Austin FC turns doubters into believers amid unexpected MLS Cup playoffs
AUSTIN, Texas – In true Texan fashion, Austin FC is making big strides.
When the expansion team entered Major League Soccer last year, expectations were already high. Partner and “Culture Secretary” Matthew McConaughey was cautious about how he approached the excitement his team generated. He called it a “100-year war”.
If we follow that standard there are 98 left, but this second season has already reached heights that seemed largely unimaginable.
With just nine wins last year and a 12th place finish, many were skeptical about what Austin FC could achieve in 2022. They did not have much success with two of their three designated players as Cecilio Domínguez had his contract terminated following an investigation into a domestic player dispute. Tomás Pochettino was loaned out to Argentina’s River Plate after a volatile season in which he recorded just two goals and two assists in 31 games.
But that third DP, Sebastián Driussi, turned things around and became one of the best players in MLS. He scored 22 goals that season, just short of the golden boot, and guided Austin to No. 2 in the West. They were even in the Supporters’ Shield race for most of the season, but that flared up at the end. Driussi’s MVP Caliber year was the driving force behind turning many doubters into believers.
The goal they had set of making the playoffs was achieved and they got to experience it at home in Q2 Stadium, which has quickly become one of the premier matchday experiences in the league. It’s all part of the plan, this 100 year war, to make the legend grow. The first playoff game against Real Salt Lake wasn’t pretty and Austin played with fire before nearly burning himself, but Driussi and goalkeeper Brad Stuver came out big to force overtime 2-2 and eventually progress in a penalty shootout.
With that nervousness finally settled, Austin prepared to host rivals FC Dallas and was certainly up to the task. You guessed it, Druissi and Stuver were massive again as they won 2-1 in the team’s second year of existence and secured their ticket to the Western Conference Finals.
“We had the idea and the hope that we could come here. Was it in the semifinals and you’re close to the MLS Cup? I don’t know if we’ve pushed our dreams that far,” said head coach Josh Wolff. “But we knew we could compete and make it to the playoffs. And I always say if you get to the playoffs in this league, you have a chance. And we have a great opportunity.”
It’s actually funny that the team bases its mentality on being underdogs as they convincingly passed opponents all season, including twice LAFC, who they will play against on Sunday for a ticket to the MLS Cup Finals. Parity in the league makes it wild at times, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be: #1 vs. #2.
“I think it shows what a team we are. Not everyone can’t have a good year and suddenly you make it to the end [Conference] Finale,” said Diego Fagundez, who was an integral part of this franchise. “We always want to prove people wrong, but at the same time we want to show people that we’re good enough for it. We’re just getting started.”
And what a start it was. Whether or not Driussi wins MVP, whether the magic run ends on Sunday or continues, to have that success so early is monumental.
Even Wolff said it himself: “If that’s what you dreamed it would look like, it exceeds expectations.”
They are one win away from playing for the cup with a chance of hosting that game depending on the Eastern Conference final score. Even the most optimistic fan looking through verde-colored glasses would not have made it this far, especially after many questioned Wolff and the team about the inaugural season. But that’s the beauty of the game and a franchise with clear vision – community connection, roster building, etc.
“We started this season knowing we were a much better team than our results last year showed,” said Stuver. “We put in a system and culture in the dressing room and brought in some other people that really gave us a boost. I think you can tell that this changing room has a different vibe.”
Now a trip to Los Angeles awaits. It’s where the franchise played its first game ever. But before turning the focus to LAFC, Wolff wants to make sure his team takes a step back to recognize it.
“It was a unique experience that I hope they will take with them,” he said on Sunday after the win against FC Dallas. “That’s what this job and this game is about, it’s about memories, relationships and having those moments with people. This is a great group and we will keep pushing.”
Austin FC joined in 2021. But in 2022, the franchise has proven it’s here to stay.
100 years? Maybe two is more than enough.