Year 3 could be blast or bust as Austin FC chases MLS title
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — From frustration to elation, Austin FC’s first two seasons were quite a ride.
Given how close the club came to playing for the 2022 championship and the burden of new expectations it created, Year 3 could be a blast, or a bust.
Austin rose from the bottom of the Western Conference in 2021 to get within a game of the MLS final last season. An offensive attack fueled by goals from the left foot of forward Sebastian Driussi has added more scoring punch with the recent signing of Gyasi Zardes for 2023.
That normally would have Austin gliding into a new season brimming with the confidence needed to deliver on expectations that it could again challenge for the title.
But this season also comes with the uncertainty of front office upheaval amid former sporting director Claudio Reyna's connection to a controversy involving U.S. Soccer.
Reyna used his international soccer connections to build Austin’s first roster from scratch during the pandemic, then shaped it quickly into a title contender. He's now been moved to a “technical adviser” role the club has yet to define.
That leaves coach Josh Wolff with a lot to manage.
“The success of last year, there was the validation of what year two gave these guys from an emotional standpoint, a quality standpoint, but it also is a big marker on your back," Wolff said. “We have to come back and perform.”
Driussi clearly feels he has more to do. The Argentine striker tied for second in MLS scoring with 22 goals last season and wants more. He also signed a new contract that keeps him with the team through 2025 with an option for 2026.
“Improving would be being the MVP and winning the Golden Boot,” awarded to the player with the most regular-season goals, Driussi said.
“What’s needed for this year? Austin raising a trophy," Driussi said. "It would be something very special for me.”
The field could open even wider for Driussi to score with the addition of the 31-year-old Zardes, who has 97 career goals. Austin is his fourth MLS club.
“We thought we were a good team at the start of last year. Maybe we surprised some teams, I think that’s probably what happened. Now ... expectations are going to be different," midfielder Ethan Finley said. “He knows how to score goals in this league.”
But Zardes is only one new piece of the lineup. Austin had to add defensive help after giving up 49 goals last season, the most among the top three teams in the Western Conference. That included a 3-0 loss to LAFC in the conference final.
“We scored a lot of goals last year," Finley said. "(But) probably gave up more than we liked.”
To help tighten up the back, Austin signed Egyptian free agent Amro Tarek, who has five previous seasons in MLS, most recently with the New York Red Bulls from 2019-2021.
“Red Bull has a certain DNA that they look for for their players from a physical standpoint. Speed, athleticism, power will be there,” Wolff said. "A little added heat, a little added bite in the (defense) is a good thing. He’ll bring that.”
That's the on-field stuff. Adjusting to the front office changes amid the fallout from Reyna's clash with U.S. men's national team coach Gregg Berhalter may be tougher.
Reyna and his wife Danielle complained to the U.S. Soccer Federation about their son Gio's lack of playing time at the World Cup. Danielle Reyna told them of a 1991 incident in which Berhalter kicked a woman who later became his wife, Rosalind Santana Berhalter, who was Danielle’s college roommate. The USSF hired the law firm Alston & Bird to investigate and the probe is ongoing.
It was shortly after that rift was made public that Austin announced Reyna would no longer be the team's sporting director. The club did not say if the move was directly related to the controversy.
Now Wolff and director of player personnel Sean Rubio will manage the roster, player development and the team salary cap in a chase for the championship.
“The leadership inside the building is strong,” Wolff said, insisting his relationship with Reyna isn't broken.
Reyna, Berhalter and Wolff have a long history together.
Reyna and Berhalter were teammates on the U.S. national team and Wolff was an assistant under Berhalter with the national team and Columbus Crew in MLS. Reyna hired Wolff as the head coach in Austin. The club even signed Berhalter’s son, Sebastian, in 2021, but he was not retained after one season.
“I've been friends with Claudio a long, long time and I expect that to stay the same," Wolff said. “I respect what Claudio’s decision is and we have to move forward as he does.”
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Jim Vertuno, The Associated Press