The coronavirus epidemic, which hit not quite three months after the two-time World Cup veteran took the reins in his first head-coaching job, changed how players are scouted and acquired just as Wolff and Sporting Director Claudio Reyna set about doing just that.
That they're as pleased at this point in the narrative as they are has much to do with focus, diligence and, most of all, pedigree. Austin FC, in so many ways, isn't your average expansion team.
Reyna, maybe the finest American player of his generation, was the primary architect of the fine New York City FC teams that so impressed, generally, before playoffs arrived. He's considered one of the wisest heads in the American game. Wolff over nearly a decade, mostly with the Crew, evolved into one of the league's most respected assistant coaches. This was not an unexpected step. And majority owner Andrew Precourt's desire to make Austin a for-real big-league city, Longhorns aside, started with a revered (if controversial) era in Columbus, one that set the stage for this year's success.
They didn't come in blind, although masks, let's say, were required.
“I think there's the obvious as to what COVID did in providing some difficulty, in that there's less travel, there's less ability to get in front of players in person,” Wolff told Soccer America. “But it forces you to check your process. And from the get-go, we wanted to understand what our game model looks like, the types of players that we're going to go after, kind of their attributes, where they're at, and how we feel we can help them. And then we put together good player-relocation and game-model presentations to show players, certainly internationals.
“And then as you're able to reach out to players -- even now, through free agency -- you want to have a clear idea of what you're trying to do, and those players can see what you're trying to do. There's been a ton of interest from players domestically to be part of the project, and I think it speaks volumes [about] the people that are involved. Claudio and myself, our ownership -- Anthony is fantastic. Dave Tenney, really well known for [his high performance work with Seattle Sounders FC and the NBA's Orlando Magic]. And I think we're trying to be as prepared and professional about our approach to coming into the league and to give ourselves the best chance.”
Austin FC could field a decent XI already. The first two signings -- Paraguayan wingers Rodney Redes and Cecilio Dominguez -- came aboard through transfers last summer and were loaned for autumn to Guarani in Asuncion. Also a Colombian arriving from Guarani is central defender Jhohan Romana. Everybody else has been rounded up since Dec. 13. Chief among them are veteran defenders Julio Cascante, Nick Lima and Ben Sweat, midfielders Alex Ring and Ulises Segura, and forward Danny Hoesen.
Wolff, who said he was pleased with the “variety” and “balance” of the acquisitions, knew Sweat and midfielder Hector Jimenez from Columbus and Lima from the national team, and Reyna had brought Ring to NYCFC. Goalkeeper Brady Scott, who started his pro career in Germany, also has been in the national team programs. Goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who played seven regular-season games and made two playoff appearances during for the Columbus Crew in its MLS title-winning season, arrives as a free agent.
Midfielder Joe Corona was on hand for a week, arriving in the Dec. 15 expansion draft and departing to Houston in Tuesday's second-stage re-entry draft.
Josh Wolff, after a pass from Claudio Reyna, assisted on Brian McBride's goal in the USA's 2-0 win over Mexico in the round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup. In qualifying play, he scored the first goal in the first "dos a zero" victory over Mexico, in February 2001 in Columbus, Ohio.
WOLFF'S JOURNEY. Wolff was known as a skilled and savvy forward during a 15-year playing career in which he played for some of the country's finest coaches -- Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena, Bob Gansler, Peter Vermes, Clive Charles and Jay Hoffman included -- with the Chicago Fire, Kansas City Wizards, D.C. United and U.S. national team. He joined Ben Olsen's staff at D.C. when he retired in 2012 and two years later joined Gregg Berhalter in Columbus. He followed Berhalter to the national team in 2019. All have played roles in Wolff's coaching development.
“They've all operated at a high level ...,” Wolff said. “I think I was fortunate to come in [as a rookie out of the University of South Carolina in 1998] at a young, young age to Chicago Fire with Bob Bradley being the coach. My first introduction to the professional game there was tremendous. The type of people that you're working with, the type of information that you get, the care that you got from Bob.
“Bob for me is a phenomenal coach, but [more so] a phenomenal person. At the end of the day, his ability to reach players, have real conversation, give you clarity to what your role is going to look like and how important you are in the process is, I think, evident to what he's done again with LAFC. He's done it pretty much everywhere he's gone.”
