure to be the greatest sophomore year in the history of sports.
The Center-back We Deserve AND Need
Austin’s most glaring weakness, as made apparent by the latter half of the season, is defensive solidity, particularly at center back. In an almost comical fashion, as soon as new arrivals sparked the offense, the defense put more than a few stinkers—games against in-state rivals and San Jose painfully coming to mind.
With Matt Besler’s storied career coming to an end, an already tenuous defense loses one of its biggest leaders, even if his presence on the pitch waned as the season went on. Jhohan Romaña is still a raw defender, so entrusting him to anchor the backline may be a bit too much to ask. Julio Cascante, despite his goals and spells of staunch defending, is not consistent enough to hold the line for years to come.
Signing a battle-tested center-back who can play from out the back, whether they be from MLS or another ”physical” league, is critical to not keeping points from slipping through our fingers. The ideal signing would be a designated player, but all three spots are currently occupied by players playing further up the pitch.
A good middle-ground between the two would be a solid defender who can rotate with Romaña and Cascante when either or (hopefully not) both suffer dips in form. Competition for places should be the minimum with this signing, if not a starter to plug up a porous group that struggles in quick transitions.
What Head Coach Josh Wolff needs for his system is essentially the ideal modern center-back: a quick, physical defender who won’t crumble attempting to pass under the press. Such a valuable asset for a possession-based team will not come cheap, making this wish a difficult, but not impossible ask for a scouting department that identified Žan Kolmanič and Moussa Djitté as diamonds in the rough.
Depth, And Lots of It
After its latest roster moves, Austin FC lacks rotation players in some very key positions under Wolff’s system, notably at fullback and holding midfielder. Sebastian Berhalter will not extend his stay in Austin after completing his loan, meaning in the event captain Alex Ring misses a game, Austin’s backline will be left exposed. Even with Berhalter available, Wolff made significant changes to the tactics while Ring was away.
Finding a suitable backup for one of the most important players in the entire system is likely to be difficult, as they need to be able to do the dirty work for the attacking midfielders in front of them and be able to drive the ball up the pitch, but even a passable defensive midfielder able to offer some cover in tight spots will likely ease any potential headaches.
Ben Sweat’s contract option was declined, as the left-back who started in the very first Austin FC fell down the pecking order behind the impressive Kolmanič, who Austin formally signed after his loan expired.
Hector Jiménez can fill in for either full-back if need be but might age out of the role sooner rather than later. Another astute loan signing like Kolmanič for either flank, leaving Jiménez to cover the other, would leave Austin in good shape should either starting wide back suffer any setbacks.
Jared Stroud also departed the club, despite an uptick in form toward the end of the season, leaving the wings as one of Austin’s thinnest position groups. In the very possible event Cecilio Domínguez (despite all his goals) and Rodney Redes come up blank, it’s completely up to Diego Fagúndez or a drifting Sebastián Driussi to stretch defenses.
Austin needs nothing too spectacular from Stroud’s replacement. Keeping him would have angered few of the Verde faithful, given recent performances. Letting Stroud walk means either the scouts have faith in their ability to find some value or trust Redes will step up when needed, which, unfortunately, has not been the case.
How the front office handles the bench will play a significant role in the franchise’s future, so shrewd transfers with the future in mind are just what the club needs. Fans should expect few “big splashes” in this transfer window.
Consistency Up Top
Not every gift this holiday season needs to be a shiny, new toy; the greatest gift Austin FC can give its fans this upcoming season is a consistently good year from its strikers, Danny Hoesen, Moussa Djitté and McKinze Gaines.
Hoesen in particular needs to find his old self more than anyone in the team. Even before his unfortunate injury, he found himself rotating in and out of the squad because of his poor performances.
Djitté, aside from the soap opera surrounding his transfer, played well at the end of the season, showing the ruthlessness Austin needed in the box and jumping right into the shifting lineup.
Gaines’ expectations are significantly lower than his fellow strikers, but will still likely be asked to play out the end of games and score the odd banger here and there.
Any remotely critical analysis of Austin FC will sound repetitive, but most armchair coaches and Austin management (hopefully) will come to the same conclusion. An argument could be made for fans to not set expectations too high, but they’ve done their part through their support of an underwhelming first season performance-wise.
For now, all we can do is write our letters to those writing checks and hope we find a better season under our trees.