Sports

The Verde Report: Austin FC’s Playoff Debut Is a Moment Five Years in the Making

The Verde and Black take on Real Salt Lake Sunday afternoon at Q2 Stadium


A packed crowd celebrates another goal at Q2 Stadium (Courtesy of Austin FC)

On Sunday, Austin's own Major League Soccer franchise will host a playoff match inside Austin's own soccer-specific stadium while Austin's own rabid fan base watches from the sold-out stands.

Imagine that. Just let the thought breathe for a moment. There was a time not too long ago when that concept would have seemed as foreign as the terms "Minister of Culture" or "Pollo FC." That time was, in fact, anytime before October 16, 2017, the day a tweet from soccer journalist Grant Wahl sent the hearts of Central Texas footie fans fluttering into the stratosphere with dreams of what might follow.

"Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is set to move team to Austin, Texas, in 2019 if downtown stadium can't happen in Columbus," it read. Obviously things didn't play out exactly as prophesied in said tweet, but that's where the story started. Note the date: October 16, 2017. Now note Sunday's date, the day Austin FC will make its MLS Cup Playoffs debut against Real Salt Lake inside Q2 Stadium: October 16, 2022. The soccer gods do work in mysterious ways.

And yet here we are, with the stage set for Austin to fully showcase all that it has to show for those five years of soccer genesis. The league certainly expects fireworks, entrusting ATX vs. RSL with its top national TV window for the round-one weekend: 2pm Sunday on ABC. They know that the Verde faithful will be in rare form for the historic occasion. So do the Austin FC players.

"I know the entire city is going to be amped up, the stadium is probably going to be the loudest it's ever going to be," goalkeeper Brad Stuver said. "They've taken the league by storm and shown what a fan base can be."

That much has been true since the club's first MLS minutes in April of last year. More recent, though, has been the revelation that in 2022, Austin FC actually has a team worthy of such a fan base. The club blew away all realistic expectations during its second regular season by cruising to a top-two seed in the Western Conference, and with it comes the opportunity to play at least one more match in front of the Verde Wall.

It won't be an easy one. Real Salt Lake knows what it's doing this time of year. The Utah club has made the playoffs in 11 of its 17 seasons in MLS and advanced out of the first round in seven of those.* Just last season, head coach Pablo Mastroeni led the Claret and Cobalt to the Western Conference Final from the same seventh seed they occupy in 2022. Like Austin, they enter the postseason with just one win from their final seven matches in all competitions, but it was a crucial win: 3-1 over the Portland Timbers on Decision Day in what amounted to a win-or-go-home match. It's fueled them with plenty of confidence ahead of the Q2 clash.

"Austin, I think it's a great opportunity for us," Mastroeni said. "We know it's going to be a difficult match, but I think we're peaking at the right time. I like the matchup."

Is that so, Pablo? If Josh Wolff and his squad needed any reminder not to take Real Salt Lake lightly, there's a good one. But also, just watch the tape. RSL handed Austin one of its 10 losses back in May at America First Field, and while Austin FC's 3-0 win last month at Q2 looks lopsided on paper, the match was nip and tuck for the better part of an hour before substitute Moussa Djitté went supernova with Austin FC's first-ever hat trick.

"We have to be prepared, and our guys will be," Wolff said. "It's an awesome time of year to be playing. Not every team is. We got ourselves there, now it's making sure that we stick around and we go make something of it."

Vegas, for what it's worth, has Austin FC a –120 favorite in the match, for the simple rational that Austin FC is just plain better than Real Salt Lake. The Verde and Black scored 22 more goals and accumulated 11 more points than their opponents during the regular season. RSL does not have a double-digit goalscorer, while Austin brings Sebastián Driussi's 22 goals and MVP résumé to the table.

El Tree will also have the backing of one of the most boisterous playoff crowds MLS has ever seen. Use it. Embrace the fiesta. Come out like gangbusters in the first 15 minutes and score the opening goal that so often turns into two or three more for this club. RSL will no doubt try to bog the game down and frustrate the 20,738 in attendance. Don't let them.

That Sunday's match is taking place at all is remarkable enough for a city that five years ago seemed nowhere near a major pro sports franchise. That road began on an October 16. But who says it has to end on one?


Editor's note: This story originally misstated the number of times Real Salt Lake has advanced out of the first round in MLS playoffs; the squad has advanced out of the first round in 7 out of 11 playoff appearances, not 10 out of 11.



Bracket by The Austin Chronicle art staff

Schedule

Quarterfinals, Oct. 15-17:
Sat., 11am: Cincinnati at NY Red Bulls (UniMás, TUDN, local TV)
Sat., 2pm: Nashville at LA Galaxy (UniMás, TUDN, local TV)
Sun., 2pm: Salt Lake at Austin FC (ABC)
Sun., 7pm: Orlando at Montreal (ESPN)
Mon., 6pm: Miami at NYFC (FS1)
Mon., 8:30pm: Minnesota at Dallas (FS1)

Conference Semifinals, Oct. 20 & 23:
Thu., 7 & 9pm
Sun., noon & 7pm

Conference Finals: Sun., Oct. 30, 2 & 7pm

MLS Cup Final: Sun., Nov. 5, 3pm

Read more Austin FC coverage at austinchronicle.com/austin-fc.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Austin FC
Here Are Some Bars Where You Can Watch Austin FC in the Playoffs
Here Are Some Bars Where You Can Watch Austin FC in the Playoffs
Pick a neighborhood and you’ll find somewhere you can get drunk and rowdy. Listos Verde!

Claire Stevens, Oct. 14, 2022

Construction of Austin FC Stadium Nears Completion
Construction of Austin FC Stadium Nears Completion
Q2 claims naming rights for the home of Austin’s new major league sports team

Trace Sauveur, Jan. 29, 2021

More The Verde Report
The Verde Report: As Wins Rack Up, Emiliano Rigoni Is Becoming Austin FC’s Forgotten Man
The Verde Report: As Wins Rack Up, Emiliano Rigoni Is Becoming Austin FC’s Forgotten Man
The club’s second-highest-paid player has struggled to contribute

Eric Goodman, April 12, 2024

The Verde Report: Wolff In or Wolff Out? The Answer: It’s Complicated
The Verde Report: Wolff In or Wolff Out? The Answer: It’s Complicated
Austin FC gets its first win of the 2024 season, but the pitchforks are still out for Austin FC’s head coach

Eric Goodman, April 5, 2024

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin FC, The Verde Report, Anthony Precourt, Josh Wolff, Real Salt Lake, Pablo Mastroeni, Brad Stuver, Sebastian Driussi, Moussa Djitte, Grant Wahl, Q2 Stadium, MLS Cup Playoffs

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle