A mix of newcomers, mainstays built rapport to lead Austin FC to the conference finals

AUSTIN (KXAN) — LAFC has raised eyebrows in Major League Soccer with one high-profile signing after another this offseason. Whether it’s the signing of the aging but still effective Giorgio Chiellini from Juventus, one of the best Welsh players of all time like Gareth Bale, or top French striker Denis Buanga, the club always seem to be in the headlines.

Meanwhile, Austin FC has made some key additions of their own, but has remained under the radar, relatively speaking. Emiliano Rigoni came from Brazil’s Sao Paulo to help add depth to the attacking midfield, Washington Corozzo was brought in on loan from Sporting Crystal and Ruben Gabrielsen helped create a formidable presence in central defense, coming from France’s Toulouse.

In the arms race to build a top-flight club, LAFC seems to have won at the moment after winning the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular season in MLS, but many suggest that the big signings for LAFC have broken the chemistry and the club doesn’t know how to operate with all the star power once strikers Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango are thrown into the mix. Some point to Buoanga’s goal and Arango’s stoppage time goal in a win over the LA Galaxy in the conference semifinals as the turning point for LAFC’s star-studded roster.

Austin FC’s resurgence was aided by its newcomers, but also fueled by a core group led by Wolff, the coaching staff and Claudio Reyna, the team’s sporting director (general manager), who was determined to stick to the plan. It helped turn Sebastian Driusi into an MVP candidate and the franchise’s first star, drew attention to Diego Fagundez as one of the best distributors in the league, and showcased the team’s chemistry and determination with all the comeback wins they achieved.

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“The players that are still around from last year came with a better understanding, a better development of our ideas and methodology,” Austin FC head coach Josh Wolf said. “The guys we’ve brought in have added to our group, both in terms of character and quality. We added in the summer and improved in the winter.”

The last time Austin FC faced LAFC, it was this close to a playoff bid, and it was billed as “the biggest game the franchise has ever had,” by nearly everyone involved with the club. Verde answered the bell in emphatic fashion, beating LAFC on the turf at Q2 Stadium 4-1, earning ‘big boy’ status from defender Nick Lima and it was characterized as a ‘massive win’ by Wolff.

Well, they’ve got another “biggest game in club history” coming up against the regular season champions, and the energy will undoubtedly increase.

“There was a lot of emotion in that game and the players could feel it,” Wolff said. “Do I expect Sunday to be the same? Probably in some ways, but certainly more challenging in other ways. They’re a good team and we’re going to LA to play the best team, and to get to the finals you have to beat the best team.”

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