EDITORIAL – In the glow of the USMNT latest victory over Mexico by a now-iconic score of dos a cero (2-0), it seemed fitting to visit with a man so indelibly associated with that historic score line versus that old enemy: Austin FC Head Coach Josh Wolff. Wolff the player enjoyed 14 years as a professional, playing in MLS and the German Bundesliga, a potent striker with an impressive ratio of a goal nearly every 3 games. Wolff also represented the US for nearly a decade, appearing in two Gold Cups and a World Cup.
Man On: With Austin FC’s Head Coach, Josh Wolff (Part 1)
As a coach, Wolff is a purveyor of the progressive, possession-based style of play made popular by Pep Guardiola and his contemporaries, among them USMNT Head Coach Greg Berhalter. Wolff’s ties to Berhalter are obvious given their time spent on the field together both as players and then as coaches, first domestically at Columbus Crew and most recently internationally where Wolff served as Berhalter’s Assistant Coach.
So, Wolff undoubtedly has soccer pedigree. As a first-year Head Coach, there have been questions about whether that pedigree has translated, though? Wolff has generally come across as thoughtful and introspective. On occasion this season, he’s appeared defensive. Either way, he’s never wavered. He knows how he wants his soccer to be played. Wolff may lack experience in the big seat, but he certainly does not lack belief in himself, his team, or in what Austin FC can become.
LWOS: What is your earliest memory of playing soccer?
Wolff: I was in West Palm Beach, Florida. My mom was the coach. My grandparents would come to every game. I was three or four years old. I had two older brothers and we’d play a lot of soccer and baseball growing up I don’t remember the name of our team, but we had red and blue jerseys. I’d say most of my family was more about baseball, but we all kind of got a taste of soccer and we ran with it a good bit. Being the baby in the family. I took a beating from my older brothers! We were always competitive, but that helped me all along the way.
LWOS: Talking with the players this season, the competitive sibling thing does seem to be a common thread.
Wolff: Certainly, being the baby in a family, that’s always something they talk about. For a lot of different reasons, you’re having to fight for things, or that your mom’s favorite, whatever it may be! We do talk from a psychological standpoint, when you look at players and you talk to players, you see you do see some common threads with some of that. But yeah, being in a more competitive sporting family, it helped.
LWOS: As a player, you spent a year in Germany with 1860 Munich. Many of your contemporaries at that time, guys like Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Ben Olsen, Clint Dempsey, etc, chose to ply their trade in England. Did you ever consider doing the same?
Wolff: I had the opportunity. There were work permit issues. I had a chance with Derby County, and with Southampton, I think? It’s funny, I went to the 2002 World Cup and played one game, not both, so I had played 73% of the USMNT games that year, and the requirement was 75%. There was certainly a contract in place to go to England. There was an appeals process and that vote was 3 to 3, so that didn’t happen. I was looking for a different experience. I had been in MLS for a while and I just wanted to do something different, get outside the comfort zone, and experience life in a different way. Once it wasn’t England, there really weren’t a ton of other places I was looking to go. Germany was a great experience.
LWOS: Having played in MLS, overseas, and on the international stage, who was the most talented player you ever played with?
Wolff: I grew up with Clint Mathis, Landon Donovan, Dempsey…but, from a talent standpoint, Clint Mathis was off the charts. His talent in and around goal, his ability to do things individually but also provide for others. I saw him at high school and at college. I think he left some opportunities out there for himself, but just on talent, he was pretty incredible. Landon was obviously a highly talented player, too. And Clint Dempsey, just shrewd, ruthless, hungry, also a very talented player. But I’ve got fond memories of Mathis, so I put him up there on the mark as far as guys I played with.
LWOS: As one of the youngest coaches in the league, how does that affect the dynamic with your players? Is it easier for you to connect with players because they can maybe relate to you a little more? Or harder to distance yourself from players not being that long out of the locker room as a player yourself?
Wolff: I think it’s good. The way we want to play the game, it’s certainly more modern. It’s certainly more up-to-date and fresh and thoughtful. I think relationships and communication are huge. Whether it’s texting with players or talking to players. You know, just staying current, to some degree, as to what’s fashionable for players is important. What are they’re thinking about? Because it’s important to relate to them.
I don’t like distance and we’ve missed a lot of opportunities this year because of COVID. Even at the end of this year, we’ve done some things as a group and the players are like, ‘Man, where the hell was this all year!’ But that’s something that we’ll obviously be able to be more about next year. But I don’t have a difficult time communicating, I don’t think I make it uncomfortable for players and they don’t make it uncomfortable for me when we’re all around one another. I think that’s important when you’re developing culture, an identity, and an environment where these things are aligned. I wouldn’t say that there’s too much strife between staff or players.
LWOS: But Coach, seriously, what about the music? When you walk into the locker room and you hear some of that stuff, aren’t you like, ‘Guys, what the heck is this racket?!’
Wolff: Yeah, there’s some garbage! (laughs) I’ve got kids, though, so it’s amazing what they all listen to! We see it and hear at all in the locker room but it’s good, music’s good. It’s life, its energy, and its personality!
LWOS: Every coach gets a degree of criticism from the media and fans. How do you deal with that? Does that affect you? And if so, how do you mentally manage through it?
Wolff: You know it’s there, but I don’t spend a lot of time reading really any of it to be honest, whether it’s good or bad. That was me as a player, too. I obviously didn’t grow up in the social media world as a player, but there were platforms that started to come about. And once you saw what the platforms were about, once you saw really the underlying tones of it, then as you mature and get older and you see what’s going on in society and how toxic that space can be, you just take it for what it is.
Media are facilitators of information, and we understand that. So, the responsibility for us as players then and as staff today is important because we’re obviously trying to provide good, candid information. But I’m certainly cautious of that world because I know how toxic it can be and you know how some words can be taken in one way and used for you or against you. It’s being aware of it, but I don’t I try not to pay really any attention to it. I really disassociated with it, to be honest.
LWOS: You’ve got players who are very active on social media. Do you have the same counsel for them?
Wolff: Similar. I tell them, ‘Be honest with yourself’. Mental health is a real thing. If you’re going to read the good, you’re going to read the bad, because you’re not just going to disconnect. We talk about how we relate to and talk to media. Certainly, Ryan (Madden, Austin FC Communications Director) and Tom (Webb, former Austin FC Communications Director) have talked about that prior to and throughout the season.
Each person has their own character, and they can use their platform in a variety of ways. But what I start with is media are not your friends. So first and foremost, keep that in mind. Yeah, you’ll have dialogue, you’ll have good banter, you will form relationships with some of them in deeper ways than others typically over time, but still be mindful of the space that you’re getting into and be careful. Players are in that online space a lot, it’s a big part of life today, so we’ve got to be more mindful of that. I’m sure they’ll hear and read things about the coach and pressure, good feelings, bad feelings, but the guys are pretty good about it.
Part Two of our ‘Man On’ interview with Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff will go live in a few days…