If you speak with any member of the Austin FC squad or coaching staff about the season so far, you’ll get the same message: there is still plenty to accomplish in 2022. Though the team isn’t resting on its laurels as its first-ever postseason draws ever nearer, it’s impossible to deny the improvement in on-field performance from last year to the Club’s sophomore season in Major League Soccer.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Austin FC has 55 points – 24 more than it did at the end of 2021. Two points from the Club’s final two matches would see the Verde & Black set a record for the largest points improvement by a second-year expansion club in league history.
Ahead of that final pair of games – away to Vancouver on October 1, and home to Colorado on October 9 – Austin is assured of a top-three finish in the MLS Western Conference and can lock up second place with a win or draw in either of those two contests.
Head Coach Josh Wolff’s side took care of two key priorities at Q2 Stadium last week in clinching a playoff berth and securing home-field advantage for the first round. The former was achieved on the back of a Moussa Djitté hat trick – the Club’s first – which spurred a 3-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, and the latter thanks to a 1-1 draw with Nashville SC.
"This fanbase and this city pushes us and encourages us," said Wolff after the playoff-clinching victory over RSL. "When we grab a goal, you can see how quick the game goes in our direction. The more you ensure you're playing in front of these fans and getting this boost, the better our chances are, whoever is here. We've shown that. We can beat anybody in this league."
The team's position in the standings is a far cry from this stage last year – eliminated from postseason contention but still hungry to show their promise, which they did with a 3-1 win over Sporting KC in the final home match of 2021.
Looking back at that result and performance now, it appears to be a harbinger of what was to come in 2022.
"Last year was last year. It was laying the foundation," said Wolff. "It was difficult at times. But we had ideas and certainly hopes and dreams that it would continue to evolve and grow and it has. Tonight's performance was literally a snapshot of what we've talked about all year."
Austin FC was MLS’ lowest-scoring team in 2021, with 35 goals. This year, it’s tied for the second-most goals in the league with 64, led by MLS MVP candidate Sebastián Driussi (21 goals, seven assists) and midfielder Diego Fagundez (six goals, 15 assists).
Austin got better at the other end of the pitch too, going from allowing 56 goals – joint-most in the Western Conference – to 46. The Verde & Black’s ability to pick up results away from home drastically improved, from taking eight points on the road all season in 2021 to having the Western Conference’s best road record (26 points from away matches).
Austin has repeatedly shown a never-say-die attitude, with its 21 points earned from losing positions the second-most in MLS. The Club has three wins (two on the road) in matches in which it trailed by two goals, including a memorable comeback away against D.C. United where the team scored three goals in the final 10 minutes.
"I think even last year we had a really good team, and we were just unlucky," said Fagundez. "Everybody is showing everybody wants to be here. We're working hard and we're having fun. With this team and this organization, I think we can make it as far as we want."
Since preseason, the wall outside of the locker room in the team’s training facility at St. David’s Performance Center has had goals written on it. Two of those have been achieved: winning Copa Tejas, and earning the right to host a playoff match at Q2 Stadium. While those milestones both represent tangible success, the players and coaches are hardly satisfied knowing an MLS Cup is within reach.
"This is an unbelievable group," said midfielder Ethan Finlay after Austin’s draw with Nashville. "I've seen this team become a really genuine family, and in two years to do what Claudio and Josh and everyone that's been involved has done, it's been very impressive.
"But, at the same time, this team, we have unfinished business. We know we want to make our mark. It's not good enough just to finish second. If you finish second and you get bounced in the first round of playoffs, that's not going to be a success for this group. There's too much determination to do something more than that in this group."