Add launching an expansion sports franchise to the extensive list of the tasks complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parkview grad Josh Wolff is in the middle of that challenge now as the inaugural head coach of Austin FC, which is building toward a Major League Soccer debut in 2021. The longtime U.S. National Team forward was hired almost a year ago, moved to Texas back in December (when his tenure as a U.S. Soccer coach ended) and saw the team’s planned path forward altered in March by the coronavirus.
The hurdles have been less soccer-related — the club has announced just one first-team signing, Paraguayan forward Rodney Redes, and the MLS Expansion Draft won’t happen until much later this year — even though Wolff and the Austin FC staff have been hindered from seeing players in person. While he misses watching matches, the 43-year-old said much of the early-stage scouting of players is done on video anyway, and the in-person conversations regarding a player’s character and fit with the team occur much closer to when a signing is imminent.
“We’re in the process right now (of building a roster),” Wolff said. “We have identified our own targets. We have the ability to sign players, but as an expansion team the challenge is to have them continue to be playing (on a team to stay sharp). We have some we are in on and for the moment we’ll see how things develop and we’ll have an idea and have players signed here by the end of the summer. We know the majority of our guys will come from the expansion draft, the reentry draft and allocation.”
The pandemic has made an impact elsewhere, though.
“The most notable challenge is just the lack of interaction and contact with personnel and with staff,” Wolff said. “There’s the human aspect that we all need, to have dialogue and interaction with people. It’s what we know and what we’re accustomed to. We still get it through Zoom meetings and smaller meetings. But in that aspect, it’s the greatest challenge for what we’re trying to do with building out a staff and building out departments. But it’s still being done in a manageable way.”
In a pandemic-free country, Wolff and the Austin FC front office would typically make more appearances in the community to drum up interest in the new club. The excitement and ticket sales have gone really well, and club officials want to ride that momentum into their inaugural season.
Six MLS teams have been added in the last four years, so there are plenty of examples of successful models regarding community outreach. A great one, Atlanta United, happened in Wolff’s hometown.
“We’ve done a little bit of (the community appearances) prior to corona,” Wolff said. “We had a lot of meet-and-greets, and community outreach things. With the (youth) Academy, we would go out during their sessions. From Atlanta, my brothers and my family talk about how that (Atlanta United) brand started there, the reach into the community and the club’s fan base. You can see it. There’s such a thirst and energy at their games. With how they do it on social media to how they reach out to season ticket holders, they do a great job of contact points. That’s really important to us here in Austin, too.”
The coronavirus hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm for Austin FC, both externally and internally, Wolff said. He loves the energy from his co-workers — he shares a warehouse office space with sales and marketing personnel, among others — and he drives daily past the construction of the club’s soccer-specific stadium, a posh, 20,500-seat venue on a 24-acre site.
“It’s fantastic,” Wolff said of the stadium. “Walking through it with (Austin FC chairman and CEO) Anthony (Precourt) about a week ago, it was amazing how much it changes so rapidly. It’s about nine miles north of downtown Austin, about three miles from the training center, in a really nice area. There will be a lot of residential, commercial and restaurants within walking distance to the stadium.”
The on-field construction of Austin FC will be led by a pair of longtime U.S. National Team players, Wolff and sporting director Claudio Reyna, who both had long, successful career representing their country. Wolff was a national team regular from 1999-2008 and made 52 appearances with the USMNT. He scored twice in the 2000 Olympics, played on the 2002 and 2006 World Cup teams and won the 2002 and 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments.
He also brings vast experience from his 20 years in MLS as a player and a coach. Other than a season with 1860 Munich in Germany, his entire pro playing career was with the MLS’ Chicago Fire, Kansas City Wizards and D.C. United. He won the 1998 and 2000 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the 1998 MLS Cup with the Fire, then won the 2004 U.S. Open Cup with the Wizards. He began his MLS coaching career with D.C. United, then served as an assistant from Gregg Berhalter with the Columbus Crew from 2014-18. He was Berhalter’s U.S. Men’s National Team assistant until he was hired last summer by Austin FC.
“Josh Wolff is a rising star in the coaching ranks of our league, and on behalf of Austin FC we are thrilled to have secured a head coach with Josh’s exceptional character and soccer acumen to lead our Club,” Precourt said in a statement when Wolff was hired. “Josh’s track record as a player and coach have prepared him for this day. When we previously worked closely together, his teams qualified for the playoffs four out of five years, played in two of the past four Eastern Conference finals and won an Eastern Conference championship in 2015 with an attractive, attacking, possession-oriented playing style. This makes Josh the right individual to lead Austin FC to even greater success.”
Wolff settled into a house in Texas in January, and his wife Angela and their two youngest children — son Gavin, 11, and daughter Ella, 9 — moved out at the end of February. His older sons, 17-year-old Tyler and 15-year-old Owen, remained in Braselton, living with Angela’s parents so they could remain with Atlanta United’s Academy teams. Tyler signed a Homegrown Player pro contract with United last week.
Meanwhile, their father is busy laying the groundwork for a new MLS club, a process that is not an unknown to him.
“There have been a number of expansion teams come into the league the last five years, Claudio being part of one of those with NYC (FC),” Wolff said. “I came into the league on an expansion team a long time ago. There is still relevance when I think about why we were such a successful team from leadership to management to staff to the front office to the makeup of the team with balance in structure with the right amount of young guys and experienced guys. We’ll mix in domestic players and international players. We’re not going to spend the type of money Atlanta and LAFC spent (for their first year), but there are still players we can go out and get and achieve the things we want.”