The 411 on Austin FC: Busting on the gamble in Frisco, new formation and Djitté arrives
Momentum and emotion can swing quickly in professional sports. Austin FC, and its supporters, were riding high following a 3-2 win at home against the Houston Dynamo in the first ever Copa Tejas match for the expansion club. That positivity came crashing down on Saturday in a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas in the first regular season match between the two squads.
The 411 on Austin FC includes four truths, a question and one prediction.
The gamble didn’t pay off: We saw the vision. A tired Austin FC squad needed its reserve attackers to threaten for 60 minutes and head coach Josh Wolff started three center backs in hopes of holding on to a scoreless draw for long enough to bring on his three designated players to nick a goal and win an away match in the same way Seattle and Colorado stole three points in Austin. It almost worked.
Multiple truths can exist. Wolff was right to sit Cecilio Domínguez if he was ill and incapable of playing for 90 minutes. He was also right to rest Tomás Pochettino after the midfielder played 90 minutes twice over the previous six days leading into the match with FC Dallas. And new signing Sebastián Driussi had only practiced with the team twice before that game due to league rules regarding quarantine.
The fans were right, too, especially the hundreds who bused from Austin to Frisco to watch the first derby between the two intrastate rivals. A starting lineup devoid of the talent who can score goals for a team that’s struggled mightily to do just that is undoubtedly disappointing.
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We’ll see that formation again: Some will argue that the 3-5-2 implemented by Wolff was an issue, but I would disagree. The formation was fine, and for 45 minutes, that formation boggled the FC Dallas attack due to an aggressive midfield and a packed central defense. It was the personnel that was lacking. Replace Sebastian Berhalter with Pochettino, Manny Perez with Domínguez, Aedan Stanley with Žan Kolmanič and find a place out there for Driussi and that might be the best way for Austin FC to line up moving forward.
Moussa Djitté arrives: Photos are circulating on social media of the 21-year-old striker at the Austin airport with members of the Austin FC staff. My sources say that Djitté is indeed in Austin and must go through quarantine protocols and begin training individually before he can be placed into team drills that will prepare him for an eventual debut. That debut won’t happen as quickly as it did for Driussi. Djitté hasn’t played since May and will need time to get into game shape and to learn the system. His arrival is a big sigh of relief for the team and its fans. Austin FC is still at the bottom of the league with 13 goals scored and a true center forward will help immensely.
Crunch time arrives: The regular season is officially halfway over for Austin FC after the FC Dallas match. The club holds 16 points through 17 matches and is in 12th place in the 13-team Western Conference. To make the playoffs, Austin FC must take advantage of the next handful of matches against opponents sitting between El Tree and the seventh spot in the Western Conference. That starts on Saturday with a trip to Real Salt Lake. Austin FC hasn’t won a road game since May 1. Between that game and the Sept. 15 home match against LAFC, Austin faces last place Vancouver twice, Portland and Houston — teams the club has already beaten — and a rematch against FC Dallas. Austin FC can earn 18 points in those six matches. It’ll need close to 12 over that span to put itself back in real playoff contention.
Is Austin FC underachieving? Maybe the worst thing to happen to the Verde and Black, at least in terms of perception and expectation, was winning two of its first three matches. This is an expansion team put together amidst a pandemic. It lost both of its strikers by the end of May. Both starting fullbacks missed at least a month with left back Ben Sweat's ACL injury in the second match of the season and right back Nick Lima still working his way back into the starting lineup. The third designated player just debuted and a hot-shot 21-year-old signing is only now arriving in Austin to start training. Reaching the playoffs was the goal, but falling short isn’t an indictment of the ability of Wolff to coach or sporting director Claudio Reyna’s ability to find talent.
Djitté makes his debut Aug. 29 vs. FC Dallas: Synergy excites me and debuting Djitté against the same team that Driussi first saw MLS action with makes sense for multiple reasons. One, Djitté needs a few weeks to acclimate to a new country and a new team, as well as get back in shape because he was signed in the middle of his offseason. He’ll need to quarantine and train on his own this week due to league rules regarding COVID-19. That means he’ll start training with the team when it returns from Salt Lake City next week. The following two matches (home against Vancouver on Aug. 18 and home against Portland on Aug. 21) come fast and furious, which leads me to believe it’ll be hard to integrate Djitté into the team with three matches in seven days. There is an eight-day break between the Timbers match and the one against FC Dallas. That time would be the perfect spot to work Djitté into the lineup.