As reality set in throughout the summer and fall that Austin FC would fall short of even its most conservative on-field expectations in its inaugural season, a silver lining often exchanged between ATX fans was, "Hey, at least we're not FC Cincinnati!"
The Verde and Black will have a chance to prove it February 26 at Q2 Stadium, in the opening match of the 2022 season when Austin FC takes on Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers FC Cincy, the club announced Monday.
The Verde faithful aren't wrong. While Austin FC's tally of nine wins and four draws in 2021 was unacceptably poor, it was marginally more respectable than FCC's six wins and six draws in 2019, still the worst mark for a debuting club in MLS history.
At this point, though, year ones are irrelevant. The cautionary tale for ATXFC majority owner Anthony Precourt, sporting director Claudio Reyna, and the Austin FC brass is how FC Cincinnati has fared in its second and third seasons. The short answer: badly. The long answer: dead last in MLS for three straight years, even a handful of points worse in 2021 than the prior two seasons. They've also had five different head coaches and four general managers in that span, making any chance for continuity impossible – something to consider for anyone in a rush to show Reyna or head coach Josh Wolff the door after one year.
Austin FC must be calculated and decisive over the next three months before hosting Cincinnati in the 2022 opener, striking a balance between status quo and overhaul. Change too much, and the club could be thrown into disarray. Change too little, and you're looking at another year of the same.
The early signs suggest the club intends to strike that balance. Austin FC had two players in its 2021 squad on loan from other clubs, but with the option to make those loans permanent at the end of the year: left-back Zan Kolmanic and central midfielder Sebastian Berhalter.
Kolmanic, the club announced Friday, will be an Austin FC player for at least the next three seasons as his loan-to-buy option from NK Maribor in Slovenia was exercised. The left-footed U22 Designated Player was a bright spot for ATXFC in 2021, participating in 30 of 34 matches and contributing four assists. His 45 crosses and 41 key passes were both top five among MLS defenders.
"Austin is one of the coolest, most welcoming communities I've ever spent time in," Kolmanic, 21, said in a press release. "I'm very grateful to Claudio Reyna and Josh Wolff for having the belief in me to make the move permanent and look forward to getting back to work with my teammates."
Meanwhile, The Columbus Dispatch reported Friday that Berhalter had returned to the Columbus Crew from his Austin loan stint, suggesting ATX plans to decline the midfielder's loan-to-buy option (though the club has until November 30 to make its decision official). Berhalter, 20, made five starts and 13 substitution appearances for Austin FC in 2021, notching one assist.
Also Friday, MLS laid out its road map for the offseason, shortened to ensure the 2022 season wraps up before next winter's World Cup in Qatar, kicking off a year from this week. The flurry begins with a four-hour trade window December 11, followed by Charlotte FC's expansion draft December 14, followed by the opening of free agency December 15.
Expect Austin FC to be busy over the next several weeks bolstering the squad with new talent and making sure it keeps a safe distance between itself and those less fortunate in Southwestern Ohio.
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