LOS ANGELES (AP) - Two years of planning and preparation came to fruition when Austin FC took the field in its sparkling white road uniforms and played an exciting, competitive match against one of the best teams in Major League Soccer.
The players of the league’s newest club also got a good idea how far they still must go to catch up to the likes of Los Angeles FC.
Corey Baird scored in the 61st minute, and LAFC sent expansion Austin FC to a 2-0 defeat Saturday in the inaugural match for MLS’ 27th team.
Just over 27 months after owner Anthony Precourt’s expansion bid was accepted, Austin FC put on a creditable performance against one of MLS’ elite clubs. Dozens of fans in Austin’s green home jerseys also dotted the stands at Banc of California Stadium and roared their support.
“It was exciting for a lot of reasons,” coach Josh Wolff said. “Obviously the result didn’t go our way, but hopefully there’s some quality in there that makes the fans excited, and we’ll continue to get better.”
The first major league sports franchise in Texas’ capital city officially joined North America’s top soccer league with a loss to one of the model franchises of the current MLS expansion boom. Wolff and sporting director Claudio Reyna are building a team to contend with the league’s top clubs, but that evolution doesn’t happen overnight for most teams.
“I think everyone was excited, everyone was a little bit nervous,” said Brad Stuver, Austin’s first goalkeeper. “Once you step on the field, everything fades into the background and you just do what you’ve been training to do. This team is two years in the making for Josh and Claudio and Anthony Precourt. They’ve been working on this project for so long, so to get on the field and play a game that matters is pretty special.”
Jose Cifuentes added a goal into an open net in the 91st minute for LAFC, which improved to 4-0-0 in season openers. LAFC won despite playing without its two best players: top goal scorer Diego Rossi has a hamstring strain, and former league MVP Carlos Vela left with an injury after only 20 minutes.
LAFC went ahead when Baird - a Southern California native acquired from Real Salt Lake in January - celebrated his debut by firing a low shot into the corner off a pass from Danny Musovski.
Pablo Sisniega made two outstanding saves on shots by Austin’s Jon Gallagher in the closing minutes, including a reflex stop in the 90th minute that eventually turned into a goal at the other end when Kwadwo Opoku took the ball from two Austin defenders and fed Cifuentes.
“With just six, seven weeks, you can’t address everything in the detail that’s needed, but we were able to move around with LAFC in a pretty competent way,” Wolff said. “But then it’s just about scoring goals, which is a challenge.”
The Austin FC faithful scattered among the 4,900 fans in Los Angeles was no surprise for a much-anticipated team that already had four supporters’ groups before its first match.
“The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black & Verde fans cheering us on,” Stuver said. “We could see them sitting in different sections of the stadium with their jerseys and their scarves. … It’s amazing the support that we have, and we know we’re going to give the fans everything, because we play for the city.”
Austin FC began its life against a fellow expansion franchise that exemplifies much of what it will try to build. Along with Atlanta United FC, LAFC stands as the exemplary ideal in MLS’ lucrative plan to add 10 teams - and their increasingly large expansion fees - in seven seasons from 2017-23.
Backed by deep-pocketed owners and immediately enthusiastic fan bases, Atlanta won the 2018 MLS Cup title in its second season, while LAFC claimed the 2019 Supporters’ Shield in its second year with the best regular season in MLS history.
Austin might not reach those heights, but the franchise has a solid foundation with Wolff, the former U.S. national team forward, and two South American designated players: Tomás Pochettino and Cecilio Dominguez, who both made their MLS debuts.
“It was good to get them out there and see what our league is like,” Wolff said. “Offensively, I thought they both had big moments. We just have to find the right balance around them.”
While Austin finally has a team, Austin won’t see it soon: The team will begin its inaugural season with seven consecutive road games before Q2 Stadium is ready on June 19.
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