This offseason there has been a lot of commotion in and around Major League Soccer. Apart from the constant worry of COVID-19, young domestic players have been transferring to Europe in record numbers. MLS had also been in deep labor negotiations with the players union – one which could have resulted in a lockout season. It seems that with all this going on, a lot less attention has been paid to expansion franchise Austin FC.
Unlike predecessors Atlanta United and LAFC, this team has modestly assembled a roster without much national coverage.
So far, sporting Director Claudio Reyna has put together a team with experience and versatility.
Known quantities the likes of Matt Besler and Nick Lima were brought in to secure the backline. The former SKC center back Besler boasts 400 regular season starts, and as for Nick Lima, not only has he played his fair share of matches but can play in multiple defensive spots.
In midfield, former NYCFC captain Alex Ring has the range to play all across the pitch but will likely be anchoring the defense from deep. He’ll link up nicely with new designated player Tomas Pochettino, a player who will be heavily involved in chance creation.
In terms of attacking options, there are six forwards currently listed on the roster. Internationals Cecilio Dominguez and Rodney Redes were brought in from Paraguay to add that much needed spark.
Despite this overall investment, there seems to be one particular area of concern, the number 9 position.
Looking at the list of attacking players, only Danny Hoesen and Aaron Schoenfeld’s primary position is as a center-forward. Kekuta Maneh is able to play there in a pinch but has limited experience doing so.
Danny Hoesen was taken from the San Jose Earthquakes as the first overall pick in Austin FC’s expansion draft. The 30-year old Dutch striker enjoyed a wonderful 2018 scoring 12 goals for the ‘Quakes’ while earning team MVP. Over the last two seasons, Hoesen has seen very little playing time due to injury setbacks.
As for Schoenfeld, the 6-foot-4-inch point man enjoyed a few good years playing in Israel. Last year, he made his way back to MLS with Minnesota United but played primarily as a substitute.
Leadership is betting on Hoesen, hoping that he regains previous form. Sporting Director Claudio Reyna seems invested in him as the number 9.
"“His ability to play as a nine on his own, very unselfish in his movements, great school and development in Holland through Ajax and the different clubs he’s played at and he’s really motivated for a new challenge. I’m a big believer in guys getting a clean start, coming to a new club, working under a new coach, getting back to their level. A couple of years ago he scored many goals and we feel that he’s got that ability to again lead the line.” Source: The Athletic"
Despite these words of encouragement, the injury-prone Hoesen is entering his thirties and will need to take games off. Schoenfeld should spell him- in any case- neither has started a steady amount over the last few seasons which should be a cause for concern.
There is another option that could be used if the forwards do not meet expectations. One that would squash concerns and would suit Austin FC’s preferred style of play.
Head coach Josh Wolff has talked constantly about wanting to play attacking soccer, he wants a team that retains a lot of possession. He could play Dominguez in that spot, but rather as the team’s false-nine.
Unlike Hoesen, Dominguez would not be required to run past defenders and try to get on the end of crosses. As a false-nine, he would need to use his movements in between the midfield and defensive lines to draw them out of position. This movement would create space for his overlapping wingers to run at goal.
Looking at a current example, Man City manager Pep Guardiola has been resting striker Sergio Aguero for much of the season and has come up with intriguing ways to supplement the attack. Recently he’s used players like Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden as false-nines with newfound success.
This style of play requires a significant amount of ball possession, one that Wolff is willing to coach into his players. If Dominguez is as talented as they say, the false-nine position would allow him freedom to express that talent to really affect the game. Here’s hoping that this tactic sees the field in 2021.