By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 22, 2021) US Soccer Players – It has become an annual rite of passage in MLS. A new team prepares to enter the league each winter, signing players and marketing itself to a new city. The aim is to sell tickets and be competitive enough to make the playoffs. It’s exactly what Austin FC has been doing as they prepare to kick off the 2021 season on April 17 on the road against Los Angeles FC.
Austin FC faces all the issues of an expansion team and more because of the pandemic. They’ll open their new Q2 Stadium starting on June 19 in a state that’s already been lenient with live attendance. In a statement on the team’s website, club president Andy Loughnane said Austin FC is working on “safely hosting a large crowd” for its home opener against the San Jose Earthquakes.
“While we are not quite yet in position to provide a definitive answer given the changing (and hopefully improving) conditions, I speak on behalf of our entire organization when I share that it is our hope to be in position to consider safely hosting a large crowd for our home opener on June 19,” the March 15 message read.
To one extent or another, all MLS teams are working on plans to accommodate fans. For Austin FC the problem is bigger. A team playing in MLS for the first time aims at generating enthusiasm and jump-starting a soccer culture. Austin, like many cities that have recently joined the league, is off to a strong start in this department. Texas Monthly recently published a feature story on how the team deployed a series of ads last year that helped get Austinites excited about the team. Nonetheless, the inability to fill venues because of COVID-19 remains a challenge.
Austin is already a city excited about their new team. What the club is doing to put together an appealing product is something all expansion sides have had to grapple with over the years. The league’s 27th franchise brought in USMNT alums Claudio Reyna as sporting director and Josh Wolff as head coach. The two have spent a year piecing together a competitive roster, one that will get national TV exposure on Fox when they visit LAFC in their first-ever match.
Former NYCFC captain Alex Ring holds the same role with his new club. Considered one of the league’s best defensive midfielders since moving to MLS in 2017, he played in Europe with Helsinki HJK and Germany’s Kaiserslautern. He’ll be in front of center backs Matt Besler, the former Sporting Kansas City defender and USMNT player, and Jhohan Romana of Colombia who is new to the league. That should give the club stability, something that tends to go lacking with the focus on attacking players.
With that in mind, the flash and flair that comes with marketing a new team normally depend on attacking players. This is where Wolff and Reyna have spent considerable time. Defenders are also easier to find compared to attacking players with a success rate good enough to want to add to your roster. Austin FC will feature attacking midfielder Tomas Pochettino, who is also a Designated Player alongside striker Cecilio Dominguez. Both players, with experience in Argentina, are part of the pipeline of South American talent that has succeeded in MLS in recent years.
The 25-year-old Pochettino, previously with Tallares, and 26-year-old Dominguez, a Paraguayan who spent last season with Independiente, are in their primes. While both players will need a few months to adapt to MLS, Austin FC also has plenty of talent on the roster. That might include a third designated player.
Joining the midfield is Diego Fagundez, previously of the New England Revolution, can play both in the middle or on the wing. He has what it takes up front to help Austin FC succeed, finding a way to score goals when called upon. He’s played 10 seasons in MLS, appearing in 261 regular-season games and recording 53 goals and 45 assists. Those are impressive numbers for a player who is still just 26 years old.
Wolff is likely to field a compact 4-3-3 formation, but one that can easily turn into a 4-3-2-1 – one of the most-popular lineups in MLS – depending on injuries and opponents.
“The first thing is trying to get players to understand philosophically how we want to play,” Wolff told reporters during a March 9 news conference. “That the ball is our friend and we want to possess the game. We want to be able to dictate a certain tempo. First and foremost, it’s obviously introducing the ideas of how we want to play, and then we’ll start to see different qualities for each player.”
In preparation for their debut, the team will compete in the inaugural edition of La Copita, a preseason tournament featuring three other Texas-based teams. Austin FC will take on the Houston Dynamo on April 3, FC Dallas four days later and USL side San Antonio FC on April 10. These games will go a long way to create chemistry and cohesion among the players.
Wolff said the players at his disposal where scouted with the intention to fit into his system of play. “We signed these guys, so we have a good idea who they are,” he added. “But we’re also going to learn a little bit more about them now that we’re in and around them much more on the field and in meetings.”
This is already a season where no MLS team is in a position to take much of anything as a given. That includes another expansion team quickly showing that they have what it takes to win earlier than expected.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Preview: USMNT U-23s Concacaf Olympic qualifying
- The Champions League’s American audience
- American Designated Players in 2021
- Columbus faces the repeat champion problem in MLS
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