The Verde Report: Three Questions Austin FC Must Answer in Its Final Six Games
A supreme striker, mid-week matches, and more Qs in need of an A
After a weekend of star-spangled hysteria at Q2 Stadium, Austin FC gets back to business this week when the Loons of Minnesota United head into town for a Saturday night clash. With them comes bombastic British manager Adrian Heath, who can sympathize with the predicament Austin FC finds itself in with just six matches remaining in its inaugural season.
Back in 2015, Heath stood at the helm of then-expansion squad Orlando City SC, which struggled to get much going right on the field through the first six months of the season. (Sound familiar?) With a half-dozen matches to play, OCSC was staring a last-place finish in the face. But then something clicked. The Lions won five of their last six contests and came up just short of a miracle run to the playoffs. They ended the season as one of the hottest clubs in MLS, carrying loads of momentum into year two.
That's a lot to ask of Josh Wolff and his Austin FC squad, but it can be done. Prior to the international break, the club enjoyed its best week of the season, taking two wins out of three against playoff-caliber competition. There's plenty to play for in the remaining month of the campaign, and also plenty to learn ahead of a pivotal off-season for the club. Here are three questions I'll be looking for Austin FC to answer during this final stretch.
Is Moussa Djitté the answer at striker? It's certainly seemed as much through the Senegalese forward's first three starts. He's only scored one goal but has influenced the game in obvious ways to the benefit of Austin FC's entire attack. But it's a small sample size. Can the 22-year-old sustain his impact and add a few more goals in the process? If he can, Austin FC has successfully filled its largest and costliest roster hole from the first two-thirds of the season.
How will Wolff handle midweek matches? On three occasions this season, the ATXFC head coach has gone overboard with squad rotation for Wednesday matches on the road, leading to embarrassing losses in St. Paul, Frisco, and Denver. Wolff comes from a modern line of soccer thought which states that ties (and even losses) away from home are acceptable if it means bolstering your chances on home turf with increased freshness. Wolff's mentor Gregg Berhalter put this on full display with the U.S. men's national team last week. After the 2-0 win over Jamaica in Austin, Berhalter made seven changes to his 11-man lineup for an away contest in Panama, which led to a hideous loss.
Wolff admitted after ATXFC's most recent midweek loss that he overdid things when rotating the squad (he too replaced seven players, sapping the team of all cohesion and chemistry). Has he learned his lesson? We'll see on Oct. 20 and Nov. 3, when the Oaks go again on hump day.
Is Texas supremacy a priority? It's been a rough year for soccer in the Lone Star State. FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, and Austin FC currently make up the bottom three teams in the Western Conference. Whoever finishes best of the trio and claims the Copa Tejas trophy won't have too much cause for celebration. But for Austin FC in particular, it would make for a modest year one accomplishment. So far, the club has approached intrastate clashes much like any other game. Will things be different when Austin battles Houston and Dallas for the last time in 2021?