If You Take #WolffOut Off the Table…

Irony Alert: When you’re so proud of Austin’s voices that you decide to wear a kit called “Las Voces,” it means you might have to listen to some voices that sound pretty angry and critical when things aren’t looking good.

And lately the most pissed off voices have been echoing a specific them from 2021: #Wolffout.

But if you take that “solution” off the table, what are the other possible fixes for an Austin FC season that feels like it’s going off the rails?

I’ve been lurking and listening on the Austin FC social media channels, hearing the rage of “Bali’s Army” and considering the nuanced take of “Bryan’s Bros,” and pondering the wisdom of #Wolffout and the complete rebuild that would ensue if Anthony Precourt pulled the plug on Josh Wolff’s project. 

My friends have been nudging me to speak up, but I’ve been wondering if I have anything to say that would contribute something constructive to the conversation about the team I love, live and breathe.

Obviously, we all want our Verde boys to be back with their name in lights at the top of the power rankings, building towards another deep playoff run at the end of the season.  Last season exceeded all of our expectations, because last season we really didn’t have any (due finishing 2021 in second to last place). 

But now we have lots of expectations! 

So far, only one of the 6 trophies that were up for grabs at the start of the year is beyond our reach.  The rest are still there to play for.  

But as much as the club’s voices of hope and patience have been pointing to the standings, reassuring us that we only need a few wins to be considered contenders again, true soccer lifers have always analyzed their teams on a qualitative level, rather than statistically.  And that’s where I have a lot more sympathy for Bali’s POV because something feels really off/wrong with the quality of play, and some changes need to be made.

If the posture and nonverbals of our attackers looked good, and they were getting shots off in dangerous spots on the field like they were last year, I probably wouldn’t be write this piece and just wait for our luck to change. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and stats (goals & xG) only confirm that changes need to happen… and FAST!

So here are 3 suggestions that can help facilitate change without having to rebuild a whole new project.

1. Shuffle the Deck & Shake Things Up

Now that Kolmanic is out for the rest of the year, we have opportunity to bring in 3-4 fresh players at a pretty low cost. 

Here’s how: one of our non-playing first-teamers can be loaned down to ATXFCII for the entire season.  This opens up a new roster spot.  If one, or both, of our loanees stays abroad for the whole season, that opens up another spot(s) too.  Kolmanic’s injury opens another spot.  And another “break glass in case of emergency” move would be to use the one-time contract buyout to open up another spot. 

Since I believe the anemic attack is the biggest problem to solve for, I’d use 2-3 of these spots to bring in the most productive ATXFCII guys, and then see if guys like Rigoin and Redes could regain some confidence by getting some minutes with the VerDos squad. 

Fodrey is the obvious first move to make, especially since he’s playing great and he’s on the first team roster already.  Then guys like Rodriguez and Ocampo-Chavez make a lot of sense to bring up, since they already know the “Wolffball” system and they’re productive in it.

Another great option would be to work a trade with another MLS or USL club, especially since we’re out of international roster spots.  But using our buyout on an international guy like Redes, while signing Cheri from Violette (who dropped goals on us and Leon in CCL), means that we can still look abroad for goal production.

2. “To a Man with a Hammer, Every Problem Looks Like a Nail”

Wolff’s faith in his system, his footballing philosophy is quite famous amongst the players and hardcore fans at this point (it may even be bordering on infamous now thanks to The False 9).  

However, as David Gass pointed out on Moontower this week, the vertical integration of that philosophy into all levels of the club can produce a lot of great opportunities as younger players earn the right to move up the club’s soccer pyramid.

And the philosophy is even being validated by the results at the VerDos level, and Academy’s U-15 GA Cup Championship last week (according to Gass, it’s still historically rare for an MLS Academy to win this competition).

But for the first team, their patterns of play started getting shut down by opposing defenses last year, and that low goal-production trend has continued this season. Wolff has admitted to trying to evolve it this year, but whatever tweaks he’s made haven’t paid dividends yet.

