For Austin FC Academy Director Tyson Wahl, the Fall 2020 season has been unlike any other he’s experienced. Between starting preparations in the midst of a pandemic, using Zoom sessions to help keep his players learning and developing until they could resume in-person practices, and being part of MLS NEXT’s debut season, it’s been a six-month span Wahl won’t ever forget.
Then again, given how well things have gone for the three Academy teams in the Fall 2020 season, he’ll definitely want to remember it despite its inherent challenges.
Wahl noted that one of his biggest goals for the season, especially for the new U14 and U13 players coming into the Academy, was helping them answer the fundamental question of “how can they adapt to our style of play, coming from different soccer backgrounds that they've been involved with.”
“And then I think for the new teams, what you see with new players entering a professional Academy, is how do they adapt to the environment, the intensity, the frequency of training, and all of those pieces,” he added. “I think that's usually a hurdle for a lot of players to get over. And I think that was a goal of ours was to see how quickly we can support the players adapting to that higher demand.”
The Results: How Austin FC Academy Teams Fared in MLS NEXT
The teams played in an all-Texas division of MLS NEXT, the brand-new MLS-led network of MLS-affiliated and independent youth soccer academies. Wahl was happy to see them perform well against what he characterized as competitive teams built from Texas’s deep player pool, including the FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, SAFC, and RGV FC Toros academies.
“Winning does bring confidence, so I think that's definitely positive,” Wahl observed. “And I think it's positive for our players to learn how to compete.”
“In terms of the results, and the strides forward that we've taken since last year, I think we exceeded our expectations,” he said of the Academy and the players’ progress, “Wanting to be the leader in Central Texas in youth development, I think it's one of our goals as we continue to strive forward, to get results. Getting results is important.”
The U15 team, building on what the players learned in the Academy’s inaugural year, played 11 matches in their MLS NEXT division, winning 8, drawing 2, and losing just one. They scored 29 goals in those competitions, giving up just nine, for an impressive +20 goal differential.
The U14s and U13s also got results in the majority of their 10 matches, with the U14s getting five wins and two draws versus three losses with a +7 goal differential (20 goals for, 13 goals against), and U13s winning seven and losing three with a +10 goal differential (23 GF, 13 GA).
And even though that progress showed up in their overall records and goal differentials, it’s only one measure by which Wahl and his staff assess the players.
“We were pleased and I think also motivated,” he assessed. “We’re absolutely never satisfied, so we're already working on next year.”
U15s Team Recap
For the U15s, Wahl’s impressed with how the players have improved since the majority featured last year for the Academy’s first-ever U14 team. “They've raised their level. They became much more dangerous in the attacking third, and that's the biggest difference. What stands out the most is how threatening and how dangerous we were, especially with the way we started games. Every game that we started, we were energetic and ready to play from the start and dangerous from the start.”
While they developed a knack for scoring and scoring early, and while Wahl’s especially pleased that the squad’s fullbacks have developed as attackers as well as defenders, he still has notes for the team heading into the spring.
“It's almost like they've learned how dangerous they can be and how quickly they can score goals, which is incredibly helpful,” he observed. “But I think at times, they were a little bit too rushed, maybe our eyes got too big, knowing that we now have multiple players who are dangerous.”
Wahl’s calling for patience, playing more laterally, and using the width of the field, in order to “create even better scoring opportunities with more numbers in the attack.” Wahl’s also calling for the U15s to play the full match, every match, noting that the team has kept its intensity through about two-thirds of the action—a possible by-product of getting leads early, but something to work on keeping in line with the Academy’s principles.
U14s Team Recap
Consistency will be the name of the game for the U14s heading into spring. “They’ve grown a ton, learning a new style, and the players should be really proud of the strides that that team has taken,” Wahl remarked.
“They’re still in the first year in a professional Academy environment,” he noted. “I think they had the right intensity level for the majority of games. But I think what they learned is a lot of teams want to beat professional academies. And so, if you take your foot off the gas pedal, the teams that we play against are good enough to outplay us.
“I think we saw moments where we dropped off a little bit with that team in our consistency,” he added, “but we know that the team has a ton of potential.” He noted that their talent, combined with their energy and positivity, will help them build upon the foundation they established this fall.
U13 Team Recap
The U13s have been a welcome new addition to the Academy this fall, and Wahl’s liked what he’s seen from the first class of U13s.
“The spirit and the leadership within that team is admirable,” he noted. “They have a contagious energy that really helps that group. They’ve bounced back from bad training days, and they bounce back from a loss very well. I think they have really good morale.”
In addition to their positivity, Wahl sees them grasping how the Academy staff wants the players to play, even at this stage.
“They demonstrate our principles and play our style of play very well. Certainly, for being a first-year team, they're really positionally balanced across the whole team. We have defenders who can pass the ball, our goalkeepers are comfortable with the ball, and it really allows us to play the way that we want our entire club to play.”
Evolving Now, Set to Evolve Further Next Year
Wahl credits Juan Delgado, the Academy’s technical director who came on board nearly a year ago, with helping the players develop over the course of the fall season.
“Juan has a lot of experience, and I think he’s really good at building teams of coaches,” he observed. “One of his strengths is giving some guidance, but also giving an incredible level of ownership to the coaches to figure out how they can best utilize their skill sets for the never-ending needs of an academy.”
“I think a whole story could be written on our staff and the environment we're trying to create, and some of the really interesting things that we're doing,” he noted. “Our staff members work incredibly hard, and we're always looking to learn.”
Wahl also credits Delgado with helping create what’s becoming a more holistic approach to player development, which now incorporates more classroom time and film review. Through the Verde Leaders program, players are also exercising mentorship and leadership skills. And with the players set to have a home base at St. David’s Performance Center at some point next season, they’ll be able to level up their learning even more.
And in perhaps the most remarkable fact about the Fall 2020 Season, the players got in 12 non-league games for each team plus 67 training sessions, plus a full slate of MLS NEXT matches, in the midst of a pandemic that created pauses and hiccups throughout the soccer world. The Austin FC Academy players transitioned from Zoom sessions in early July, to practicing in 10-player pods later than month, to as much normalcy as they could have during this extremely challenging year.
“We thank the families of the players and our staff for being very careful and diligent with all the protocols,” Wahl noted. “I think we've just also been lucky to have been able to play so much soccer and get so many quality training sessions in and quality games in. That’s one of the biggest takeaways in the big picture.”