Sports

The Verde Report: LAFC Hammering Highlights Big Weakness for Austin FC

Does Austin FC have a DP problem?


Designated Player Emiliano Rigoni (l) is still searching for his first goal or assist for Austin FC (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On the surface, the football clubs of Austin and Los Angeles aren't so different. Both are relatively novel institutions, part of a recent trend of Major League Soccer expansion. Both possess among the league's most vocal and active fan bases. Both teams' stadiums were even designed by the exact same architecture firm. And last season, they both competed in the penultimate round of the playoffs to determine the Western Conference representative in the league's championship game.

There is, however, one crucial department in which the clubs have nothing in common. It was evident during the aforementioned Western Conference Final eight months ago, won decisively by LAFC, 3-0. And it was brutally, painfully exposed in last weekend's rematch, which the Angelenos took by the very same scoreline. Designated Players.

If you've followed MLS (or this column) with any regularity, you're well aware what DPs are and what they mean to the clubs to which they belong. They are the highest-paid players on the roster and, theoretically, the best. Since entering the league in 2018, no club in MLS has exemplified this concept better than LAFC. Its shortlist of past and present DPs includes former league MVP and single-season record goalscorer Carlos Vela, 2020 Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi, and multi-time All-Star Cristian Arango. The latest member of the club, striker Denis Bouanga, single-handedly posterized Austin over the weekend with a scintillating hat trick that certainly impressed ATX head coach Josh Wolff.

"They have a very, very special player in Bouanga," Wolff said. "He has some exceptional talent that makes it challenging and certainly swings things in their direction."

The Verde and Black have a special player of their own in Sebastián Driussi. But as we enter the meaty center of the club's third season, Driussi has become the exception that proves a sobering reality: Austin FC is striking out on its most important signings.

Excluding Driussi, the list of players who have held a DP or U-22 DP tag for El Tree is a who's who of underachievers, outcasts, and failed experiments. The list goes: Cecilio Domínguez, Rodney Redes, Tomás Pochettino, Zan Kolmani, Moussa Djitté, Alex Ring, and Emiliano Rigoni. Three of those players – Domínguez, Pochettino, and Djitté – have already come and gone from the club, and Redes would no doubt have joined them in exodus if any other club would take him. Kolmani and Ring have at least filled roles and contributed, but neither is setting the world alight.

Then there's Rigoni, with whom the club has been very patient since his midseason arrival last year. That patience has yet to be rewarded, and it's wearing thin. The winger has given Austin FC next to nothing in 18 total appearances dating back to August 2022, and the trend lines are going the wrong direction. After failing to capitalize on several scoring opportunities earlier in the season, Rigoni hasn't had a look at goal – or recorded an official shot – in over two games.

These problems aren't new for El Tree. They existed last year, but a transcendent season from Driussi, along with career years from Diego Fagúndez, Ethan Finlay, and others, masked the ineptitude of Austin's top investments. Now that Driussi and the supporting cast have cooled off, the problem is all too apparent. If things don't turn a corner soon, especially concerning Rigoni, the Verde and Black may not see the MLS Cup Playoffs – let alone a Western Conference Final – again for a long time.

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

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