AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin FC made one of the greatest turnarounds from its inaugural season in the history of Major League Soccer this season, and the club is chasing a feat only done once before.
Verde improved 10 spots in the conference standings over last season, finishing second to LAFC this year after coming in 12th out of 13 teams a year ago. That’s tied for the largest such leap up the table with Sporting Kansas City, who improved 10 places after finishing 11th in 2019 to the top spot after the COVID-altered 2020 regular season.
Perhaps it’s putting the cart before the horse, but Austin FC is two wins away from doing something that hasn’t been done since 1998. In Chicago Fire FC’s first year making the playoffs in 1998, they ran through the tournament and beat D.C. United for the MLS Cup. Granted, the league was emerging and had just 12 teams, but Chicago’s title in its first postseason berth was still an improbable one.
Austin FC needs to get past a big hurdle Sunday that’s league-leading LAFC, but who better to help guide them to accomplishing such a feat than a person that’s been there before? Verde’s head coach Josh Wolff was a rookie forward on that Fire team and scored eight goals during the regular season. At that point, he held the single-season scoring record for rookies.
This season has been all about growth, and when the club was established in 2019 and just began MLS play last season, Wolff said he’s just proud of not just where the organization, but what it has become.
“It’s the culmination of four years of hard work, building this thing,” he said after Verde’s 2-1 win over FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. “I told Anthony [Precourt] last week, ‘Man, if you dreamt of it looking like this, it’s exceeding expectations.'”
The turnaround from next-to-last to second-best showed up away from Q2 Stadium. The squad had to play their first eight matches on the road last year with construction at their home stadium wrapping up, and for a first-year team trying to jell, that’s a tall task. Once the team took its lumps in Year 1 to get their collective feet under them, they ended the regular season with six more wins on the road and one of the league’s best records away from home at 8-7-2.
It isn’t easy scoring goals in professional soccer, and Austin FC made it look incredibly tough last season with just 35 goals during the 34-match season. One goal per game isn’t going to get a team very far, but this season was basically the opposite of the first. Austin FC finished third in MLS, scoring 65 goals behind 22 from the club’s first-ever all-star selection, Sebastian Driussi.
Tack on the fact that Austin FC allowed seven fewer goals this year than last year, and Verde’s goal differential swung from -21 in 2021 to +16 this season. Simply put, scoring goals is how you win matches, and Austin FC did a much better job putting the ball in the back of the net.
With all the goals, the staunch supporters had even more reasons to chant, cheer and toss their half-full cups of beer high into the air. Q2 Stadium has been sold out every time Verde has taken the pitch in MLS competition, 34 consecutive matches, and Wolff said Q2 Stadium was the loudest place he’s ever been in for soccer. His entire life has revolved around soccer, so that’s saying something.
“We have the most incredible fans and greatest stadium in the league,” he said. “It’s incredible to come to play here. We’ve achieved some good things, but we aren’t done yet.”