The Austin Chronicle

The Verde Report: Austin FC’s Payroll Is Up, Even Though Wins Are Down

Inflated contracts, questionable investments, and underachieving veterans add up to one of the league’s largest payrolls

By Eric Goodman, May 19, 2023, Sports

On Tuesday, the MLS Players Association released its annual bible of player salaries, once again pantsing the league's 29 teams and exposing to the masses certain figures the league itself would much rather remain private. For fans, though, the occasion marks the first and only opportunity to take inventory of their favorite club's spending, and fans here in Austin are no different.

The 30,000-foot view, you could say, is a positive one. For the first time in its history, Austin FC holds one of the league's top-five largest payrolls, with a total bill of $19.9 million, up from $14.6 million in 2022. That fact alone should assuage any lingering concerns about whether Anthony Precourt and the club's ownership group are prepared to commit the dollars necessary to allow Austin FC to compete for the continent's biggest prizes.

Unfortunately, that's about as far as the positive spin will go. A look under the hood at exactly how ATXFC is spending its money this season reveals a minefield of inflated contracts, questionable investments, and underachieving veterans, all while the club lingers near the bottom of the MLS standings one-third of the way through the season.

In making last year's Western Conference Final, Austin FC outperformed not only its expectations for the year, but also its wage bill. Many of the players responsible for 2022's success have since been rewarded with contract extensions, securing their futures in Central Texas but upping their collective cost significantly.

The top example of this is Sebastián Driussi. The MVP finalist's guaranteed compensation nearly tripled from $2.3 million in 2022 to $6 million in 2023, thanks to a new deal through the 2025 season that makes Driussi the fifth-highest-paid player in all of MLS. However, due to a slow start and subsequent adductor injury, Driussi's new deal has yet to pay dividends for the club.

Diego Fagúndez, Brad Stuver, and Julio Cascante all signed extensions more than doubling their wages from the year prior. Again, due to injury, only Stuver has come close to matching his 2022 production thus far. All together, four players that cost the club a total of $3.3 million last year now make a collective $8.2 million, accounting for the vast majority of the club's total payroll increase year over year.

Despite the increased cost of returning players, Austin FC, under the leadership of now-former Sporting Director Claudio Reyna, still managed to make notable offseason acquisitions in hopes of improving the squad. Those have been a mixed bag so far. Leo Väisänen has proven himself to be an adept and dependable replacement for Ruben Gabrielsen at starting center back, at a younger age and slightly lower wage to boot. On the other hand, backup center back Amro Tarek (and his $250,000 salary) has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth after his one ill-fated start against AC Violette in the CONCACAF Champions League. Gyasi Zardes, the club's most lucrative acquisition at $800,000, has had a miserable first season in Austin and is averaging just one shot per hour of game time, with no goals or assists as of Tuesday.*

As always, though, the optimism lies in the youth. Twenty-two-year-old Daniel Pereira, who played every minute of the club's first 11 matches, is on the books for just over $100,000. The same is true of 18-year-old Owen Wolff, who is currently representing the United States at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

With inflated wages across the board, Austin FC may not have the financial freedom required to tinker with its roster during the upcoming summer transfer window. In order to turn things around and make another run at the MLS Cup Playoffs, Josh Wolff and company will likely have to make due with what they already have in-house.

Editor's note: After this column went to press, Zardes scored the first goal of his Austin FC career in an upset win over Seattle.

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