Austin FC’s goal this season: Proving last year’s success was not a fluke
Nobody expected Austin FC to be in Los Angeles in November, just one win away from competing for the MLS Cup. The only team in their way was an LAFC club they had already beaten twice that year.
But a third win was too much to ask of the young club; LA beat Austin 3-0.
The disappointment of the season-ending loss doesn't overshadow the accomplishment the club managed to pull off last year. In just their second year of competition, the team went from second-to-last in the Western Conference, to competing with the best teams for the top prize in Major League Soccer.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver sees this growth as a natural progression for the team.
"What we were doing in 2021 was a building block,” he said.
At the start of last season most analysts suggested it'd be a success if the team got close to the playoffs. But nobody outside of the squad knew just how good this team could be.
Stuver said the team knew the system they were using and the talent on the roster could exceed the expectations placed on the club last year.
“Now the burden falls that we need to continue showing people that we are this good because there are still people that are really going to doubt us," he said. "Like saying that our numbers last year were lucky or fluky or we were overachieving,” he said.
It’s one thing to shock a league that underestimated you; it's another to live up to your own lofty expectations. The media predictions look very different this year, with some going as far as predicting Austin will win the Western Conference and potentially a title. And some teams will be looking for revenge for last year.
“We definitely will have a target on our back," Stuver said. Clubs like Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, both of whom were eliminated from the playoffs by Austin will be looking to get revenge for last year.
New faces on the squad
The team that takes the pitch Saturday won't be the same Austin FC. Some key contributors to last year's success are gone. The most significant departure is that of central defender Ruben Gabrielsen. He had signed a multiyear contract with Austin, but he requested a return to Norway for a family matter. The team brought in Finnish defender Leo Väisänen to replace him.
“My job is to bring something new there and to aim even higher," Väisänen said. "And yeah, it's a hungry, hungry team for trophies and sure, I'm going to be good for them."
The club has been interested in Väisänen for a couple of years now, but Gabrielsen's departure made shoring up the defense a priority.
It's not just the defense that looks different. Austin FC added experience to a squad that scored the third most goals in the league last year by signing veteran strikers Will Bruin and Gyasi Zardes.
They'll join Diego Fagundez, Emiliano Rigoni, Maxi Urruti and last year’s league MVP runner-up, Sebastian Driussi. Driussi drew interest from clubs in Europe, but ultimately decided to stay in Austin for another three years. Both he and Fagundez signed contract extensions during the offseason.
A longer season ahead
The team's success last season means they qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, which pits the top finishers from the major North and Central American soccer leagues against each other. The winner gets to compete in the Club World Cup at the end of the year.
Bruin has experience balancing multiple tournament runs in a season.
“Whenever you add that into a season, it's a grind and adds a lot of games and adds a lot of difficult games," he said. "So I think the depth of this roster is really, really good."
A deep run in any tournament will mean more matches on shorter rest, some with long flights in between. Stuver says everyone on the roster will have to contribute at some point this season.
“It's really important for the entire locker room to be locked in from the very beginning because games are going to come quick," he said. "Everyone is going to get their moment to play and at the end of the day, all of us in this locker room want to win a trophy."
Austin is not alone in that goal. Every MLS team will be pushing for the same titles. Stuver said the team knows have to do more than everyone else to lift a title this year.
“You have to be pushing yourself every day to be as good or better [than] you were last year," he said. "And I think that's what's so great about our group is everyone is so focused on getting better than what they were last year."
The season kicks off Saturday at Q2 against the latest newcomer to MLS: St. Louis SC.