RSL vs Austin FC: Four Takeaways from the Disheartening Collapse

Austin FC suffered one of the more heartbreaking losses in its short history against Real Salt Lake on May 14, starting off strong and collapsing after a senseless red card to lose 2-1.

Even if a valiant defensive effort in the second half was not enough to keep a persistent RSL side at bay, Austin FC fans can take comfort in this game likely being an anomaly, as the sides looked even right up until the loss of Dani Pereira to the booking.

Final Score: Real Salt Lake 2, Austin FC 1

Next up is LAFC, the best in the West, so a very quick bounce back is crucial to keep the push alive. Austin FC travels directly to California for the match on Wednesday, May 18th. Los Angeles FC is ahead of Austin by three points in the standings.

A brief note on Tarbell

Andrew Tarbell started between the posts for the second consecutive game, holding his own behind a leaky defensive setup. Tarbell confidently came up for crosses, punching and shot-stopping as well as any team hopes their second goalkeeper could. While not as solid as Brad Stuver when punching or deflecting shots, Tarbell kept Austin in the game for as long as he could, including a downright stunning fingertip save of Sergio Córdova’s close-range shot.

Depth’s been one of Austin’s key struggles in the 2022 season; many criticisms of Wolff as a coach come from his dubious substitutions. In his defense, there is not a wealth of options for him to select from in most positions. Tarbell’s steady hands, despite the scoreline, make Wolff’s plate just that little bit less cluttered. Austin fans can expect a serviceable performance should Stuver miss even more time, should it come to it — a statement not easily made for virtually every other position in the squad.

Driussi can’t do it all himself

Sebastian Driussi, undoubtedly Austin’s best and most important player this season, could not make up for the reckless red and offensive onslaught from RSL, but did manage to stand out in some aspects, for better or for worse.

Driussi started off the game during the early spells of pressure much deeper in midfield than most “10s” would like to be, but RSL’s compact lines forced our leading goalscorer to adapt. Driussi compensated for this by making delayed runs into the box, leaving Alex Ring and the wide players to drive the ball up the field. 

This shift in attacking responsibility worked well to a point, as an unusual yet perfectly timed run from Ring into the box met a perfect through ball from Diego Fagundez for the first goal – an acute angle banger from the Verde captain.

After the red card, Driussi’s involvement somewhat evaporated, as it was all hands on deck to hold on to the lead, the draw and, eventually, the hope to get back in the game. After 2-1, Austin officially threw caution to the wind and committed numbers forward to try and get something from the collapse. If any player could drag Austin back into the game, it would be Driussi.

Unfortunately, the narrative fell flat at the hands and groin of RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who heroically stopped last-minute, close-range Driussi shots (courtesy of two beautiful Owen Wolff cutbacks) with the aforementioned body parts. Needless to say, a player of Driussi’s caliber and recent form should be burying both of those chances. 

Regardless, Driussi’s value to the club is still apparent. If he has an off game, so does the team. Finding a way to rely less on one player and being able to rely on other individuals would free up the game pal.

Based on his substitute performance, Owen Wolff earned the chance to fight for his spot on the wing, as Ethan Finlay’s been underwhelming for most of the season.

A concerning defensive performance

This game’s first half may have been one of the poorest defensive performances the Verde put up in its second season and may have given some of the inaugural season stinkers a run for its money. Somehow, Austin escaped the first half without conceding, but not for RSL’s lack of trying. The aforementioned stunner of a save from Tarbell and an astonishing whiff from Marcelo Silva, also mere yards from goal, mostly resulted from the poor defensive organization.

The midfield frequently gave up possession, forcing some heroic interventions from the keeper and the thinly-stretched backline. Julio Cascante definitely bruised Cordova after a last-ditch double leg tackle 

Dani Pereira’s red foul on the very outside edge of the box was one of the poorest player decisions of the season so far, stressing the team and the game plan for at least another game, as Pereira received a straight red and will miss the crucial LAFC game. Pereira’s growth is still one of the brighter points of Austin’s season, but the regression showed against RSL and his upcoming absence are a noticeable blemish. 

Austin FC struggled the most last season when the double pivot of Ring and Pereira failed to find its footing. Valencia will likely get his chance to impress; he’s much more of a defensive midfielder than Pereira, meaning Ring will have much more freedom to roam forward. Whether or not his recent struggles will hamper the whole squad against the top-seeded LAFC is, frankly, not looking too positive. Cascante and Ruben Gabrielsen can only perform heroic tackles so many times before one goes awry and leads to a goal or a booking.

Wolffball: Three more years!

Despite the loss, Josh Wolff showed glimpses of why Austin FC extended his contract for three more years against RSL. For one, Driussi dropping further back to shift the focus of the attack and how plays developed displayed tactical flexibility, even if it required changing the behavior of the club’s most prolific player.

The success in shifting Ring from a deep-lying playmaker to ball carrier has been evident for a while and reaffirmed its success in the lone Austin goal, even if the Finn struggles to overcome a dip in performance the last few games. 

A persistent press did most of the chance creation for Wolff, forcing long passes from the center backs that either went for 50/50s or out of bounds. Austin’s first goal (and most of its chances) came from a recovered loose ball after the press forced errors in the RSL midfield.

This is to say Wolff’s football philosophy is better implemented by the day, the players building chemistry as the games go by, as seen in the Ring goal. For all its positives, there are still some worrisome aspects to Austin’s system.

Playing out the back may be law under Wolff, but it does seem like the players lack the tools to do it at the required pace when put under pressure, evidenced by Pereira’s multiple lost possessions and some suspect center-back passes. This is not a rare occurrence either. The midfield makes some head-scratching passes when under pressure – just as many as the back-line when some of the more organized sides in the MLS press.

Wolff’s questionable substitutions also seem to be a troubling trend, but the root cause seems to be more a lack of reliable attacking options to change the face of a game. Still, it was obvious Wolff conceded the game once Maxi Urruti came off for Jon Gallagher. Time will tell if Wolffball ever fully comes into fruition with center-backs fully comfortable on the ball or wingers who keep the pace of a game intense against tired fullbacks. For now, even after a tragic collapse, Wolff, as well as Verde fans, can remain confident in the vision.

Goal Scoring Summary – Austin FC

  • 24’ – Alex Ring (D. Fagundez)

Goal Scoring Summary – Real Salt Lake

  • 55’ – Maikel Chang (J. Meram)
  • 88’ – Andrew Brody (A. Julio, J. Meram)

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