Austin FC Takes Bay Area Beating As Club’s Passion Comes Into Question

The Verde fall 4-0 to the San Jose Earthquakes

Austin FC defends a shot from San Jose Earthquakes forward Javier Eduardo "Chofis" López, who has now scored three times against the Verde this season. (courtesy of Austin FC)

After suffering mathematical elimination from the MLS playoffs at the weekend, Austin FC was left with five final matches to – as the saying goes – play for pride. In the first of those five Wednesday night, Austin FC appeared to have none.

The Verde lost 4-0 to the San Jose Earthquakes in PayPal Park, with all four goals coming in the second half. By margin, it was the club’s worst loss of the season. By several other measures, it was also its most concerning. At the end of it, difficult questions needed to be asked of the effort. More on that in a moment.

For the second match in a row, Josh Wolff named an aggressive starting lineup featuring what is generally considered to be Austin FC’s most talented (healthy) 11 players. All three designated players – Cecilio Domínguez, Tomás Pochettino, and Sebastián Driussi – featured alongside Alex Ring and company, with Moussa Djitté leading the lines at striker. This is a group that has had a modicum of success for the Oaks in its short time together. That was not the case Wednesday.

For the first 45 minutes, though, Austin FC was in the match. Certainly not the better team, but competitive with five shots to San Jose’s seven. A pair of big-time saves from Brad Stuver helped ATXFC get to the halftime whistle level at 0-0. Wolff made two changes at the break, removing Domínguez in favor of Rodney Redes and inserting McKinze Gaines in place of Djitté.

It did not work. Nothing worked in the second half for Austin, beginning with Julio Cascante’s attempt to recover possession deep in his own half 60 seconds after the restart. Cascante instead had his pocket picked by Benji Kikanovic, leading to San Jose’s opening goal by way of Chofis López.

Six minutes later, Kikanovic punished the Verde on the counter attack to make it 2-0. Immediately on the other end, Driussi came as close as any ATX player would get to finding the scoresheet, firing a low driven blast toward the San Jose goal that beat goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski. However, defender Tanner Beason was in position to clear it off the line.

Perhaps the sight of being denied in that fashion loosened a lug nut or two, because the wheels of the Verde Van came clean off shortly after.

In the 59th minute, some horrendous Austin FC defending allowed Chris Wondolowski to extend his all-time MLS goalscoring record to 169 and make it 3-0 to the Earthquakes. Players in the visiting whites just dipped their heads and wandered back to the center circle.

In the final half hour, Austin FC limped to the finish line without much passion or desire, like when 5pm can’t come soon enough on a depressing day at the office. Then, in the 85th minute, San Jose made it 4-0 off a corner kick. The defensive effort and reaction speaks for itself.

Had the Austin players simply quit on each other? Had they quit on the lost season? I chose to ask Wolff that question directly in the postgame Zoom press conference. He disagreed.

“Obviously you guys have the freedom to ask any question, but I don't think that's the case," Wolff said. "I mean, realistically, is that what you're seeing? Is that what you're saying? I think there are some frustrated guys, but it's a bullshit question, to be honest. But if that's where you want to go with it bud, go with it. That's your deal. If that's what you see, write it. If that's what you see bud, write it. That's what you see."

To be clear, it was a fair question given the context. A tough one, but one Wolff should have been prepared to answer in a more tactful way. Experienced head coaches understand how to defend their players – something Wolff has every right to do – without snapping back at the question. He missed an opportunity to have his say in the narrative, and instead inadvertently created a new one that puts his ability to process adversity in question.

Diego Fagundez, Austin FC’s ever-positive emotional leader, said that the poor performance should not shake the confidence that the team has in itself going forward.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with confidence. I think today was just an off-day for all of us, and it’s not acceptable,” Fagundez said. “Everybody needs to be better.”

Austin FC returns home from the West Coast to prepare for a Sunday matinee against the Houston Dynamo at Q2 Stadium. Depending on how you feel about Copa Tejas as a worthwhile goal, that match is a must-win, and a chance to recover a bit of pride and passion left behind in the Bay Area.

Read more Austin FC coverage – including Eric Goodman’s weekly column, The Verde Report – at Follow him on Twitter: @goodman.

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Austin FC, San Jose Earthquakes, Josh Wolff, Benji Kikanovic

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