Commentary: Austin FC aims to blaze a trail of next-gen MLS success that usurps the old guard

Austin FC coach Josh Wolff, left, and actor Matthew McConaughey walk on the field before a match in February.
Austin FC coach Josh Wolff, left, and actor Matthew McConaughey walk on the field before a match in February. Wolff is determined to turn his second-year team into MLS title contenders.
(Stephen Spillman / Associated Press)

One of the oldest teams in MLS met one of the youngest Sunday under a brilliant turquoise sky at Dignity Health Sports Park.

It was tradition versus modernity. Old money versus new.

Old school won, with second-half substitute Dejan Joveljic setting up two goals and scoring two others in the Galaxy’s 4-1 win over Austin FC. The victory was just the Galaxy’s second in their last six MLS games and both have come over Austin, which has suddenly hit the skids, winning just one of its last five.

The four goals are also the most the Galaxy have scored in a game since last July and the most Austin has allowed this season. Whether that will slow what, in recent years, has been looking like a changing of the guard in MLS remains to be seen.

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Only one of the last seven MLS Cups has been won by one of the league’s founding franchises; the others were won by teams that joined the league in the last 15 years. Heading into the June international break, five of the top seven teams in the Supporters’ Shield table have played fewer than less than a dozen seasons in the league.

Less than halfway into its second season Austin had shown signs it wanted to be part of that new guard before the recent slump brought it back earth heading into the league’s international break. As a result, Austin coach Josh Wolff looks at the Galaxy’s success and longevity as an example, but not a model, as he builds his team’s culture.

“[The] Galaxy is a team that’s won many trophies and many championships,” he said. “We’re not in awe of who they are and what they’ve accomplished. That’s part of their stature and kind of their legacy but it doesn’t really affect our preparation or our understanding of ideas of who they are.”

Los Angeles Galaxy coaches and players celebrate their 2012 MLS title.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, center, and stars Landon Donovan, holding the trophy, and David Beckham, front left, celebrate after defeating the the Houston Dynamo for the 2012 MLS title.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The ever-expanding MLS has added eight teams in the last six seasons and they’ve all entered the league with different philosophies and differing levels of success.

Atlanta and LAFC came in with big expectations and spent big to accomplish them, with each winning a trophy — Atlanta an MLS Cup, LAFC a Supporters’ Shield — in their first two seasons. Contrast that with Cincinnati and Inter Miami, which began play in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and have yet to finish a season with a winning record.

Wolff’s team finds itself somewhere in between. Austin lost 21 times and scored just 35 goals in 2021, but its seven wins this season are just two shy of matching last year’s total. And it has already 28 goals, one off the league lead.

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The coach said the comparison is a bit misleading. Austin’s inaugural season was hampered by COVID-19 restrictions — which affected everything from scouting to road trips — as well as by injuries to Danny Hoesen, Ben Sweat and Matt Besler. The team also played the first eight games in franchise history on the road — going 2-4-2 — while it waited for Q2 Stadium to open.

That roster construction continued into this season, with the team adding Argentina midfielder Sebastián Driussi in July then signing free-agent Max Urruti, one of a half-dozen players sporting director Claudio Reyna acquired during the winter. Driussi and Urruti have combined for 12 goals and five assists through 14 games, but more importantly they’ve started every one.

“The experienced players and the quality that we brought in, along with the foundation that we laid and executing at a better level…that’s validating what we’ve been doing,” Wolff said.

Austin FC goalkeeper Brad Stuver tries to grab the ball during a match against LAFC on May 18.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

After the win, Galaxy coach Greg Vanney was complimentary of the team and the coach he just had beaten.

“I like the way Josh sees the game. I like the way he plays,” he said. “There’s not a ton of dissimilarities between some of our ideas and some of their ideas. They’ve come a long way in a year.

“I suspect they’ll be a playoff team this year. They have enough quality.”

Diego Fagúndez gave Austin a 1-0 led seven minutes into the second half Sunday, lifting a right-footed shot over Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond from the top of the box. But the Galaxy answered with two goals three minutes apart and Joveljic played a big part in both, with his back-heel pass setting up Javier “Chicharito” Hernández for the first goal in the 61st minute before scoring the go-ahead goal himself. Joveljic then put the game away with a score in the 88th minute before assisting on Efraín Álvarez’s goal which accounted for the final margin.

For the Galaxy (7-5-2) the come-from-behind win was their first of the season while for Austin (7-4-3) it was the second time in four games it let a second-half lead get away. For Hernández, who lost one first-half goal to a video replay and another when Austin keeper Brad Stuver saved his penalty try, there’s a lesson in Austin’s fast start fading.

“This is the most balanced league in the world,” he said in Spanish. “In this league it’s not how you start it’s how you finish — in the playoffs.”

Wolff agreed.

“We’re not a finished product. We’re 16 months into our existence so we’ve got plenty to improve on,” he said. “There’s things to be pleased about. But we’ve got to keep going.

“We haven’t won anything yet.”