Despite the bumpy landing, Austin FC can call their sophomore season a successful endeavor, no matter who or what awaits them in the postseason.
Most Verde fans’ hopes were high when the team first planted its roots, but few likely imagined the heights an initially misfiring squad would reach.
What went right? How did a Wooden Spoon contender give their fanbase the honor of an “x” next to their Twitter handle after less than a calendar year?
Here are five of the biggest reasons our season isn’t over after Sunday.
The Green Smoke
Likely the most apparent reason from a macro level—Austin FC is simply a better team in several positions than it was last year—simple as that.
The front office addressed key needs in the starting XI quickly to varying degrees of success. Ruben Gabrielsen made the biggest splash by far, easily adjusting to the infamous physicality of the MLS and bossing opposition attackers from coast to coast.
Much like last year, Austin is still relatively vulnerable in transition and prone to errors while playing out the back – but the frequency of those errors and our capacity to recover from our mistakes trended much more positively ever since the Norwegian center-back put on the shirt. His proficiency in passing from the back played a key role in Head Coach Josh Wolff’s system finally clicking, too.
The well-traveled Maxi Urruti provided several spectacular goals—arguably our biggest need from last season—when we needed them and further solidified Austin FC’s South American contingent.
The initially maligned Ethan Finlay managed to claw his way out of his habit of poor performances and become a feasible starting option and a more than solid squad player. Felipe Martins, when called upon, steadies the midfield and is more than happy to show why MLS players hate playing against the Brazilian midfielder.
Some of the club’s other transfers like Washington Corozo and Emiliano Rigoni have yet to settle in the squad like their fellow newcomers, but still showed flashes of brilliance.
Established Players Blossom
The arrival of new stars and capable depth to fill their roles both are the most obvious reason at the club level for the turnaround. The emergence of already present players played just as big a role in the club’s consistency as the players heralded by green smoke.
Jon Gallagher’s evolution from an occasionally prolific attacking option to a consistently vibrant fullback is one of Wolff’s greatest victories in his nascent managerial career. Gallagher effectively pulled a reverse Gareth Bale and made the left-back position all his own for almost the entire season.
His in-swinging, right-footed crosses from the left wing and ability to both overlap and underlap his left winger give Austin the layered attacks every positional football team dreams of—while possessing the blazing speed needed to hunt down opposing wingers on the break.
Dani Pereira’s maturation might be an even bigger reason for Austin’s success than Gallagher’s buzzing performances, as the Venezuelan midfielder became the confident ball carrying-midfielder behind many of Austin’s best attacks.
Pereira’s confidence with the ball changes games, withstanding pressure for just long enough to fizz a ball through to free runners or simply dribbling past the press. His boundless confidence for a player his age is almost too potent, as he’s reliable for a booking in his efforts to win a ball back.
Gallagher and Pereira are not perfect players but are emblematic of the growth the team needed to make the leap to relevance. Other players like Alex Ring and Julio Cascante improved their game from last season but still tend to fall into some of their frustrating habits from last season.
Moussa Djitté, when called upon, can brute force Austin to victory—his historic hat trick against Real Salt Lake a testament to his lethality on his day.
Many players grew with Wolff’s possession-based system after a year of misfires and self-inflicted wounds, but no player bloomed quite as beautifully as Sebastián Driussi.
It’s not hyperbole to say Austin FC is lost without Driussi. He’s the spark, the tip of the spear and the big red circle on every coach’s whiteboard. 21 goals and 5 assists in 33 games more than did their part in keeping the team near the peak of the West, but his appeal isn’t as one-dimensional as his goals.
Like any superstar, Driussi’s gravity on the pitch and opens up avenues for fellow attackers: Diego Fagúndez and Urruti flow freely in front of goal with Driussi, the former’s bond with our star player harped on as a big reason for Austin’s success.
From distance or in the chaos of a goal-mouth scramble, Driussi can be trusted to threaten defenses. The team isn’t hapless with him off the pitch, but the Argentine just has it. He can single-handedly win Austin a game if given the opportunity, often willing a comeback out of a certain loss with a moment of brilliance.
Driussi’s importance to Austin FC can be proven with only three letters – MVP.
While superstars and willing squad players play are what bring in the crowds, points and (hopefully) silverware, Wolff deserves credit for getting his system to gel after significant investment and a stuttering start to a managerial career.
Many sides in MLS and abroad see managers get the injection of funds and talent Wolff received before the 2022 season and still flop. Wolff’s football philosophy came under fire after every goal Austin conceded on the counter, after every loss with several good chances wasted.
In the end, the players understood the vision, even with some of those flaws persisting. Driussi’s chemistry with Fagúndez facilitates free-flowing football while Gabrielsen and Cascante’s passing makes every part of a pitch a potential start to a goal-scoring opportunity.
Austin FC fans’ patience last year is continuously rewarded with every Driussi goal and every win after conceding the first goal of the match.
Not every non-player factor can be credited to Wolff, of course—the squad was blessed with relatively few injuries to key players and some teams simply crumbled when Austin decided to turn up the heat.
Wolff’s guiding hand helped Austin make its luck—which they frequently needed.
Austin, still not free of old habits, frequently concedes first due to amateur mistakes or nervous errors when forcing Wolff’s style of play. Every team, even in leagues with higher standards of play, have games go off-script.
Austin deserves plaudits for its ability to bounce back after that initial punch to the face they so frequently let slip past their guard. Gritty wins when down to 10 men and inspired performances off the bench hint at a team that’s more than just the sum of its parts—a team capable of thumping the eventual MLS Supporter’s Shield winners.
Sometimes it’s as simple as winning the games a team at the top of the table should; in essence, Austin managed to be consistent and perform to their obvious potential. Chances were put away, the defense isn’t guaranteed to collapse after the slightest bit of pressure and fans don’t have to dread substitutions.
Austin FC now thinks like the winners they were destined to be.
The kinks still need to be worked out before the playoffs arrive, but Verde fans should be confident of Austin’s chances against every single side in MLS. We’re not the team we were last year, and if the front office, Wolff and the players keep their growth going, Austin should only get better.
(Cover Photo Credit: Austin FC Instagram)
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