This week, MLS revealed its season-opening games, which won’t take place until April 17. Among them was Austin FC’s franchise debut against LAFC.
Austin positioned for successful first season
Austin looks like it has a chance to follow in the footsteps of the most recent MLS expansion teams and enter their first season with a solid squad. It used to be that if you weren’t the Seattle Sounders or Atlanta United, you got blown out in your first season as an expansion team. Minnesota, Orlando, and Cincinnati struggled mightily in their first seasons, giving up boatloads of goals.
Last year, though, both Inter Miami and Nashville SC managed to not get blown off the field.
In fact, they made the (covid-produced) play-in round and faced off against each other. Nashville won 3-0 and then upset Toronto FC in the first round, part of a season in which they made a name for themselves by defending at a high level.
Miami often struggled, but with Gonzalo Higuain and Rodolfo Pizarro, they have the top end talent necessary to beat teams. Both Nashville and Miami have a path to real contention.
It’s possible that Austin could have a better expansion season than both of them.
Austin builds balanced roster
They’ve done a great job building a roster with diverse skillsets, backgrounds, and ages. Relying on only foreign signings or only MLS veterans limits a team’s ceiling, and as Minnesota infamously learned, could doom a season, if certain foreign players don’t work out. Austin has combined designated players who have elite histories playing in the Americas with quality MLS vets, young players, and fliers.
There’s no guarantee that Tomas Pochettino and Cecilio Dominguez will live up to their DP designations. But they’re in their primes (25 and 26) and they received significant interest from other clubs while playing in the Argentinian league. Sporting Director Claudio Reyna, who previously had success in the same role with NYCFC, left a DP spot open that they will likely fill in the summer.
The pieces around Pochettino and Dominguez seem to have achieved a certain level of competence. There’s Diego Fagundez, who is somehow still 26, playing a versatile role in attacking midfield or on either wing. Fagundez, a longtime player with the Revolution, is a skilled attacker who usually finds a way to force himself into the lineup. His production, going back to when he was an immensely promising youngster, usually justifies it. Add the speedy Kekuta Manneh and the 21-year-old Rodney Redes (the club’s first ever signing), and Austin should be able to find attacking production.
At the base of the midfield is a Reyna favorite in Alexander Ring. For the past half-decade, Ring has been one of the centerpieces for NYCFC, playing as a stout defensive midfielder who can move the ball and play box-to-box. There’s a guarantee of stability with Ring back there. They will also likely see good production from No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick Danny Pereira and 19-year-old midfielder Sebastian Berhalter. The depth, with Berhalter and former D.C. United midfielder Ulisses Segura, is there.
They won’t get killed on defense, either. They have reliable MLS veterans to go along with 22-year-old Paraguayan signing Jhohan Romana. Nick Lima, Julio Cascante, Matt Besler, and Hector Jimenez can all play reliable minutes on the backline. They signed 21-year-old Zan Kolmanic, a Slovenian youth international, and drafted Freddy Kleemann with the 11th-overall SuperDraft pick.
There are questions at goalkeeper (Andrew Tarbell, Brady Scott, Brad Stuver?) and at forward, where they will try the rotating cast of Danny Hoesen, Aaron Schofield, and Jon Gallagher. The DP slot they have available could help them bring in a better No. 9 in the summer. But with Josh Wolff, a member of the Gregg Berhalter coaching tree, possibly instituting a possession-based 4-2-3-1 along the lines of what he and Berhalter used in Columbus, Austin could be competitive right off the bat.
2021 MLS Season looks promising for Austin
They fit the mold of teams that look to established, reliable talent on defense and in-their-prime attacking DPs. There will be the usual expansion team struggles, as they try to bring together a new team with a first-time MLS manager. It’s yet to be seen whether their imports will produce. But it looks promising.
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