AUSTIN (KXAN) — LAFC raised eyebrows across Major League Soccer with one high-profile addition after another during the season. Whether it was bringing in an aging-but-still-effective Giorgio Chiellini from Juventus, one of the best Welsh players of all-time in Gareth Bale, or top French forward Denis Bouanga, it seemed the club was always in the headlines.
Meanwhile, Austin FC made some key additions of their own but stayed under the radar, relatively speaking. Emiliano Rigoni came over from Brazilian side Sao Paulo to help attacking depth in the midfield, Washington Corozo was brought in on loan from Sporting Cristal and Ruben Gabrielsen has helped create a formidable presence in central defense coming over from French side Toulouse.
In an arms race to build a top-flight club, it appears that right now LAFC has won after winning the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular season in MLS, but many suggest that the big signings for LAFC disrupted chemistry and the club doesn’t know how to operate with all the star power once forwards Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango are thrown in the mix. Some point to Buoanga’s brace and Arango’s stoppage time goal to overcome the LA Galaxy in the conference semifinals as the turning point for LAFC’s star-studded roster.
Austin FC’s resurgence has been helped by its newcomers but also fueled by a core group led by Wolff, the coaching staff and Claudio Reyna, the team’s sporting director (general manager) that was hellbent on sticking to the plan. It helped make Sebastian Driussi an MVP candidate and the franchise’s first all-star, it drew attention to Diego Fagundez as one of the best distributors in the league and showcased the team’s chemistry and resolve with all the comeback wins they’ve pulled off.
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“The players that are still around from last year came in with better understanding, a better development of our ideas and methodology,” Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff said. “The guys that we brought in added to our group, both in character and quality. We added in the summer and got better in the winter.”
The last time the Austin FC took on LAFC, it was to draw ever-so-close to a playoff bid and was billed as “the biggest game the franchise has ever had,” by just about everyone involved with the club. Verde answered the bell in emphatic fashion, running LAFC off the Q2 Stadium grass 4-1, earning “big boy performance” status from defender Nick Lima, and it was characterized as a “massive win,” by Wolff.
Well, they’ve got another “biggest game in club history” against the regular season champs, and the energy will undoubtedly be amplified.
“There was a lot of emotion in that game and the players could feel it,” Wolff said. “Do I expect Sunday to be the same? Probably in some ways, but certainly more challenging in other ways. They’re a good team, and we’re going to LA to play the best team, and in order to get to a final, you’ve got to beat the best team.”