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Year in review: Austin FC's first season leaves fans wanting more

Austin FC's up and down season needs some tweaking before their second season begins in 2022. (Austin FC/Twitter)

Austin FC's come a long way from the 'MLS to Austin' days over four years ago, but they still left much to be desired in the first season that saw more fan attendance than most MLS teams, more losses than victories and a near-bottom placement in the league.

The Verde and Black trekked through seven straight away matches to kick off their inaugural season before making a triumphant home debut on June 19 in the brand new 20,500-capacity Q2 Stadium. Battling COVID restrictions, injuries and bouts of scorelessness, the team drew unwavering support from thousands of fans and supporters' groups—some of which preceded the team's existence.

These fans, many of whom were part of the campaigners who fought for Austin FC in 2017, watched as Austin traveled to LAFC for their first match in April, and many were there in Portland when the team's first season came to an anticlimactic end in Portland on Sunday. And like the team—which saw only three of the same players on the starting XI from the starting match to the final—the fanbase and perception of Austin FC went through an utter transformation.

Here are some of the biggest highlights from the first season:

Some players, like fan-favorite Diego Fagundez and backup-turned-starter keeper Brad Stuver, became surprise stars. Others, like Designated Players Tomas Pochettino and Cecilio Dominguez, left more to be desired. And by midsummer, injuries from projected starters like striker Danny Hoesen and left back Ben Sweat forced first-time Head Coach Josh Wolff and team to make some tough decisions to salvage the season.

Whether the season was actually salvaged is up for debate. Austin finished 12th in the West—above only fellow Texan team Houston Dynamo—and failed to make playoff berth or clinch the Copa Tejas title. The club beat out only Houston and the East's Cincinnati and Toronto in total points.

But while many fans hoped for a playoff debut in the club's inaugural season, many say that was never realistic: only three of the last 12 MLS Expansion teams made playoffs in their first year, though around half had better overall results than the Verde and Black.

The "Wolff Out" movement, which first bloomed from not-so-great results in late summer on Twitter, has blossomed into a full movement, with many more thinking that Wolff should be ousted if significant improvements aren't made next season.

So what's next for Austin FC?

Josh Wolff will need to ask some tough questions as he heads into the team's brief offseason—the 2022 MLS season is starting earlier than ever before on Feb. 26.

Despite only nine wins this season, Austin saw the fifth-highest attendance in the league, regularly selling out at both weekday and weekend matches.

But the club will need to live up to the hype next season if they want to continue that off-pitch success. They'll need to inject some passion into their away performances—the club only took home two wins in road matches this season—and work on second-half endurance. Wolff mostly successfully plugged the team's worrying scorelessness with Sebastián Driussi and Moussa Djitte, but the club will need to see more from Djitte and Dominguez if they want to capitalize on offensive success.

Austin FC's Sebastian Driussi became a key player in Austin FC's offense. (Austin FC)

Most importantly, however, the team needs a clear leader. Captain Alex Ring has had his ups and downs, from making MLS Team of the Week honors to being ousted out of two matches on red cards. He'll need to rile up his team to more passionate performances in midfield next season.

That need for leadership 'rings' especially true on the back line, where the Verde and Black have regularly lost duels due to lack of speed and direction.

Our humble recommendation is to find a high-priced Designated Player for either the center back or midfield, downgrade Tomas Pochettino to regular player status and tweak the sluggish "play from the back" mindset. And after his comeback season, maybe Diego Fagundez should nab that captain's armband come spring.

Austin FC players will get a much-needed break as the team's staff gear up for the MLS SuperDraft in January 2022.

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