They had great plans and big ideas. It was full speed ahead from the jump.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
“Verde listos” is a cool chant but this team was so, so not ready at the start of the season. By early autumn they’d added a few pieces that made them significantly more incisive, which should provide plenty of hope for 2022. But for 2021... no.
Formation and tactics
Josh Wolff comes from the Gregg Berhalter coaching tree so it was no surprise to see him try to lean into a ball-dominant, possession-heavy 4-3-3ish (sometimes more of a 4-1-4-1) look from Day 1.
It led to some pretty interplay and pretty goals, but more often it led to zeroes. Austin scored three goals in April, two goals in May, one goal in June and four in July. It is hard to win games by disorganizing the opposition with the ball, and it is especially hard to do that if you don’t have a true center forward to occupy the opposing center backs.
All the while they were getting gashed in transition because both fullbacks tended to overlap high and hard, and there was no team speed through midfield.
The good news is that once they added a true center forward with the mid-season acquisition of Moussa Djitte, the whole thing functioned much, much better.
That Week 2 win at Colorado, the first in Austin history, was a bit of fool’s gold, wasn’t it? They went to Commerce City and absolutely cooked the Rapids, with Cecilio Dominguez coming in off the wing time and again to wreak havoc (and score goals) in the box. It remains one of their prettiest performances of the year.
There were also a couple of thumpings of the Timbers and their first-ever Texas rivalry win, a 3-2 final over Houston in early August. Plus the play of Brad Stuver who, for half a season, was the best goalkeeper in MLS.
But for me, I’m going with a more recent outing. Call it recency bias if you want, but when your new DP playmaker, your new U22 Initiative center forward, a revitalized, high-level MLS veteran and your DP winger all combine on a gorgeous, game-winning goal against a team in the playoff hunt…
Folks, that’s a highlight. It’s also proof of concept regarding the ability of Djitte and Sebastian Driussi to elevate the entire team. And since mid-August, Austin’s been among the league leaders in xG per 90.
Play like this and the goals will come.
From mid-May through late July the goals didn’t come and Austin won just one game. Over that nearly three-month stretch, they scored six goals and four of them occurred in that win (4-1 over the Timbers).
It was brutal. 1-7-4 is a bad stretch, but they only scored in three of those 12 games. Just pure misery.
There were other bad stretches later in the season -- including Wednesday's brutal 4-0 loss at San Jose and subsequent testy postgame press conference -- but this was the one. It’s been a slow and steady attempt to dig out, and they did not manage to do so.
When you spend multiple millions of dollars on a player, as Austin did for Djitte, you should expect them to be good, so it’s kind of cheating to call him a “revelation.” But we’ve seen other teams spend a lot more for a lot less, and Djitte’s not doing it because of some unsustainable hot streak (in fact, it’d be nice if he scored a bit more — only one goal in 370ish minutes as of this writing).
What’s been revelatory is how his threat to run in behind, his ability to occupy defenders and his both rugged and polished hold-up play have sort of tied the whole room together.
Suddenly Dominguez has more time and Driussi has more space! Suddenly Diego Fagundez can worry about sneaking off the shoulder of a defender instead of having to beat him 1-v-1! Suddenly Alex Ring can boot it out of danger and in the general vicinity of where Djitte should be instead of having to try to play out every. single. time.
I’ll come clean: I love old-fashioned target forwards like Djitte. Absolutely love them. I think they make the game easier for everybody.
Djitte certainly has.
Tomas Pochettino, on the other hand, has not. The 25-year-old Argentine central midfielder isn’t really a ball-winner and isn’t really a playmaker, and his inability to cover ground or exert any kind of defensive pitch control has a lot to do with Austin giving up the mother lode of transition chances this year.
There are other culprits, of course, but Pochettino was supposed to be a DP centerpiece. Instead he’s looked more like a squad player who can soak up some minutes here and there, but only if you adequately protect him with other, more defensive players.
But he’s delivered substantially less than what was advertised.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Djitte (CF): Have I mentioned that I really like Moussa Djitte?
- Driussi (AM/SS): Driussi’s best years in South America came as a second striker or even as a false 9, but he’s looked a natural as a playmaking midfielder in Wolff’s 4-3-3 since his midseason arrival. I do wonder, though, if his lack of defense means that 4-3-3 is destined to evolve into a 4-2-3-1.
- Dominguez (W): He hasn’t been great but he’s worked hard all year at a variety of spots and is now playing his best ball of the season while being deployed almost exclusively on the wing.
- Fagundez (W): He fits perfectly with the other three guys I just listed, and it really does (still) feel like the best is yet to come with him.
- Ring (DM): He can’t do it all himself but I’ll be damned if he’s not gonna try. And any time he’s not available it gets very, very ugly.
They just so badly need someone who can help Ring do the dirty work in central midfield. Part of it is personnel, but part of it is maybe Wolff backing off a bit on the 4-3-3 single pivot and switching to more of a 4-2-3-1.
It doesn’t have to be a pure, Mourinho-style 4-2-3-1, mind you. It could just be pulling one of the two more advanced central midfielders (the non-Driussi one) a little bit deeper, in the same way that Keaton Parks plays a little bit deeper than Maxi Moralez for NYCFC.
Give Pochettino’s range of passing – he really does hit a nice long-ball – dragging him deeper could both give Ring more help and open up more space for the attack. It’s possible that the solution already exists and Wolff just hasn’t found it yet.
It’s more likely, though, that Austin just needs to go out and get a guy. This is the part where I mention that 25-year-old Andres Cubas, who played d-mid for Talleres when Pochettino was there, is an absolute madman of a ball-winner and is now playing in Ligue 2, which means he is very get-able.