I was once again mindlessly scrolling through social media when I found a report about Silvio Berlusconi, the former AC Milan owner and Italian prime minister who is now owner of new Serie A club AC Monza, and his new transfer policy upon the team’s promotion last campaign. Players signed must be Italian, have no tattoos, no earrings, no beards, and have “neatly styled hair” (Of course, these rules can and will be ignored if the player is good enough).
While certainly bizarre enough on its own, the first thought that comes to mind for most is what a New York Red Bulls equivalent would be. What players would the team sign if it could only bring in those who fit the New York City commuter vibe that the club has? Inter Miami’s Bryce Duke, who looks like a young, mild mannered finance executive that while lovable, is definitely only at his level due to nepotism? Perhaps Red Bull academy alum Matthew Olosunde, who might own a chain of successful coffee shops in Brooklyn, or Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, who has definitely body-checked a man while in a hurry to get to work? For me, no one exemplifies the wired earbud sporting, laptop clutching, entry level computer science employee that makes up half of the MTA’s annual revenue quite like former Red Bull and current Austin FC midfielder Jared Stroud does. I miss him every day.
After a disappointing derby result, the Red Bulls travel to one of the nation’s blooming soccer communities in Austin, Texas. Just founded in 2018, Austin FC has thrived on the back of the incredible support the city has given it, regularly drawing sellout crowds to the gorgeous new Q2 Stadium. Anthony Precourt, the former villain of the #SavetheCrew campaign and current Austin FC owner, struck gold by founding a club in the one major Texan city devoid of any professional sports, and is riding the wave of the open market to success. Of course, Matthew McConaughey helps.
On the pitch Austin have been very strong, after working out some kinks in their debut season in 2021, Los Verdes have flown out of the gates with a 12-5-4 record in 2022, currently second in the Western Conference and the Supporter’s Shield rankings. Head coach Josh Wolff, a former US international and assistant to Gregg Berhalter with the national team, has optimized the squad and made it into a legitimate title contender after just a year. They top the league in goalscoring with 42, 11 of which have come from Golden Boot chaser Sebastian Driussi. The back has been solid as well, having only conceded 24, and they’ve only lost once at home so far. They are by no means the kind of team you want to face after a demoralizing home derby loss, but they’re the team Struber will have to break down on Sunday.
Wolff plays a distinct possession-based system, the team is very comfortable keeping the ball, their average 53% possession is on the higher end league-wide, and while it’s not necessarily a prime Barcelona tiki taka borefest, the Texans will take their sweet time getting the ball up the pitch. Buildup is very important to the system, Austin take the fifth most touches in their defensive penalty area and their defensive third leaguewide, and are not afraid to take risks with the end goal of keeping the ball at their feet. In 2021, forcing this system lead to many expected errors with cheap giveaways, but as the team has grown under Wolff they’ve gotten better and better at playing out of pressure, with their opponents only averaging a successful pressure percentage of 27.6% (For reference, the Red Bulls successful pressure percentage against other clubs is 31.4%). The occasional mistake has cost them, but this is by no means a team afraid of pressure.
Once out of their defensive half, the attack has been absolutely ruthless, averaging a goal for every two shots on target (2nd in MLS) and a goal every seven shots (1st in MLS). They’ve overperformed their Expected Goals by a staggering 8.7, a number a cynic could say is put into perspective by taking into account the faults of the metric, but also a number that normal people know just shows some ridiculous finishing. Their attacking weapon of choice is a heavy emphasis on off-ball movement, goals frequently feature defenders being pulled away from the eventual goalscorer due to a distracting run from another Austin player. It requires an extremely organized defense to counter, which has been a weakness of the Red Bulls recently. How fun.
Many have been surprised by the Red Bull’s current success, Red Bulls fans not excluded, as New York have found themselves near the top of the East for most of the year. Debate has raged as to whether or not the young team is overperforming, and the sternest reality check for good teams is facing other good teams. The Red Bulls have struggled against the league’s elite so far, recently performing poorly against LAFC and NYCFC, but a good result against high-flying Austin could earn the squad some respect, and build their own confidence at the same time. While the organization is very much undergoing a longer term project, Struber and his men would like the obvious potential to turn into more tangible success as soon as possible, and solidifying a spot as one of the league’s best teams is a pretty good way to start.
