MLS is very different than it was in 1998 when the Fire began play. Yet, there are lessons Josh Wolff learned with that first team that he can apply as Austin FC prepares for its inaugural season.
“I draw on it a lot still,” said Wolff, who was named the first Austin FC head coach in July 2019 after working under Gregg Berhalter in Columbus and with the US national team. “To me it’s one of the most important parts of my life, my career, was going to an expansion team, going to Chicago, being around that staff, being part of that city. To me, it really shaped me in a lot of ways. For that, I’m quite grateful.”
From 1998-2002, Wolff appeared in 84 games and scored 32 times for the Fire. He was a part of the team’s 1998 MLS Cup champion and the 1998 and 2000 US Open Cup winners. Under coach Bob Bradley, the rest of the technical staff and executive Peter Wilt, the Fire had strong leadership and a vision of what they were trying to accomplish.
The Fire of that era won a lot, partly because of the mix of experienced veterans and young players. There was also a healthy balance of domestic players and internationals.
Those are two ingredients Wolff and sporting director Claudio Reyna are trying to emulate as they assemble the first Austin FC team.
“We had Piotr Nowak and Roman Kosecki and Lubos Kubik [on the 1998 Fire team] that also brought an intensity and a professionalism and certainly a quality that nurtured and fostered all these young guys that were chomping at the bit for the US national team,” Wolff said. “I look at those things: the balance of having the locker room right in that way, the players on the field, obviously the quality that we have.”
The Fire enjoyed one of the most successful opening acts in North American sports history. Setting that as a bar for expansion teams wouldn’t be fair.
Wolff is looking for something else out of Austin FC’s first season, which already has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While making the playoffs is the primary goal, Wolff wants to see progress in how the group plays, the foundation of a culture, and the roster’s understanding of the team’s plan.
“If we do those things in a good way, consistently get better week after week, we’ve got enough quality in our group right now — and we’re going to continue to add some — that we should give ourselves a fighting chance to make the playoffs,” Wolff said. “Success for me isn’t going to be measured by winning the MLS Cup or Open Cup. We want to be successful. Our ownership’s been fantastic, they’ve given us the resources to go out and be successful, and we’re trying to build a team that’s going to come in and compete but also have some sustainability to it.”