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Austin FC: an “In the Box” breakdown of Sporting Kansas City’s Sunday opponent

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Led by former Sporting KC men, Austin is a team on the verge.

MLS: Austin FC at Colorado Rapids Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It is a fact. The space between us trends smaller when things are good.

Coming off a string of declining results – an away win, a home draw, an away loss – Sporting Kansas City will look to pull fans closer with a win come Sunday evening at Children’s Mercy Park.

The space will be there for Sporting to exploit in their battle versus MLS debutant Austin FC. If Sporting is alert and mobile.

The Austin Wizards?

The expansion club Austin FC includes some impressive personnel, with more than a pinch of Kansas City flavor. At the top of the Technical Staff is Austin FC Sporting Director Claudio Reyna. Reyna is one of the most decorated US National Team players of all time, a legend at VfL Wolfsburg, and the one who helmed New York City FC’s successful expansion and subsequent run of success in MLS.

From there, like a sweet barbeque sauce, the Kansas City flavor runs high from Head Coach Josh Wolff (a Sporting legend) and Assistant Coach Davy Arnaud (likely a future Sporting legend and guest on The Shades of Blue podcast this week) to High Performance Coach David Tenney (Fitness and Goalkeeping coach in KC 2007-2008) and Academy Manager Tyson Wahl (KC player from 2006-2008).

Of course, the Kansas City taste extends to the field with former Sporting starlet and hometown hero Matt Besler at the center of defense. The impact players are a mix of wily MLS veterans and foreign imports. Midfielders Diego Fagundez and Finland native Alex Ring (MLS Team of the Week) come from playing key roles with New England Revolution and NYCFC respectively. Cecilio Dominguez is a tricky Paraguayan Designated player #10, and Danny Hoesen is a strong Dutch-Moroccan #9 with three years of MLS experience.

It was not a pretty match…

The observations below are from Austin FC’s 1-0 win at Minnesota United FC last Saturday. In general, it was not a pretty match.

However, my thoughts do not extend as far as this self-purported well-credentialed poster’s thoughts on Facebook’s Major League Soccer Discussion Group: “Last night I invested 2 hours in Mn United vs. Austin City Limits and ... it was horrible. One of the least enjoyable matches I’ve seen since Spurs and like, Sheffield. It was a bunch of big bulky athletes with low soccer IQ and poor touch smashing into each other and turning the ball over.”

Ouch. (I do not feel Austin FC is terribly athletic btw…)

A typical/atypical expansion-side defense

Like many expansion MLS sides, Austin FC pressured Minnesota up high with five players in United’s half early in the match. And like many expansion sides, Austin does a good job of getting 8-9 players behind the ball when they lose possession. What makes Austin an outlier is that, thus far, they are a solid defensive unit, averaging one goal against in their two wins and one loss (all away). Los Angeles FC put two on them to take the season opener; then Austin turned back the Colorado Rapids 3-1 before beating Minnesota.

Austin sat back and absorbed a lot of pressure late in the first half especially, but overall did very well, limiting the Loons to two shots on goal for the full 90.

Minnesota was, however, able to find space to work through Austin’s right side and through its midfield. Loons’ talisman Emmanuel Reynoso banged a chance off the post from a combination straight through the Texas side’s midfield. That is where Texas-sized space can be found at times.

Sporting would do well to find that space into striker Alan Pulido who excels at then turning or playing the ball off to Sporting’s speedy-enough wingers and wing backs. If those attacks come at speed, Kansas City fans could see more like Pulido’s goal on the weekend.

Austin FC’s attack/play… such high praise

“[Austin FC have] developed an identity as a pass-and-move team that constantly creates outlets and danger with coordinated off-the-ball movement.” from Matt Doyle’s latest Armchair Analyst on mlssoccer.com

“Austin are really good at soccer and it’s really, really exciting.” From mlssoccer.com’s latest Power Rankings (Austin FC #9, Sporting KC #15 if you care to know.)

Superlatives and extremes are always super overused… take them for what you will. (Yes, I’m guilty…) And what an interesting conversation that Facebook poster could have with ^...

Austin’s goal in Minnesota backs up Doyle’s contention.

Sure. It’s good soccer. But Austin also struggled to play out of the back at times, played a fair amount of long balls from back width to the frontline that were mostly giveaways, and missed chances to put the game away late.

Tendencies

Defensive midfielder Ring is literally the ringmaster in Austin’s 4-3-3 setup. Whether at the center of the backline as Austin builds up slowly and methodically from the back or more advanced up the field, #8 Ring sees the ball often. Witness their passing network from the Minnesota clash:

Although Austin’s attack is balanced from side to side, they skew left with the triangle of #14 Fagundez, #21 Slovenian back Zan Kolmanic, and #10 Dominguez.

When they do find #9 Hoesen – a poor man’s Alan Pulido – he does well to keep the ball moving when coming back into space.

Austin does play “good soccer” as they rotate the ball through the back and midfield, but their Achilles’ heel (most MLS teams’ Achilles’ heel) is in the final third, where against Minnesota their pass completion rate was 61.5%, worse than Sporting Kansas City’s 69.7% vs Real Salt Lake in their 3-1 loss there last Saturday.

Prediction

Austin FC is on the verge, like expansion sides Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF in 2020, of being a playoff contender. But for now they are a tantalizing, yet fairly tepid side.

Sporting is a team that has a lot to prove. Sporting will pull fringe fans closer to them by using their talented midfield to find space, then abuse that space quickly via Pulido and/or the wings to create opportunities while doing just enough to hold Austin’s attack at bay.

Sporting Kansas City 2, Austin FC 1.