All these mentors, he says, “are great people.“
“And from each of them you are capable of grabbing pieces that make them unique, and then try to bring that into what I want to be about: the intensity, the focus, the detail,” he said. “Also the fun. I mean, it has to be enjoyable. But I think a lot has to do with the relationships that you build with the players and kind of that circle of trust that you start to have as a team. And that environment and culture becomes super important, but it has to be real. Players will figure it out quick if it's phony.”
Wolff has evolved most, naturally, during his time with Berhalter, who developed a specific system and had the Crew competing for trophies with a smaller budget than the league's biggest clubs.
“When it comes to having clear ideas and being prepared and knowing what you're looking for and how to deliver that to players, I haven't been around anyone that's as good as Gregg,” he said. “I've learned a great deal, and I still have a great deal to learn. ... But I think the experiences with the national team and with Columbus helped give me clarity as to what it is I want to be about and the types of players and type of team that I want us to build. And that's philosophically speaking, that's an identity. As far as how you work with players.”
BUILDING AN IDENTITY. Wolff -- whose assistants are former K.C./D.C./Montreal Impact forward Davy Arnaud, former Atlanta United U-19 coach Rodrigo Rios, and Nolan Sheldon, who held Academy and first-team positions in more than a decade at D.C. -- says the team is going after players who are “relevant” to the “game model,” but “we're also bringing in people that have a great spirit about them, have a real passion to play, but also enjoy the process of what we're going to do.” There are, he says, “contract offers out there, and we just have to see how it goes and see what we get.”
Wolff and Reyna see the game “in a pretty similar way,” he says, and they want Austin FC “to be an aggressive, attacking team, and we also know there has to be some stability to it.” What kind of identity are they seeking?
“You have to understand what you want to do with the ball. And you have to be really balanced and clear when you don't have the ball, what type of structures you're going to be in,” Wolff said. “We talk a lot about being possession-based, but also being, you know, dynamic and powerful, a good mix between youth and experience. But we want to be entertaining. We want to win games, like everyone else. We want to score goals. But I think those things are general ideas, and we'll have our way of playing. ...
“I think the players who we're signing reflect the way that we want to play, and we've seen other teams do that in their way. And some bring success, some bring failures. And we're mindful of those things, and we try to do it in a responsible way that's best for us.”
The most important pieces, so far, are Dominguez -- the club's first Designated Player -- youth DP Redes, and Ring, a Finnish holding midfielder expected to provide a foundation in the middle.
“I've been out of MLS for two years, and I was able to go to MLS is Back in June,” Wolff said. “Obviously, [as] part of the national team, we're constantly watching games, constantly in markets, [but] this year was more challenging because you're not in person as often, and you see a different intensity and speed when you're there next to the field and you see what the players are doing. And I think one of the real noticeable things for me this year was seeing what the middle of the field started to look like. There's a lot of physicality in there -- there's a ground cover in there, and there's also a soccer aspect. -- and Alex brings that very clearly. And he has the flexibility to be in the backline to help build up.”
Wolff believes Hoesen can be a breakthrough player.
“Danny Hoesen is a high-level goalscorer,” he said. “And I think he was used in a different way the last year and a half in San Jose. And that is what it is. But for me, when I look at a forward with that quality from a physical standpoint and the technical components -- but also the way they think, they way they position themselves, their timing of movements in the box, and then ultimately the quality of finishing, I think Danny proves that. He's [30 on Jan. 15], still at a very good age, and he's hungry.
“The dialogue that I have with him has been great because he knows what he needs to do. He comes from a great pedigree of soccer and good teaching [during a stint] at Ajax. And now he's going to be on a team with a blank canvas of sorts. And he's aware of his responsibility and he's looking forward to it.”
There are, he says, “a number of players like that. So we're excited by the players.”
When they'll finally play a real game is uncertain. The plan is to start the 2021 season in March, but with the virus raging and the time it will take to reasonably vaccinate the country (and the world), there's no certainty that it can happen.
“Right now, we're optimistic we're going to have our players come in mid- to late January and be prepared to play in early March, and until we're told otherwise, that's kind of what we're going on. Obviously, for us, a lot of new players, a lot of new faces coming to market. So it's important for us to get them here, get them on board, get them acclimated with Austin.”
It takes time to build chemistry, right?
“If it takes longer for the season to start, it wouldn't be the worst thing for us.”