I've noticed this year that the team leaves Austin on road trips wearing matching gear. I don't remember this last year so much, although I might just not have noticed before. But, if you were like me, on Saturday plopped in front of their TV watching the Apple TV preview of the match, then you saw a shot of the team getting onto the plane, and entering the stadium in matching Addidas apparel without a smile on their face.
There are two conclusions I drew from this as I saw it. My first thought: This team looks focused, serious and team-centric. That was my optimist shining through the gloom.
The other thought: This is what my high school coach made us do. We had to respect the game, respect ourselves and show that we were GOOD BOIS. So we would wear dress clothes on game day. Then we'd wear the same jerseys together as we took the bus. For me, at 14, it wasn't a problem, but this ain't a fuckin' high school baseball team. There's nothing more insecure than forced teamwork.
When I look at the picture above, I see constraint. A lack of freedom. A lack of JOY.
The game on Saturday was joyless as well. I knew LA was better, deeper, better coached, but we had the motivation and the rest to compete. But we didn't. Giving up three elite goals doesn't really hurt me that much. Losing doesn't even feel like a bad conclusion to this match, but coming up goal-less? That's painful. That's embarrassing. A 3-1 or 3-2 loss could have left open optimism about our potential. Now, I see a team that'd be lucky to make the playoffs.
We're left looking for answers now. The whole fan base is desperate. I've landed on two conclusions, both of which land at Josh Wolff's feet:
The Locker room is a mess
At this point, I think it's a guarantee that the locker room dynamic is ruptured. It's hard to pinpoint where it came from. Soccer is particularly susceptible to changes in vibes. If you've watched how Liverpool and Chelsea have played in the Premier league then you know. Sometimes, the wrong people are in the room, and there's just no fixing that. Here's the GIANT list of potential locker room issues:
My first ever post mentioned how this: Driussi is our new captain, and that should worry Austin fans. Ring has been the dad for this team since its inception. It's not that I don't love Driussi, but the disruption was cause for concern. I also don't think that Owen Wolff is a problem that needs fixing. We'll talk more about this later.
Gabrielson left us to go to Norway. He was a vocal leader, and a great presence in the back line. I think we miss his leadership even more than his skill. Leo has been more than adept in his play, but I think we miss Gabrielson's fire.
Speaking of fire, I think our biggest locker room issue has been the loss of Felipe Martins. On the field, he's replaceable, but his sprit and fire aren't. This guy plays with the joy we so dearly miss.
I think these first three have led to our biggest problems this year. We don't have any fire. There's no passion. We neutered Ring, and let Felipe and Gabrielson walk (understandably for Garbielson). No one has taken up the mantel to be this team's heart... Fagundez.
Cascante's injury. I think this quickly tanked our team's plans for the season. There's something essential to having a long-term CB out there. A guy who knows where to be and where everyone else is supposed to be. This one's been a killer, and I'm hoping he's back soon so that we can unleash our real team.
The Zardes experiment. Nothing else needs to be said here. He's just a nothing, and clearly his experience and presence hasn't promoted positively to the locker room.
Djitte and Romana were loaned out. Neither has performed consistently for us, but they both brought passion and physicality. We miss that. Who on this team has the girth to body someone? Seriously. This teams full of quick little sparrows, and sometimes you need a musclebound flightless bird to kick someone in the face.
I could keep going for a while. Rigoni, Fagundez, the Wolff family dynamics, the Reyna family dynamics, and where is McConaughey? (Seriously though, I saw Will Ferrell at the game in LA. When's the last time McConaughey's been at a game in Austin? I don't love that we've based a large portion of our identity as a team on a guy who seemingly DGAF.)
We've gotta go back to basics
I hear you Kevin. Since the beginning of last year, this team has built it's scheme around Driussi, and it was successful last year. It could have been be due to form, personnel or tactics. It's hard to pinpoint right now. We've seen an emphasis on getting Gallagher forward this year, and it's been working, just not for anyone but Gallagher.
So, when I hear Kevin complain about the "three at the back" concept, I see a person looking at a change and wanting the change to be the problem. Twellman talked about it on the broadcast, so it's time to address it here.
Here's the heat map, passing map from Saturday. You can faintly point to the "three at the back" with Ring, Leo and Zan. And it's true that we hold Kolmanic back more often than not, but that's always been the case. When a fullback goes forward, the other fullback's responsibility is to remain back. Lima tended to be the "third in the back" last year as well.
But Gahllaher has been SO GOOD forward, it's left us with a heat map like the one above. And why would you slide Gallagher back, when he's been this good. This isn't the problem with Austin this year. Look how far back our forwards are playing. Fagundez is playing as a second left back, along with Driussi. Driussi is spending a ton of time coming back to advance the ball. Uritti and Rigoni are barely spending their time over half-pitch. There's an issue with distribution here.
You could very quickly point to Owen as the problem. He's the difference between last year and this year. Then he's the problem! Except, he's been one of our best 5 players all year. You can't take this guy off the pitch. We're all reaching for straws here at this point, so I'm going to go back to basics. Josh Wolff's IDEAL system is the 4-3-3. It's in his blood, and it's a formation that is built to produce those passing triangles we were accustomed to seeing last year (we did not play 4-3-3 last year, to be clear). Think about Fagundez, Gallagher and Driussi working the left side last year and how effective it was. I think we're missing that.
So, I propose some changes to help us get back to basics.
Gallagher goes back to the left with Fagundez. It's simple and it's what worked wonders last year. I know that in an ideal world, we're trotting out the left footed Kolmanic on the left, and the right footed Gallagher on the right, but sometimes life doesn't work so conveniently. And what do we have to lose? Throw Kolmanic out right. That left foot might be even more valuable coming in at a different angle.
With Cascante back, go back to a standard 4-3-3. I know how this sounds and how unsexy this is, but I think this might be our best lineup. We just don't have the wing play to justify having 4 attacking players. We do have the midfield skill, and let's lean into it. Unlike our first year, we do have the two-way midfield talent to play this formation admirably. It will allow the midfield to push forward with more confidence knowing they have two midfielders to help them in defense. Attacking through the middle of the field has been mostly non-existent. I think this alteration would help both defensively and offensively, particularly strengthening the midfield press with Wolff Ring and Pereira. This would also free up Driussi to pressure up front instead of coming back to get on the ball.
Positional flexibility. Right now, Gallagher might be our best wing player, so we should consider putting him back up there. Wolff was great at the wing as well. If we continue to strike out with our wing play, replace them with the players who are playing well, yes, even Driussi. Why not start two strikers along with Driussi? More options open up front with better service from the 3 man midfield.
All of these issues point to one person. Josh Wolff. In the long-term it's been our failure to build a strong roster. A failure in scouting, and not enough time for us to build our player pipeline internally. But in the short term, Wolff has been a failure this season. He's not without some very good excuses, but he needs to figure this out. It's a puzzle and he just needs to solve it. Let's hope he does this week. I'm not about to go watch us get stomped at home to Vancouver.