The Weight of Expectations: Austin FC 2023 Season Preview

A team that looks great on paper prepares to step on the pitch

Austin FC players line up ahead of a preseason friendly match against Inter Miami CF (Courtesy of Austin FC)

In sports, doubt is like a precious metal. Coaches mine it and players feed off it. Ask Michael Jordan, who despite being the unquestioned greatest player of his era scavenged the newspapers regularly for any remote slight to take "personally." Ask Travis Kelce, star tight end of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. He still hasn't stopped shouting at anyone who will listen about how "nobody believed" in the AFC No. 1 seed with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback.

Ask Josh Wolff. A year ago, ahead of Austin FC's second season in Major League Soccer, Wolff stood on the mother lode of doubt. Pundits nationwide almost universally pegged the Verde and Black for a bottom-three finish in the Western Conference in 2022. Never mind that there wasn't really a ton of logic or reason to predict much better for El Tree. Like any coach worth his whistle, Wolff milked that doubt for all he could.

Yes, that attitude eventually gave birth to a rather ridiculous meme of Wolff presenting a laminated list of prognostications to his squad, but it also certainly had a role to play in his club defying every single one of those predictions by season's end. Thirteenth in the West? Try second. Missing the playoffs? Try making it to the final four.

Which brings us to 2023, where that laminated list looks a lot different. Per the experts, Austin FC is now a stone-cold lock to make the playoffs and is several pundits' pick to win the whole damn thing. Flattering? Sure. Helpful? Not really. As much as doubt can motivate a team to play with a chip on its shoulder, expectations can turn into a weight on its back. In a league as wide-open as MLS, in which clubs routinely go from preseason title contenders to languishing at the bottom of the standings in a matter of weeks, that can be the difference.

Owen Wolff celebrates scoring a goal in a preseason friendly against Inter Miami CF (Courtesy of Austin FC)

Such defines the challenge that Austin FC now has ahead of it. Wolff knows his club won't be taking anyone by surprise this season. "We still want to be the hunters [not the hunted]. We have to maintain a humility, a hunger. Other teams are getting better, we've got to keep getting better," Wolff said.

That's a lot easier said than done, and will likely require another MVP-caliber season from star midfielder Sebastián Driussi, who recently signed a contract extension with the club through at least 2025. However, Driussi should have a bit more help than last year, if all goes according to plan. Emiliano Rigoni, Driussi's countryman and former teammate at Zenit St. Petersburg, never really hit his stride in 10 matches with the Verde after joining late in the season as a Designated Player. He's now had an entire preseason to adjust to his surroundings and will be expected to produce consistently on the right wing.

Also, spearheading the Austin FC attack in 2023 is the most accomplished striker the club has featured to date, U.S. national team veteran Gyasi Zardes. A free agent in the offseason, Zardes gravitated to Austin because of the high-octane attacking style the club displayed last season (establishing a lofty reputation around the league does have its perks). "For any striker within this league, your eyes are open wide when you hear Austin, because you know there's going to be numerous opportunities," Zardes said.

While it might not be as romantic a notion as proving one's doubters wrong, this season Austin FC's mission must be to prove its backers right. That seems to include the schedule makers in the MLS league office, who have tabbed ATX to host the anticipated debut of 2023 expansion club St. Louis City SC in Saturday night's season opener. It's sure to be one of the most-streamed matches of the inaugural weekend of MLS Season Pass on Apple TV (the league's new exclusive broadcast package) and a fitting litmus test to see how Austin FC is poised to handle the weight of expectations for the first time in its short history.

Breakout Candidates

Austin FC may have been one of the league's newest clubs in 2022, but on the field, its squad was often among the oldest. Of the 12 players to log at least 1,000 minutes for the Verde and Black, only two (Dani Pereira and Žan Kolmanič) were younger than 26. That number will almost certainly grow this year, with a trio of young players poised for important roles in the club's rotation.

Sean Rubio (far right) was at the center of negotiations between Austin FC and Sebastián Driussi on a contract extension signed last week (Photo by Eric Goodman)

The most obvious also happens to be the most pivotal. Leo Väisänen, the 25-year-old center back from Finland, joined Austin FC this offseason shortly after the departure of standout defensive anchor Ruben Gabrielsen. It's clear that Väisänen is slated for a major role right from the get-go, especially after another center back, Jhohan Romaña, was sent out on loan last week. It's unreasonable to expect Väisänen will bring the same locker room presence that Gabrielsen did in his first year in Austin – Julio Cascante will likely pick up that mantle in his third season as a starter – but Väisänen will still have a huge role to play in protecting Brad Stuver's penalty box throughout the season.

Farther up the field, two young midfielders are positioned for big roles off the bench. Frenchman Sofiane Djeffal, 23, was an under-the-radar offseason acquisition that could pay dividends. He flashed creativity and technical acumen in 19 starts with D.C. United last season and should be first alternate to either Pereira or Alex Ring in midfield. In addition, 18-year-old Owen Wolff, the youngest player on the senior roster (and the coach's son), is a breakout candidate heading into his second full professional season.

Thanks to the CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS vs. Liga MX experiment dubbed the Leagues Cup, Austin FC is slated for its busiest year yet in terms of total matches. As Driussi won't be able to play them all, the player dubbed "Teen Wolff" is the most logical fit to give the Argentine star a breather.

Up for the Task

It's not how Sean Rubio would have drawn it up. He never envisioned his boss stepping down in the wake of a national controversy, instantly clearing a path to an interim sporting director role at an MLS club. But make no mistake, Rubio has been preparing for this moment for a long time.

Rubio, 34, has already worked in MLS for well over a decade, paying his dues originally as a video analyst for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2011. He oversaw Toronto FC's scouting and budget departments from 2016 to 2020 and then brought his talents south to become Austin FC's director of player personnel as the club began building its expansion roster. Rubio worked directly under Sporting Director Claudio Reyna, up until Reyna stepped down from the post last month. Now Rubio, at least on an interim basis, is the preeminent voice on the ATXFC technical staff.

"It's something I feel like I'm ready for, and I couldn't be happier," Rubio said. "I've been working in this league a long time and in this type of space regardless of the title. So I'm definitely confident in my abilities."

If Rubio's confidence proves well founded and he's able to impress in the interim role, Austin FC might not have to look far for its next permanent sporting director.

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