So that raises some key questions: does Wolff believe that his preferred soccer system can be executed successfully by the players currently at his disposal?  Does he think that this system contains the solutions within it to overcome all soccer problems, or the specific problems that our team is facing this year?

And if he discovers that the answers to those questions are “no,” then I think the most important question is this: is Wolff flexible/open-minded enough to look at the players he’s got, with all of their unique strengths and weaknesses, and create a custom strategy that’s optimized to get the best out of them this season?  (and then maybe try to reboot his philosophy next year after recruiting better suited players) The alternative may be that he’s trying to fit square pegs in round holes by his dogged allegiance to his preferred philosophy.

It may be that Wolff has built up enough trust/patience with club leadership to realize his vision in the longer term, even if it means sacrificing the near-term results.  If that’s the case, then we’ll just have to step back and “let him cook.”  Having said that, the fans’ patience with the process is another thing entirely, and some “voces” are already fed up.

UPDATE: Between drafting this yesterday, and editing it this morning, I was encouraged to hear the hermanos at OtraXFavor co-sign on questioning Wolff’s flexibility.  But then I was also intrigued/perplexed when I heard Wolff say these words to the players in the weekly hype video: “We have full belief in you.  I don’t care what system we play in or structure we play in…”

It made me wonder if our coach is reading The False 9, and if it got under his skin.  If that’s the case, then we might have a Nathan Shelly kind of coach at the helm, rather than a Ted Lasso.

3. Remove Wolff from the Exclusive Club

At the end of 2022, there were only three MLS coaches in the most exclusive club in the league. 

I’m calling it the “multi-hatted coaches club” that was made up of Bob Bradley, Peter Vermes, and Bruce Arena.  On the surface, it seems like a pretty lofty group that any coach would aspire to be a part of.  But as this Forbes article pointed out last year, and Charles Boehm foresaw in 2018, having technical director duties on top of coaching duties can be as much of a curse as it is a reward for success.

This year, two coaches who enjoyed success in 2022 were thrust into the “multi-hatted coaches club” just as the season was starting up — thanks to the failings of the previous technical directors; they are Gregg Vanney and Josh Wolff.  And so far, both of them are trending towards continuing last year’s pattern: missing the playoffs.  Bradley, Arena and Vermes all missed out last year (and so far, only Arena has bounced back strong).

Those failings aren’t indicative of their overall track record in MLS, each of them has enjoyed success in the past, as have other coaches who’ve done double duty.  But Wolff is the third-youngest coach to ever work this double shift.  And while I’m not inclined to micromanage all the signs I’ve seen that this might be a factor, it’s worth considering whether or not he’s had enough preparation for a situation that hall of fame coaches struggled to pull off last year.

I know some of you will be quick to point out that Wolff isn’t being asked to replace Reyna 100% –  that he’s got Sean Rubio by his side to shoulder a lot of the burden.  I’ve considered that and pondered it while listening to every interview I could find with Mr. Rubio.  

Here’s my conclusion: Sean Rubio is a really smart, capable guy who doing great work running the player acquisition mechanisms of the club, and he has a lot of experience and know-how when it comes to running those aspects of the club. I have a lot of respect for Rubio, but can’t replace Reyna’s full package. I think Wolff needs an ex-athlete with extensive experience in the trenches of managing a soccer club.

Having a guy who Wolff can look up to — whose disagreements and constructively critical insights have to be reckoned with — would be invaluable to his continued growth as a coach.  It would be even more helpful with regard to my suggestions in point #2 if that person had experience in multiple footballing philosophies.

So I’m appealing to the only person at Austin FC who can do anything about this last suggestion: 

Mr. Anthony Precourt, please hire a new GM/ Sporting Director ASAP. 

I think at the very least it will give you another objective set of eyes and ears at the club who can keep refining Coach Wolff into the guy you believed in when you hired him — like “iron sharpening iron.”

#Wolffout is the nuclear option, and we’re not there yet.  There are other levers that can be pulled to point this ship in the right direction before the iceberg is on top of us.

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