Austin FC forward Sebastián Driussi celebrates after scoring a goal against the Seattle Sounders on Aug. 30 at Q2 Stadium. El Tree is fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference entering the final month of the season.
It may not be a must-win game for Austin FC when it hosts Portland on Sunday at Q2 Stadium, but it’s about as close as you can get.
El Tree and the Timbers are tied for 10th place in the Western Conference with 33 points, one point behind Dallas for the final playoff spot, as the final month of the season begins, and a loss would put Austin FC in a precarious position entering its final six games.
The match begins a five-game stretch for Austin FC (9-12-6) where it will play four opponents currently out of a playoff position and a fifth in D.C. United that is ninth in the East. It’s a crucial time, something that wasn’t lost on coach Josh Wolff during his weekly meeting with the media.
“I think all teams have to approach this final stretch with playoff implications on the line,” said Wolff, whose team is 0-3-1 in its last four league matches. “Every point is important, and with us being at home there’s more emphasis on getting three points.”
‘Anybody can beat anybody’
The playoff race in the West is incredibly tight, with only eight points separating the 10 teams from third to 12th.
Outside back Jon Gallagher said it’s something that makes the MLS different from other leagues.
“Anybody can beat anybody,” said Gallagher, who was the club’s all-star this season. “There’s not a huge imbalance like there is in leagues such as the English Premier League. … There’s going to be a lot of movement between the teams the next month, and we’ve got to treat each game like it’s a must-win.”
Austin FC attacker Sebastián Driussi, right, protects himself from a bicycle kick from New England Revolution defender Andrew Farrell during their match on Sept. 2 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. El Tree hosts the Portland Timbers on Sunday.
While Austin FC has struggled to pick up results lately, with Alex Ring’s last-second goal vs. New England on Sept. 2 giving the club a 2-2 draw and avoiding a four-game MLS losing streak, Portland has put itself back into playoff contention since firing coach Giovanni Savarese on Aug. 21.
The Timbers are 2-1-1 in that stretch, including a 2-0 home win over LAFC, after elevating longtime assistant Miles Joseph to finish out the season.
Despite a new boss, Wolff said Portland’s tactics won’t be drastically different from when the two teams met on May 6, when Will Bruin’s stoppage time header gave El Tree a 2-2 tie.
“There hasn’t been a ton of change,” he said. “They’ve grabbed some momentum, and that game against LAFC is obviously a good result. But I’ve known Miles for a long time and their players for a long time, and it’s basically the same group.”
From a pure entertainment standpoint, that’s bad news.
Savarese traditionally used a heavily conservative approach, with multiple players on the back line, forcing the opponent to spend time passing the ball around trying to break down the defense while hoping for counterattacks with athletic forwards and wings.
Those eye-bleeding tactics are bad for the MLS when it’s still trying to build a brand and fan base in this country, but — unfortunately — they do prove occasionally effective.
It was for Portland until a year ago, when the Timbers missed the playoffs, and then bottomed out this season in a 5-0 loss to Houston on Aug. 20. And it’s something Austin FC has anticipated during the two-week international break, and Wolff knows his team will likely dominate possession.
“We’ve worked a lot on having the ball and a good structure with it,” he said. “You have to be able to hurt them, but you also have to be mindful of what they look like when they defend. They don’t always have 10 guys back, so you have to respect that quality that can go the other direction.”
Similar to the last meeting between the two, Austin FC enters the contest without a win in six matches, which this time around includes two Leagues Cup contests.
Outside of a 6-3 drubbing at the hands of St. Louis, El Tree hasn’t been terrible since its last win on July 15.
But it hasn’t been good, either.
Center back Julio Cascante, who played with the Costa Rica national team during the break and scored Tuesday in a 4-1 loss to United Arab Emirates, was subpar in the last two games vs. New England and Seattle, but Wolff expects him to bounce back.
“Anytime you go with your national team and represent your country, it’s one of the biggest honors you can have,” Wolff said. “He should have a natural confidence coming back. … And he should be confident about who he is and what he is regardless of the performances.”
Team mostly healthy
Wolff noted that center back Matt Hedges is dealing with a hamstring issue, but otherwise the team is healthy.
He said he’s comfortable with center back Leo Väisänen, who tore a ligament in his knee in May but didn’t need surgery, playing 80 or 90 minutes.
Gallagher concurred that Väisänen has looked good in training.
“He’s an important piece that we brought in this year and he’s been great the last two weeks,” he said.
Golfing to relax
There was a bit of team socializing during the international break.
Gallagher said 10 players got together for a golf outing, and that things like that help the culture of the club.
“It’s good to have days off and get that team spirit and bonding away from the facilities, coaches and everything,” he said. “Every good team that I’ve been on has groups that get out together away from the facility whether it’s dinners, barbecues or kids’ birthday parties.”
He noted that Owen Wolff and Brandan Craig are the best golfers on the team and can shoot in the 70s.
Josh Wolff said he also got to the course and finished shooting 81 on his last round.
Portland Timbers (8-11-9, 33 points) at Austin FC (9-12-6, 33 points), 7:30 p.m., Q2 Stadium, Apple TV, 97.5
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin FC mostly healthy as it begins crucial final stretch