Austin should treat viewers to their lovely home kit on Sunday, a fairly unique design aided by Austin’s fairly unique color combination. You can rarely go wrong with black, and the bold green combines smoothly in Blaugrana-like stripes. There’s not much of note besides that, the designer was perhaps a little overzealous in representing the shirt’s sponsor, Austin-based ice-cooler monopoly Yeti, but the clean font keeps it from being too bad.
A solid 7/10, but only by MLS standards.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Yeah, I know. Picking the team’s top scorer. How original.
Argentine attacker Sebastian Driussi has been setting the league on fire in the first half of the season, scoring 11 times in 20 starts. Already an All-Star after not even a year in the league, his precocious finishing ability and knack of being in the right place at the right time have made him a notable point in Austin’s brief history. Also second in the squad in assists, Driussi has the ability to both start plays and finish them, hyper aware of what’s going on around him and possessing good decision making in crucial moments. He’s excellent at creating space for the forwards around him, so it will be important for the Red Bulls defenders to track him and limit his influence. While Austin have plenty of players that can hurt you, silencing Driussi is always a good start.
Speaking of players that can hurt you, what about a defensive midfielder? While the former NYCFC captain became a villain for Red Bull fans during his time across the Hudson River, his work in Austin is typically more subtle. As a deep lying six in Wolff’s 4-2-3-1, his touches are crucial to the way Austin build out of the back, whether it be dropping back to provide an outlet for center backs or goalkeeper, or checking in to aid fullbacks. He leads the team’s midfielders in touches in the defensive third, and has been a reliable presence while starting every one of Austin’s games so far. The Norwegian’s calmness in possession keeps Austin ticking, so the Red Bulls midfield will be making sure they can disrupt his play as much as possible. Closing him down quickly or cutting off his passing lanes, the likely duo of Frankie Amaya and Cristian Casseres Jr. will have their work cut out for them as they play against the familiar face.
Dru Yearwood & Caden Clark
Speaking of likely duos, here’s an unlikely one. Struber’s inexplicable tradition of freezing out assorted fringe players throughout the campaign continues in 2022 with Dru Yearwood and Caden Clark, a pair that already suffered this fate at intermittent points of 2021.
Yearwood has not started in MLS since June 11th, and hasn’t played since June 26th, despite showing early promise as a double pivot with Frankie Amaya his defensive deficiencies have left him stuck to the bench after Cristian Casseres’ early return from injury. Despite leading MLS midfielders in tackles won per 90 and successful pressures per 90, Struber’s frustration with him in individual moments has neutralized the dynamic midfielder. While his lack of starts is understandable, one has to wonder why he hasn’t been used as a substitute piece more often, as his obvious skill on the ball is many times what the Red Bulls need to unlock stubborn defenses.
Clark’s absence has been more reasonable, a title-winning campaign with the United States U20 team interrupted his Red Bulls season, although he was not seeing the field too much before he left either. A bout of appendicitis threw off his 2021 season, and seeing as the 2022 campaign was supposed to be a successful farewell for the RB Leipzig bound midfielder, it has been disappointing that he hasn’t been used more since his return. Lewis Morgan, Luquinhas, and Omir Fernandez have locked down the attacking spots that Clark typically plays in, but at some point he has to be given a chance.
With a crucial part of the season coming up, Struber will need to utilize his whole squad effectively, and the two inconsistent but talented midfielders will need to step up their game if they want to be more than just rotation options.
The MLS Expansion Draft and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.
I’m usually pretty optimistic with these predictions but Austin genuinely terrifies me. With the offensive disarray the Red Bulls find themselves in, it might be the rare moment where a 0-0 draw would have most fans leaping for joy and eagerly awaiting more manageable opposition.