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Austin FC readies for first playoff game with palpable home advantage

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Bournemouth led twice, but Fulham had an answer both times in a thrilling four-goal draw at Craven Cottage.

Austin FC’s first-ever MLS Cup Playoff game sold out in five minutes, and Sunday’s game will be chock full of verde atmosphere.

None of that is a surprise for a club that’s sold out 34-straight contests and at times has boasted an away crew that threatens to outclass the home crowd.

“When we went on the road the first game to Colorado and you’ve got 500 fans, it’s just different,” said Austin head coach Josh Wolff, the MLS and USMNT veteran. “Was it going to be sustained? You go to 2022 and we have the same type of fan base. We’re in Colorado, LAFC, Houston, DC, and we’re winning games.

“We’re coming from behind to win games. We’re running away with games, winning games in all different ways. That’s the momentum where you have an on-field product married with an off-field surge of energy, momentum, and connection to the players. I think of the vacuum that Atlanta created and that’s how I’ve seen this take place. There’s still a big synergy and when you bring them to Q2, you actually feel it on TV.”

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Wolff speaks at a sort of “dare you to transcribe this” pace, his voice chock full of excitement but carrying the tone of a man who knew success was coming to his second-year Texas club. He says the club built its relationship with supporters by telling them what to look for in their performances so they witness progress, win or lose.

The manager saw Austin putting in good performances last season and knew the fans saw it, too. But he’s learned you can’t substitute the good vibes that come from scoring and winning, as AFC has boosted its goals from 35 to 65 and its points from 31 to 56.

“What I’ve learned as a coach is I liked a lot of our performances (in 2021) but unfortunately we didn’t win games and score enough goals,” Wolff said. “That’s the validation that players truly need. They need to see the goals and the wins to validate the work. Players and fans.”

SOCCER: AUG 26 MLS - LAFC at Austin FC

AUSTIN, TX - AUGUST 26: Austin FC forward Diego Fagúndez (14) celebrates a free kick goal with teammates during the MLS match between Austin FC and LAFC on August 26, 2022 at Q2 Stadium in Austin, TX. (Photo by David Buono/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And going 8-7-2 away from home in a league that has a widespread home-field advantage as big as any in the world? Wolff says to watch the highlights from April’s 3-2 comeback win over 10-man DC United. The hosts led 2-0 at the break but Austin struck thrice in the final 10 minutes to deliver a win, heading over to the traveling supporters to get a little wild.

“The reaction you get from us in DC, down 2-0 and up a guy... it’s immediately over to our fans,” Wolff said. “That’s because we know they’re there and we hear them.”

Austin’s been led by a mix of foreign stars and MLS vets this season. While Sebastian Driussi has rightly received a lot of love for his 22-goal season, the club’s watched Diego Fagundez (15 assists), Alex Ring (2788 minutes), and Nick Lima (four assists) help pace the growth.

And then there’s 17-year-old Owen Wolff, Josh’s son and the first of what Josh Wolff expects to be several teens to break into the team. Josh Wolff says U.S. U-17 international Micah Burton will be a first-team player next year, and the coach is monitoring several others in the academy.

“We’re about 2-3 years into our process and it’s going to be a big part of how you have success in this league,” Wolff Said. “For all of MLS, we’re starting to see such a surge of young talent. ... You’ve heard the cliche: If they’re good enough, they’re old enough. Physically, tactically, technically they can deal with it. Part of it is getting enough games and hours in professional soccer. Ideally you bring them into the first team. You can keep them for 10-15 years or sell them. Dallas, NYC, Philadelphia. We expect to be in that space, too.”

You can’t let Wolff leave an interview without asking him about next month’s World Cup.

After all, Wolff assisted Gregg Berhalter in Columbus and followed him into the USMNT en route to the Austin FC job. And he was a part of perhaps the most memorable USMNT World Cup team, the 2002 edition.

So here’s a man who is very emotionally invested in the team.

Wolff believes this group of USMNT players need to get more experience but have shown in CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup that they can rise to the occasion.

He expects them to get out of their gorup.

“It’s a process, a culmination of four years of work,” Wolff said. “There are delicate discussions out there, the anger of not qualifying. There was a lot of anxiety in and stress put on qualifying. The good news is the goal is to qualify and we qualified. The team has shown a great deal of growth. Is there more to be had? Absolutely. But it’s an extremely young group, a much more talented team than what we had in 2002.

“When this team has been in competition, they’ve won and that’s validating. I expect them to get out of the group and like anything, when you get out of the group... no one expected us to get to the World Cup Final but we were pretty damn close had we just been given a penalty and a red card against Germany. You need a little bit of fortune but you need the quality and there’s much more of that in this group. When they’re in competitions, they’ve performed quite well. The World Cup is a whole other animal. It’s a beautiful experience. The good news is there’s a dozen-plus who will be in the next cycle.

“We also have a lot more guys that are playing Champions League, high-level soccer. MLS is a high level but playing in Europe and Champions League and Europa, is the highest of the high and if you historically look back at the World Cup, the best ones in the latter rounds are Champions League players so that lends to our ability to go to this event and do well. Doesn’t mean we will, but it gives us the potential to.”

Cheers to that.

Follow @NicholasMendola