The Verde & Black’s high-scoring attack has drawn much of the plaudits for the team’s strong start to the season, and rightfully so with 22 goals through 10 games. Yet equally notable is the team’s improvement in defense, anchored by center back duo Julio Cascante and Ruben Gabrielsen.
Cascante credits the Club’s increased solidity at the back to the group’s growing familiarity with both each other and the system.
“Last year, there was a lot of information. Our first season, the coaches wanted to introduce a lot of new things. This year is different of course, you have everything from last year,” said Cascante. “Here and there, there are things that you can improve. That is helping a lot, personally I feel really good and also the teammates that came this season have a lot of experience.”
Gabrielsen is one such new teammate this season for ATXFC, bringing experience competing at a high level in his native Norway, France, and Denmark to the Texas capital. His partnership with Cascante, effectively deputized by rookie Kipp Keller, has been impressive. Gabrielsen and Cascante started each of the Verde & Black’s last eight MLS matches together and allowed only eight goals in that span.
“I think they’ve done a good job. They’re both experienced center backs. Ruben brings a bit more speed and certainly cover, and Julio has good understanding of what we’re trying to do,” said Austin FC Head Coach Josh Wolff. “As we progress attacks, I think Julio has done a really good job. He’s also been very good with the ball, and then defending in the penalty box, both those guys have done a great job.”
In addition to the attributes Wolff mentioned, Cascante’s consistency has been a boost for the team – the Costa Rican is the only Austin FC player to have played all 900 minutes of the season so far. His four goal contributions (one goal, three assists) are tied for the most in MLS among defenders.
“I love to play with Julio. I love to play with Kipp, and I love to play with [Jhohan] Romaña. This is a team,” said Gabrielsen. “I know that all three of those guys will help me be better and they will sacrifice a lot for me. Julio knows that as well. I’ll do everything for Julio.”
The respect goes both ways among the pair. Though he’s only been in Austin a short time, Gabrielsen has quickly become a leader in the locker room. The Norwegian cemented his name in Club history for his role in the ATXFC’s thrilling 3-2 away comeback over D.C. United, assisting an 85th minute equalizer and scoring a 90th minute header to win it.
“It’s amazing. Ruben is so professional. When you have teammates like him, I think it just makes you better inside and outside of the field,” said Cascante. “Everything that I have to say about him is positive. He brought that detail that the team needs.”
With seven of Austin FC’s next nine matches away, the Club will rely on both Cascante and Gabrielsen – as well as Keller, Romaña, and the rest of the defensive unit – to continue frustrating opposing attackers.