How has Austin gone from bottom feeder to contender?

As the question was asked, you could start to see the amused look creep across the face of Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff. Austin FC was just days away from the season opener against FC Cincinnati and a local reporter noted that the oddsmakers in Las Vegas had the Texan capital club — 12th in the Western Conference in 2021 — pegged at 75-1 to win MLS Cup.

“I think there’s an opportunity there for the betting fans to possibly make some money,” Wolff said with a wry smile. “The odds are that stacked against us … it’s a great opportunity.”

Five months later, Wolff’s betting tip is looking good. Despite a 4-3 home loss to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday to snap a seven-match unbeaten run, Austin is second in the West with 41 points, has already surpassed last year’s win total (12 to nine) and is tied for the best road record in the league with seven wins and two draws from 12 games. Pretty much everyone in MLS has been surprised by what the Verde have done this year, and you get the sense that Wolff wants to keep it that way.

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“Those odds were probably right based on our performance, but in that first year there were a lot of good things,” Wolff told ESPN. “In any year, you have to reflect and build off it. I think we did from a personnel standpoint and I think all of those things have added up to a good start.”

The road to a surprise Supporters’ Shield candidacy can be traced to last summer’s signing of Sebastian Driussi. Walking into the locker room was a Designated Player developed by Argentine giants River Plate and who had flourished at perennial Champions League side Zenit St. Petersburg. Driussi brought quality and swagger.

“I think there is some credibility there that is just instant,” Wolff said. “I’ve also been a player in this league, and players are looking. They’re watching every moment when he first gets here. You could see clearly that this was not an ordinary DP. It wasn’t just the quality — it was the intensity, professionalism, responsibility and willingness to work.”

Austin FC actually lost eight of nine games in August and September of last year following Driussi’s debut, but four wins from the final nine games offered hope that things could be better in 2022.

“You can never get used to losing,” Wolff said. “Last year was difficult, but it helped shape how we came into this season, tactically some of the adjustments, personnel, character and quality that we needed to add this year.”

Almost every notable addition brought in by General Manager Claudio Reyna has made a positive impact. Forward Maxi Urruti had just 16 goals between 2019-21 with CF Montreal and the Houston Dynamo, yet he already has seven with Austin, with five of those serving as match-winners.

“[Urruti] is a perfect fit for a team like Austin,” an opposing GM told ESPN this week. “They don’t need him to come in and be an elite chance creator. They just need him to come in and do a lot of really hard work and finish some chances.”

Other new arrivals were center-back Ruben Gabrielsen, who has started 20 of the team’s 22 games in 2022, and experienced MLS midfielders Ethan Finlay (five goals) and Felipe for depth.

“They clearly have the support of ownership to utilize all the different buckets of money to efficiently build a roster, with U22 players, DPs, young players,” the rival GM said. “They’ve done a good job building a balanced roster.”

There were hurdles to overcome as well. DP midfielder Tomas Pochettino struggled in 2021 and was sent on loan to River Plate for this season. Another DP, attacker Cecilio Dominguez, played just four games this season before being suspended by MLS on April 8. Dominguez was later reinstated by the league, but never played another minute for Austin FC and the player and club mutually agreed to part ways earlier this week.

Instead of being left beleaguered by those absences, the Verde have become one of the toughest teams to beat. Driussi is tied for the league lead in goals with 13, and Austin leads MLS in both goals scored (45) and assists (51). No team in the league has more points from losing positions than the Oaks (16).

“I think we have a number of ways to hurt teams,” Wolff said. “We can do it with quick attacks, we can high press them and win balls. We can be methodical in our build-up, but if you want to sit low, I think we’ve developed a good understanding of how to handle that.

“Inside the locker room, it’s so strong. The players are so committed to one another. The results that we’re getting when we’re down comes from a calm and resiliency that is so clear.”

Perhaps the most crucial element of Austin FC’s success has been player improvement. Hailed in MLS circles as a strong developer of talent, Wolff’s work with players, like center-back Julio Cascante and second-year midfielder Dani Pereira, has been pivotal. Cascante has become more adept using his feet and progressing attacks; Pereira has become a fan favorite for pestering opponents in midfield, helping start counterattacks and scoring the occasional banger.

“I think the winning becomes a byproduct of how well I can teach,” Wolff said. “It’s a process, it’s the way that we want to play and certainly the environment that we want to build.”

As adverse as he is to individual accolades — “Those things will never be important to me” — Wolff is poised to be on a very short list of Coach of the Year candidates should Austin continue its winning ways through the fall.

A year removed from #WolffOut trending locally on social media, the second-year coach has guided Austin FC to the upper echelon of the Western Conference this season thanks to an MVP candidate in Driussi, impactful contributions from winter signings, squad improvement and a team spirit that has Texas’ capital city dreaming of a first pro championship.

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