Buoyed by win, Austin FC hopes to catch on with CONCACAF Champions League, too

Austin FC goalkeeper Brad Stuver leaps to catch a ball during last Saturday's 1-0 win over CF Montreal at Q2 Stadium. It was the first of five matches over a 14-day period for El Tree, which opens CONCACAF play Tuesday.

Austin FC’s first venture into the CONCACAF Champions League will be a unique one.

El Tree will play Haitian side Violette AC on Tuesday in its first game in the competition, but with the ongoing political situation in Haiti, the contest will be played in a neutral setting at Cibao FC Stadium in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic.

Following Saturday’s 1-0 win over CF Montreal, Austin FC coach Josh Wolff said the club knew little about Violette AC other than it won the Caribbean Club Championship, but by Monday’s meeting with the media, he had a better understanding of what Austin FC will be up against.

“They have many of those players they won the championship with,” Wolff said. “They have a lot of speed and athleticism, and their forwards have a lot of individual skill. They’ll try to compact space and make things difficult, and we’ll have to be ready for that.”

With the situation in Haiti, it’s unclear how much training Violette AC has gone through in the past couple of months, but the team has played a couple of friendlies that ended in scoreless draws in the past few weeks.

Austin FC defender Zan Kolmanic gets off a shot while being defended by CF Montreal midfielder Mathieu Choiniere during last Saturday's match at Q2 Stadium.

El Tree received a bit of fortune when the competition’s draw was revealed in November as Violette AC was the second-lowest ranked team among the 16 in the field, and now with the game in a neutral setting, things have swung even more in its favor.

But a few of Violette AC’s players also play for the Haitian national team, which has had moments of success over the past four years, and the fact it qualified for the competition says something about the talent level it will put on the field tonight.

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“We maybe catch a break that we’re playing in a neutral setting instead of in their home country,” Wolff said. “But this competition is a grind and it’s a dogfight no matter where you go. You take nothing for granted and try to score goals and win games and put yourself in the best situation for when we host the second leg.”

Several Austin FC players have experience in the competition, with the most recent being reserve forward Will Bruin, who helped Seattle become the first MLS team to win it last year. Forwards Maxi Urruti and Gyasi Zardes and defenders Alex Ring, Hector Jimenez, Adam Lundkvist and Julio Cascante also have played in the competition previously in their careers for other MLS teams — or in Cascante’s case when he played for Saprissa in Costa Rica.

“We’ll have plenty of leadership and experience in our group who have an understanding of what this competition is about,” said Wolff, who also played in the competition as a player for both Chicago and Kansas City. “As a club, we’re really proud of the accomplishment of qualifying for this competition in our second year. … Any time you get into knockout tournaments and have that experience, it’s something that will help you grow.”

Playing on only two days rest and with a road trip looming to Real Salt Lake on Saturday, Wolff will have to balance playing time across his roster. It will be interesting to see if he starts a lineup of players who have spent the majority of the first two games on the bench, keeps his regular starters or uses a combination.

It will likely depend on how players have recovered from the Montreal game, but don’t be surprised to see Jimenez, Bruin, midfielder Ethan Finlay and defenders Amro Tarek and Adam Lundkvist receive plenty of minutes tonight.

Austin FC will host Violette in the second leg March 14 and will more likely field its top lineup then.

“You do as best you can to be mindful of where the players are coming out of each game,” Wolff said. “Our high-performance staff does a good job of identifying where players are from a wellness and freshness standpoint.”

What is CONCACAF Champions League?

Thanks to its success in the regular season last year, Austin FC earned one of the MLS’ four spots in the 16-team CONCACAF Champions League as having the best record among U.S.-based teams who didn’t win MLS Cup or their conference.

Champions League is a tournament format, with each round containing two legs — home and away, meaning no matter what happens tonight, El Tree will host Violette AC on March 14. The quarterfinals and semifinals take place from early April through early May, with the championship round legs being May 31 and June 4.

In addition to the four MLS teams, Champions League consists of four teams from Mexico, three from Honduras, and one each from Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti and Panama.

Violette AC qualified by winning the Caribbean Club Championship, a competition between the top-two teams from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica.

Brad Stuver fashion update

It was noted in this space following Saturday’s game the nightmare of a kit Austin FC goalkeeper Brad Stuver was forced to wear, which consisted of an awful combination of purple shorts with long pink socks and a pink shirt featuring gold lettering.

Stuver also hinted he wasn’t a fan of the uniform, saying, “Well, it’s 1-0,” when asked about it in the postgame press conference.

MLS goalie uniforms for each match are chosen by the league, with goalies being given three choices every game and asked to rank them from first to third. Stuver said he ranked the kit he was given to wear Saturday third, so the color combination — which is easily one of the bottom five outfits in the league — lies solely on the MLS.

“I’ll be wearing a lot of pink and blue this season,” said Stuver, who also noted that the goalie uniform selection process starts in the preseason and is “over-complicated.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin FC prepares to compete in CONCACAF Champions League tourney