Launching an expansion team is always a tricky proposition, and doing so with a rookie head coach in his first season in charge of a professional team makes the task even more daunting.
That is what Austin FC is facing as it prepares to debut in 2021. Josh Wolff has taken charge after stints as an assistant coach in MLS and with the U.S. Men’s National Team and he will have the task of turning the first-year team into a winner in year one.
With Claudio Reyna helping build the squad, and bringing along his experience as sporting director at New York City FC, Austin FC has assembled a team that boasts a good amount of MLS experience, and also features some exciting foreign talent that should thrive in their new league.
Establishing a solid defensive foundation is always key for expansion teams, and those past teams that neglected this vital building block have seen their debut seasons marred by a steady string of ugly losses (like FC Cincinnati and Minnesota United in recent years).
Austin FC’s defense will feature MLS veterans Matt Besler, Nick Lima and Ben Sweat, with Besler looking to turn back the clock and regain the form that once made him a U.S. Men’s National Team starter. The 34-year-old isn’t the same player by any stretch, and will need to rely on his experience and position as opposed to his underrated speed, which helped him in his early years and as a USMNT defender.
While Besler provides the experience and veteran savvy, Austin FC will be counting on young Colombian defender Jhohan to provide the speed and athleticism. Romana is just 22, but boasts a healthy amount of experience from his time in the Colombian league. If he can adapt quickly to MLS, then Austin FC’s prospects of being competitive right away will increase considerably.
Austin’s fullback tandem is a solid one, with Lima in particular giving the expansion team an elite right back by MLS standards. Lima endured a frustrating time in his final years in San Jose, spending a lot of time out of position at left back despite impressing on the occasions he was allowed to play his natural right back role.
One of the team’s most important signings was former New York City FC captain Alex Ring. The Finnish defensive midfielder gives Austin an ideal midfield anchor who can provide support for the defense while also being able to contribute the attack when needed.
“Alex is a born leader, a player with experience in MLS as a captain, and someone who pushes the club on every day, in training and competition,” Wolff said of Ring. “He is a natural choice to be captain.”
“I am looking forward to this new challenge and opportunity with Austin,” said Ring. “It’s exciting to be a part of something from the very beginning.”
To be clear, Austin FC isn’t going to be a defend-and-counter team, as much as that approach can produce expansion results as it did with Nashville SC. For Wolff, establishing a team that can pass the ball and control possession is paramount, and the team’s effort to add high-caliber attacking players shows Austin FC’s prioritization of being an entertaining team to watch.
“The team enjoys the way we play,” Wolff said. “They know we want to have the ball and dictate tempo, and there’s a responsibility when we don’t have the ball. We have a structure that we play with offensively. As we grow this year, each opponent is different, we’ll have a little more variation in the way that we set up. That’s both offensively and defensively.”
Paraguayan forward Cecilio Dominguez will be called on to lead the attack, and the Club America’s goal-scoring pedigree make him a prime candidate to put up big numbers. A versatile attacker who can fit in anywhere along the front three, the former Club America forward should primarily work out of the left forward slot in Austin FC’s 4-3-3 setup.
Austin FC also succeeded in adding a quality playmaker in Tomas Pochettino, who is arguably the team’s best player. The 25-year-old Argentine midfielder can create chances for his teammates while also being able to go at defenses and seek out chances for himself.
The buzz in Austin for the city’s first MLS team is palpable, and having a brand new stadium to play in raises the stakes that much more, as does having two natural rivals within driving distance in FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo.
Here is a closer look at Austin FC heading into 2021:
2021 Austin FC Season Preview
2020 Finish: First season in MLS.
Newcomer to Watch: Tomas Pochettino
Austin FC has some interesting attacking options in central midfield, with Diego Fagundez and promising rookie Daniel Pereira, but Pochettino is the designated player acquisition who will be expected to lead the attack.
“(Pochettino) has the technical and tactical qualities we are looking for in a Designated Player,” Woff said. “He will offer us pace and versatility in the midfield, and we are confident he will make an immediate impact on our attacking end.”
Pochettino has the work rate to operate as a box-to-box midfielder, but Austin’s acquisition of Alex Ring to anchor the defensive midfield role should allow Pochettino to focus on facilitating the attack and setting up chances for Dominguez, Danny Hoesen and Rodney Redes.
Pressure is On: Matt Besler
The 34-year-old defender left his hometown club Sporting KC after 12 seasons and brings some valuable experience and leadership to the Austin FC locker room. The bigger question is can he still be an elite defender?
Austin FC has done well to pair Besler with a young and fast centerback partner in Jhohan Romana, but if Romana struggles to adapt, then Besler could be forced to do some heavy lifting along the backline. Playing for a new team should provide Besler with an energizing challenge, and if Besler plays at a good level then Austin will be very competitive, but if Besler’s age starts to catch up to him, then Austin could be in for a long season.
A look at Austin FC’s roster tells you that Major League Soccer’s third Texas team should be competitive, and shouldn’t endure the type of painful last-place season some recent expansion teams have had to deal with.
There is a big gap between being competitive and potentially sneaking into the playoffs, like Inter Miami did, and putting together a strong expansion season complete with solid showing in the playoffs, like Nashville SC.
So where will Austin FC wind up? It is a question that can’t be answered quite yet, especially if Austin FC still has some personnel moves to make. Right now Austin FC has a solid defense and some exciting attacking pieces, but there are questions about depth as well questions about how Josh Wolff will adapt to the first head coaching job of his career.
“This is my first head coaching job, this will be my first game to coach and of course, I feel like I’m ready,” Wolff said. “As a coach, you have your plans of the way you expect it to go. You also have things in there that if it’s not going your way, what are you planning for?
“I look at the team as we’re going to grow up throughout this year and I look at myself as someone that’s going to grow up throughout this year.”
Wolff has first-hand experience with how an expansion team can finish strong after early struggles. He was part of the 1998 Chicago Fire team that endured a difficult start to life in MLS before eventually finding a rhythm and going on to win the MLS Cup title.
Does that mean Austin could be lifting a trophy in December? That’s an extreme long shot, but what is more realistic is that Austin FC starts out slowly before finding a rhythm and becoming a legitimate handful as the middle of the season rolls on. Throw in some potential roster additions later in the year, and Austin FC could compete for a playoff berth in a Western Conference that is more forgiving than the Eastern Conference.
What does seem clear is that Austin FC will try to play attractive and entertaining soccer. Just how successful Wolff is at pulling that off remains to be seen, but he has some good attacking weapons that should lead to fans in Austin seeing plenty of goals.
Of course, just how many of those goals will be scored by the opposition is what will ultimately determine whether Austin FC falls into the category of strong expansion team and struggling one.
Austin FC Roster
Goalkeepers: Brady Scott, Brad Stuver, Andrew Tarbell, Will Pulisic
Defenders: Matt Besler, Julio Cascante, Hector Jimenez, Freddy Kleeman, Zan Kolmanic, Nick Lima, Jhohan Romana, Ben Sweat, Aedan Stanley.
Midfielders: Sebastian Berhalter, Diego Fagundez, Daniel Pereira, Tomas Pochettino, Alex Ring, Ulises Segura, Jared Stroud.
Forwards: Cecelio Dominguez, Jon Gallagher, Danny Hoesen, Kekuta Manneh, Rodney Redes, Aaron Schoenfeld.