Austin FC on brink of MLS final a year after difficult debut

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The constant drum beats and chants that pulse through the crowd at Austin FC home matches weren’t always a celebration.

There was a time they were more like a metronome of frustration.

The expansion club couldn’t score in its debut season, the losses mounted and some of the fans who were so excited to finally have a pro franchise in their city questioned whether Josh Wolff, a former U.S. men’s...

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The constant drum beats and chants that pulse through the crowd at Austin FC home matches weren’t always a celebration.

There was a time they were more like a metronome of frustration.

The expansion club couldn’t score in its debut season, the losses mounted and some of the fans who were so excited to finally have a pro franchise in their city questioned whether Josh Wolff, a former U.S. men’s national team striker, was in over his head in his first season as a head coach.

But all that losing in 2021 has been replaced by a spectacular Year Two, leading to Sunday’s match at top-seed Los Angeles FC in the Western Conference final. Austin is the No. 2 seed. The winner will go to the MLS Cup final.

“There were plenty of obstacles, and certainly things that we had to overcome,” Wolff said. “But in the end, it’s all worth it.”

“Obstacles” is a tidy word to describe what Austin faced last year. The initial roster had to be built without personal visits between players, coaches or executive staff due to the pandemic. Training was disrupted. Chemistry-building team gatherings were limited. The club played its first eight matches on the road because its $260 million stadium wasn’t completed.

“I don’t think anyone was ready for COVID or what it was going to do on the field or off the field. I certainly wasn’t as a coach,” Wolff said. “It made last year very trying.”

The play on the pitch was even bumpier: Austin won just nine games and its 35 goals were the fewest in the league.

“Seventeen shutouts lost me a lot of sleep,” Wolff said. “But when you are building something, it’s also about seeing the process and how it’s evolving. Is it working?’”

To outsiders, it wasn’t. To Wolff, it was.

And even with the disaster of last season, the coach’s goal for 2022 was to make the playoffs — which might have seemed comical until the season began with a 5-0 thrashing of Cincinnati. The first goal ripped the net in the first two minutes. The next match was a 5-1 victory over Inter Miami.

The heartbeat of the new offensive attack is Argentine forward Sebastian Driussi, whose 22 goals rank No. 2 in MLS, and Uruguayan midfielder Diego Fagundez, who ranks seconds in the league with 15 assists.

That duo has given Austin the confidence it can rescue any game from certain defeat; it’s first club in MLS history to rally from two goals down to win four times in a season.

“Once you get that validation, the validation of the goals, the wins, the character starts to grow,” Wolff said.

That character surfaced early in a pair of tough road wins. Austin trailed DC United 2-0 before rallying for three goals in 10 minutes. At Montreal, Austin played the entire second with only 10 players because of a red card and still struck for the winning goal.

Austin and LAFC have met twice this season. Austin won both: 2-1 in Los Angeles and a 4-1 rout in Austin.

Austin defender Julio Cascante who signed here last year after three years in Portland, said the team followed Wolff’s lead.

“I came here to make the fans be proud of this team,” Cascante said. “Of course, it was difficult. But when you have the mentality that coach has as a winner, and you learn from him and go on the field and perform, that’s how you change completely.”

By May, Wolff had a contract extension through 2025.

Austin and LAFC have met twice this season. Austin won both: 2-1 in Los Angeles and a 4-1 rout in Austin.

“I don’t think we dreamed or had the inclination that we’d be in the Western Conference final,” Wolff said. “To establish from nothing … You get to the playoffs, you give yourself a chance and we’ve had quality all year.”

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