A sophomore spike in performance puts Austin FC in the canopy of the Western Conference, expecting a maiden voyage to the playoffs, with many fans entertaining the notion of MLS Cup glory.
Even with 13 games left in the regular season, the Verde asserted themselves as playoff favorites in their recent run of resilient draws and dominant wins.
Barring a total collapse from head Coach Josh Wolff’s side, Austin will comfortably clear the 50-point threshold — a solid minimum point total for aspiring playoff sides.
Austin FC’s rooted itself at the top of the table for a plurality of the MLS season, even leading the West for a brief moment before slipping into LAFC’s shadow. Austin’s 41 points — albeit with a game in hand — keep pace with LAFC’s conference-leading 42 in Week 21, so the Verde should have reason to believe a deep cup run is possible.
Frankly, while the post-season remains the biggest accolade for MLS teams, securing the Supporter’s Shield in only their second year of existence would be almost as big of an achievement as winning the cup, given the fortitude and discipline of being the best team over an entire season requires. Austin dwelled in the basement of the West for most of their inaugural season — it cannot be understated how impressive of a renovation job the team pulled off in the off-season.
Believers will say the potential was and remains there; deficiencies in different areas of the field struck at different times as the team struggled to implement Wolff’s style of play. Smart signings and chemistry finally kicking in propelled the team to where it is now, but do they stand a chance at winning it all in the postseason?
Playoffs are great, but can ATX win MLS Cup
Knockout tournaments are always accompanied by the shadow of dread as any team, no matter how successful in the regular season, can crack under the bright lights. In short — the points totals mean little — as long as a team is in the playoffs, they have a fighter’s chance. A high-flying side like could suffer clipped wings well short of silverware if plucky, defensive sides gameplan well. Clean sheet farming sides need only concede one goal to lose.
This trend likely gives any observant Verde fan pause, as Wolff’s side is prone to lapses in concentration while asserting their style of play and conceding on the counter — a Copa Tejas-securing draw against FC Dallas is the most recent example. A lower-seeded side could easily wait for Austin to wither after long periods of passing play and ping a pass behind an overextended fullback to force herculean efforts from our likely exhausted centerbacks and sneak away with a win.
In contrast, Austin FC’s supernatural knack for digging themselves out of holes now borders on comical. No 2-0 lead is safe as long as Austin still breathes.
Resiliency, hard work and some farcical luck are the main ingredients to any playoff win — all traits which the Verde possess in spades.
Most of the players weathered the grueling 2021 season, while newer ones like Maxi Urruti and Ruben Gabrielsen bring a wealth of experience and stability. ATXFC’s starting XI and bench options are no strangers to adversity. The same can be said of many an MLS side, but it’s worth noting once again the turnaround these players facilitated. This side can find goals and win when it matters.
Austin’s superb road form is a big factor in their likelihood of playoff success, winning seven of 13 road games so far and undefeated away from home since the start of June. Paired with the ability to score goals no matter how far behind the fall and a concerning amount of practice playing with or against 10 men, Austin strides into the playoffs battle-tested and tightly-knit, able to rely on a multitude of players to perform.
As much as Wolff and the fans expect MLS All-Star Sebastian Driussi to light up the opposition every time he graces the pitch or for Ruben Gabrielsen to lock up every pacy striker, regular contributions from depth pieces have kept Austin afloat in games our superstars cannot do it all themselves. The much-maligned Ethan Finlay finally found his stride with a few assists and impressive build-up play, while Danny Hoesen leaped off the injury list and straight back into Wolff’s rotation with his link-up play. Owen Wolff easily shook off any claims of nepotism by impressing on the wing and in central midfield (his natural position). Jon Gallagher’s form at left back, despite being a winger at heart, is one of the most impressive. Assists, tackles and a persistent threat running alongside Diego Fagundez, another crucial contributor, make Gallagher one of those key role players on which championship sides are built.
Focus on the games ahead first
A July 24 clash with the New York Red Bulls and an August 26 match with LAFC headline the remaining 13 games, the rest are against teams with fewer points than the Verde. No game is given, neither in the MLS nor in the playoffs, especially, but if Austin can achieve respectable results against the teams just below them in the West (Nashville, Minnesota, Salt Lake) then they can truly start envisioning life in their last regular-season game against the Colorado Rapids on October 9.
Austin possesses all the tools and experience for a deep run in the playoffs, at the minimum. While it would be irresponsible to promise silverware with many grueling games to go, Austin fans should allow themselves to dream. The front office made the necessary signings, Wolff makes the necessary rotations and the players perform when called upon.
There is no team in the MLS Austin cannot beat in 90 minutes, but the same also rings true for any team in playoff contention. Only seven teams won the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup in the same year, Toronto FC being the most recent in 2017.
Still, a playoff spot is Austin’s to lose. It’s likely too early to realistically dream of an MLS Cup, but that likely has not stopped any Austin FC fan who’s seen the side capture the adulation of an entire city with their performances.
Dream responsibly, Austin.
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