Austin FC turning doubters into believers amid unexpected MLS Cup playoffs run

AUSTIN, Texas — In true Texas fashion, Austin FC is doing it big.

When the expansion team entered Major League Soccer last year expectations were already high. Part owner and "Minister of Culture" Matthew McConaughey was cautious about how he approached the buzz his team created. He termed it a "100-year war."

If we’re following that standard, there’s still 98 left but this second season has already reached heights that seemed largely unimaginable.

Winning just nine game last year and finishing in 12th place had many skeptical about what Austin FC could accomplish in 2022. They didn’t have much success with two of their three designated players as Cecilio Domínguez had his contract terminated following an investigation into a domestic dispute. Tomás Pochettino was loaned to River Plate after an inconsistent season where he tallied just two goals and two assists in 31 games.

But that third DP Sebastián Driussi turned it up and became one of the best players in MLS. He ran his way to 22 goals this season, just short of the Golden Boot, guiding Austin to a No. 2 finish in the West. For a majority of the season they were even in the Supporters’ Shield race but that flamed out at the end. Driussi’s MVP-caliber year was the driving force in turning many doubters into believers.

The goal they had set of making the playoffs was accomplished, and they got to experience it at home in Q2 Stadium, which has quickly become one of the best game-day experiences around the league. It’s all part of the plan, this 100-year war, of growing the legend. That first playoff game against Real Salt Lake wasn’t pretty and Austin played with fire before almost getting burnt, but Driussi and goalkeeper Brad Stuver came up huge to force extra time and eventually advance in a penalty kick shootout.

With those nerves finally out of the way, Austin prepared to host rival FC Dallas and was certainly up for the task. You guessed it, Druissi and Stuver were massive again as they punched their ticket to the Western Conference final in the team’s second year of existence.

“We had the idea and the hope that we could get to here. Was it in the semifinals, and you're on the verge of MLS Cup? I don’t know if we put our dreams that far,” said head coach Josh Wolff. “But we knew we could compete and make it to the playoffs. And I always say, you get to the playoffs in this league, you have an opportunity. And we’ve got a great opportunity.”

It’s actually comical the team has based their mentality on being underdogs when they convincingly ran past opponents all season, including LAFC twice, which is who they will play for a ticket to the MLS Cup final. The parity in the league makes things wild sometimes, but this is exactly what it should be: No. 1 vs. No. 2.

“I think it shows what kind of team we are. Not everybody can not have a good year one year and suddenly you’re making it to the [Conference] finals,” said Diego Fagúndez, who has been an essential part of this franchise. “We want to keep proving people wrong, but at the same time we want to show people that we’re good enough to do that. We’re just getting started.”

And what a start it has been. Whether Driussi wins MVP or not, whether the magical run ends Sunday or continues, to have this success so early is monumental.

Even Wolff said it himself: “If you dreamt of it looking like this, it’s exceeding expectations.”

They’re a win away from playing for the Cup, with a chance to host that game depending on the Eastern Conference final result. Even the most optimistic fan looking through Verde glasses wouldn’t have taken it that far, especially after many were questioning Wolff and the team following the inaugural season. But that’s the beauty of the game and a franchise with clear ideas — connection to the community, roster build. etc.

“We came into this season and knew that we were a much better team than what our results showed last year,” Stuver said. “We implemented a system and culture in the locker room, brought in some different guys that really gave us a boost. I think you can tell that this locker room has a different feel.”

Now a trip to Los Angeles awaits, the place where the franchise played its first game ever. But before flipping the focus toward LAFC, Wolff wants to make sure his squad takes a step back to recognize.

“It was such a unique experience and hopefully one that they’ll carry with them,” he said Sunday after the electric win over FC Dallas. “This job and this game is about that, it’s about memories, relationships and making these moments with people. This is a great group and we’re gonna continue to push.”

In 2021, Austin FC arrived. But in 2022 the franchise proved it's here to stay.

One hundred years? Maybe two is more than enough.