When the final whistle sounded in Austin FC's 2-0 road defeat to rivals-in-the-making FC Dallas Saturday, the Verde reached an ominous milestone. Seventeen matches in the books out of an inaugural campaign of 34. Halftime.
Not that the club will get much more than your standard 15 minutes to recover, not with another three matches inbound in the span of seven days starting this Saturday in Salt Lake City.
On the pitch, it's been a disappointing start to Major League Soccer life for the Oaks: just four wins out of 17 and a league-worst 13 goals scored; a constant string of injuries; players struggling to fit into the roles asked of them; and the realization that Q2 Stadium, no matter how packed or how loud, will not yield winning performances if the club's quality doesn't measure up.
It's got the feeling of a team down a couple of goals after 45 minutes and in need of some adjustments. Assuming that making the playoffs is still Austin FC's bare minimum expectation – and if a club ever sets its aim lower than that, its not worthy of your time – things have to turn the corner right about now.
Luckily, some vital Verde pieces are beginning to fall into place all around the same time. Between the last two matches, including a 3-2 home win over 10-man Houston Dynamo August 4, the following have happened:
• Daniel Pereira, Jon Gallagher, and Nick Lima returned from multiweek injuries.
• Designated player Tomás Pochettino scored his first two goals as an Austin FC player.
• Attacking midfielder Sebastián Driussi, the club's most expensive player and third DP, made his ATX debut.
• Striker Moussa Djitté, signed June 30, finally arrived in Austin after securing his U.S. visa.
Now, it should be noted that none of this prevented head coach Josh Wolff from naming his most toothless starting XI to-date in the predictable loss in Frisco. Still, the expectation is that beginning as early as Saturday against Real Salt Lake, Wolff will be able to call on a lineup more formidable – on paper – than anything close to what's come before. And hey, since paper is what you're staring at, here's how it could look:
Attack: Cecilio Domíngez, Djitté, Driussi
Midfield: Diego Fagundez, Alex Ring, Pereira
Defense: Zan Kolmani, Matt Besler, Julio Cascante, Lima
Goalkeeper: Brad Stuver
Astute observers will notice that the above does not even include Pochettino who would, in this scenario, be available off the bench as a dangerous substitute.
The question: Is this a squad that can get Austin FC into the playoffs? Over a fresh 34-match season and barring injury crisis, I have little doubt that "yes" is the answer. But that's not the situation. El Tree has 17 games to vault at least five clubs in the Western Conference standings. On average, 48 points gets it done for that seventh and last playoff spot. Austin has 16 points.
So here's the math: 32 points over 17 games (just under two points average per game). You get three for a win and one for a draw. 11 wins gets it done. Eight wins and nine draws gets it done. Anything in between gets it done.
And it may take a bit less if other teams falter. Regardless, the margin for error is air-tight. Working in Austin FC's favor is the fact that 10 of the remaining matches are at home. Winning the lion's share of those is non-negotiable.
Halftime is over. Time to start mounting the comeback.
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