In another soccer life, this would have been written in 2019 with a different tone. With then-Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt attempting to move the club to Austin, MLS stepped in to split the difference: Columbus would find new ownership and eventually win an MLS title as a founding member (and build a new stadium), while the league could still expand into one of the most culturally relevant cities in the country. Though Austin FC enters the league on its own this season as the 27th team, they are on the same trajectory as Miami and Nashville from last year. The three clubs represent a strategy of getting the league into fast-growing markets with a cache of cool.
And isn’t creating a side out of nothing more fun than inheriting a previous roster and identity? Every decision, from finding sponsors to constructing a squad to building a stadium, is its own singular move without context. It’s a freedom that can only exist for a certain period before the burden of reality.
It’s interesting how little we actually know of the team ahead of their inaugural season. The mystery begins with manager Josh Wolff, who was hired back in 2019. Making his name as an assistant under Gregg Berhalter at Columbus and the USMNT, Austin represents his first role as a senior side manager. We have ideas of his playing philosophy considering his background, but question marks surrounding Wolff contrast the managerial choices of recent expansion teams who valued some level of senior experience. You can reason out a first-time manager as following the story of a new beginning, even if they could benefit in using institutional knowledge as guard rails.
But there is a definitive blueprint for modern expansion sides in following the examples of Atlanta United and LAFC in roster construction and capturing an off-field zeitgeist. Austin followed the Atlanta playbook in looking to South America for foundational attacking talent with 26-year-old Paraguayan winger Cecilio Dominguez and 25-year-old Argentine midfielder Tomas Pochettino as the club’s first two Designated Players.
Off the field, the club borrowed from the LAFC model of celebrity ownership with Matthew McConaughey serving as a minority owner and minister of culture (in McConaughey fashion, he likened building a club to a “big strong oak tree” and “100-year war”). Though in the matter of igniting a fanbase, there are already cracks within the club’s supporter groups.
So we can only infer how the South American-influenced roster will translate on the field. Precourt said that he was taken by Wolff’s “attractive, attacking, possession-oriented playing style,” hitting all of the tactical keywords. Wolff previously stated his preference for playing a 4-3-3 formation as one would expect from the Berhalter coaching tree. His calmness and intellect as an assistant was painted as balancing the emotions of his former boss.
“You want to be offensive-minded, you want to have organization, be entertaining, exciting, and score goals. I do believe in … the idea of being comfortable with the ball, utilizing space and positions,” said Wolff.
There is at least a playing philosophy to aim for. Pessimistically, you could ask whether that style is appropriate for this current era. Possession was the dominant model during Wolff’s time under Berhalter during the middle part of last decade. It is worth noting that Wolff was hired two years before their opening match, and even before sporting director Claudio Reyna (the two were teammates with the USMNT). By comparison, next season’s debutants Charlotte FC have yet to name a head coach. Taking in the moment, you would expect any new side to deeply consider a Bundesliga-style pressing approach.
And even if Wolff is an unknown, Reyna’s work demands the benefit of any doubt. Reyna comes from the Manchester City-influenced NYCFC structure centered around the ball and possession (Reyna is also in a unique position of building two expansion sides from scratch in NYCFC and now Austin). Precourt honed in on Reyna’s “MLS IQ” through his experience in moving from college soccer to Europe to MLS, then learning at the executive finishing school of NYCFC.
Wolff may lack experience but he does have four MLS champions on the roster. And while Dominguez is a known international product who can create chances, the strength of the squad lies in the midfield three. The pieces fit together with Pochettino and Pereira as two dynamic No. 8s getting into attack and Alex Ring, acquired for a historic $1.25 million from NYCFC last offseason, as the holding anchor. Ring is Austin’s most important player considering his quality and positional role, especially in keeping a newly-formed team together on the field. His importance was underlined by being named the first captain in team history.
But if all else fails, Austin have one more Designated Player slot just in case. Nothing shifts the narrative and gives MLS front offices space like another expensive transfer.
“If you get your three DPs and you can get 30 goals and 20 assists from them, it’s a good starting point,” said Reyna about strong-arming results at the expense of finesse.
For all the questions surrounding how the team will play, there is genuine MLS experience throughout the organization from ownership down to Ring. Precourt has also invested significantly with a $45 million practice facility and a $260 million stadium (an expansion team is as expensive as it is exciting). At the very least, there will be no structural surprises of how the league works from the salary cap to the long-distance travels. It’s a low bar to clear, but it is something.
There was a telling idea following the withdrawal of Sacramento’s MLS bid in February: the league didn’t necessarily mind the loss as a Sacramento team wouldn’t move the needle on a national or international level.
So what does MLS need Austin to be? Portland and Nashville are obvious blueprints of how a club can engage with a smaller population size that punches up in our national imagination through culture and arts. Though ideas are changing, the Timbers used the perception of soccer as an outsider sport to draw a connection with the underlying independent mentality already in the city. There is also a thread of Atlanta United, with the newness of the team representing transplants in the region as opposed to the generational institution of the Hawks, Braves, and Falcons. Austin is frequently on the list of fastest growing cities in the country.
In MLS terms, Austin is firmly in the “move the needle” group based on being the first major sports team in a city that has been part of the national story for decades, whose relevance will only increase throughout the technological age. The x-factor foundational pieces for a club to personify an unspoken feeling and capture something in the air are in place.
All the investment numbers, front office resumes, and roster names look good until the reality of an opening match. Then the dreaming turns into points on a table, arm-chair managers, and 90 minutes of emotional swings. Taking away the excitement, the smart version is to approach this season with cautious optimism due to Wolff’s lack of experience. There may be a playoff berth just based on individual talent, but discussing expectations is short sighted. As McConaughey said, this season is about the trunk of the tree, whatever it is, and however it grows. The actual results are for another time.