AUSTIN (KXAN) — What does Austin FC do for an encore this season after playing for a Western Conference championship and pulling off one of the best season turnarounds in Major League Soccer last year?
While most of last year’s team is still sporting Verde and Black, there are key additions and departures that head coach Josh Wolff said will take some time getting used to.
“Last year was last year,” Wolff said. “There was great success and we’re pleased with the progress we made from Year 1, but Year 3 will be much more challenging. We’re not sneaking up on anyone. We’ve had players leave and come in, so we’re acclimating the players to our ideas and the city.”
Perhaps the biggest and most surprising departure from last year’s team is center back Ruben Gabrielsen. He requested a transfer back to Norwegian club Lillestrøm SK so his child can receive special care. Austin FC added another international center back to help fill the big void left by Gabrielsen, Finnish defender Leo Väisänen. The 25-year-old comes to Austin via transfer from Swedish club IF Elfsborg, and Wolff said the club has had an eye on him for a while now.
MORE THAN THE SCORE: Stay up to date on sports stories like these, and sign up for our More than the Score sports newsletter at kxan.com/newsletters
“We’re quite familiar with him,” Wolff said of Väisänen. “He comes at a good age and pedigree. He’s very technical on the ball and will give us good orientation when he has the ball, and his soccer acumen is quite good.”
Forward Gyasi Zardes was another key addition for Austin FC in the offseason. He’s a proven goal scorer in MLS with 10 seasons under his belt. He played last for Colorado last season and he was part of the United States Men’s National Team in 2021. He’s scored 97 goals in MLS, the 13th-most in league history. He’ll provide even more depth for Austin’s attack, something Wolff said the team is going to need moving forward. But what the club likes most about Zardes is that he’s a good person, Wolff said.
“He’s a fantastic human being, and that’s one thing we look for,” Wolff said. Zardes was the MLS Comeback Player of the Year in 2018 for Columbus when Wolff was an assistant coach there.
“He’s a goal scorer and doesn’t get deterred by missing chances. He knows that he’s good at,” Wolff said.
Zardes was interested in Austin FC once he hit free agency by Austin’s style of play, he said.
“It’s incredible how they combine and get crosses for their attacking players,” Zardes said. “Defensively as well, how they narrate the game based on their pressure. My eyes lit up when the club was interested in me.”
Zardes also felt comfortable coming to Austin with Wolff as the head coach since they’ve worked together before, and he loved the atmosphere when he came to Q2 Stadium as an opponent.
“I just want to keep [getting] better as a player and help this team win a couple trophies,” he said. “This is my first time living in the South and I’m looking forward to everything that comes with it.”
It’s the longest schedule in MLS history this year counting preseason camp to the end of the MLS Cup Playoffs — about 11 months — and Austin FC won’t just play the MLS regular season. Verde qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League and they’re scheduled to play in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup along with the Leagues Cup. The Leagues Cup is a new tournament between MLS and Liga MX and will be a month-long competition between all the teams in both leagues. The MLS schedule will pause from July 16 to Aug. 20 for that tournament.
With the loaded schedule, Wolff said he’s going to lean on the entire roster to get through all the matches, especially early in the season.
“We need depth, character and a lot from our players and staff,” he said. “There’s going to be a different layer of schedule congestion with all the tournaments. We’re going to need to use all 20 guys in the first month of the season, there’s no two ways about it.”
Austin FC’s camp rolls on with four preseason matches, two in Florida and two at the St. David’s Performance Center in north Austin. They’ll take on the Philadelphia Union on Jan. 21 and FC Cincinnati on Jan. 27 in Florida, and then come back home to play the El Paso Locomotive FC on Feb. 4 and Lousiville City FC on Feb. 11. El Paso and Louisville are part of the second-division USL Championship.