Tyson Wahl is a veteran of Major League Soccer. During a career spanning more than a decade at the top level of the American professional game — including stints at Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew — Wahl has seen the development of the league from a stage not far from its infancy to an exponentially growing modern product.
Wahl’s collegiate career was stellar; he started every game during his four years at the University of California, Berkeley before being drafted by Kansas City Wizards in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. I sat down with the MLS stalwart to reminisce on some of his finest moments, get some insight into the role of the modern-day center back and find out about his role as the Academy General Manager of Austin FC, as the club gears up towards its debut in the league in 2021.
As soon as he is asked about his 11-year MLS career, memories come flooding back for Wahl.
“I was fortunate enough to enjoy a lengthy career. It’s a great experience as a player; playing professional soccer is a huge honor. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun job to have,” Wahl says.
Yet, in his own opinion, Wahl was more outstanding in teams prior to the start of his professional career.
“As a collegiate player I had a bit more of a stand-out career, and it afforded me the ability to get drafted. Back then the MLS draft was probably a bigger deal and a lot of players were starting [to be drafted] from college. The MLS teams were drafting more rookies out of college, so that was a big mechanism for players to start their career.”
“I was fortunate enough to make rosters, stay on teams and compete for starting spots…I was never a superstar, but I was usually in the mix and involved and on the roster and competing for minutes.”
As he reflects on a successful career spent in the top-flight of American soccer, there are a couple of particularly memorable moments that stick out to the 36-year-old, who retired at the climax of the 2016 MLS season.
“I had a lot of great memories and great experiences. Seattle stands out because of the fans, the support we had, and we won three Open Cups in a row so that was a lot of excitement. It was a special team to be a part of,” Wahl recalls.
“My last day in Columbus with our team there was a very good experience because I liked the team and the coaching staff. It was a great way to finish my career.”
But just how much has the league grown, even since Wahl was playing in the league during his prime? MLS expansion has been rampant in the past decade or so; as recently as 2009 the league was made up of 16 teams. When Austin joins for the start of the 2021 season, that number will have almost doubled to a membership of 27.
“It’s grown tremendously,” Wahl says. “When I started in the league it was MLS 1.0. Guys weren’t making as much money…there was less league stability. Since then we’ve had owners come in willing to spend more money; to invest in the product. The league has done a good job to increase attendances and get more attention with the Atlantas, the Seattles, the Portlands and now with Austin FC.”
The growth of MLS has occurred not just exponentially but concurrently, in line with the general popularity of the game nationwide. From early interest spiked by the country hosting the World Cup in 1994 — a year after MLS’s inaugural season — soccer has now become the second most popular spectator sport among Americans aged 18-34, after its own traditional brand of football. Wahl has noticed a distinct change regarding American adoption and embracing of the beautiful game.
“It’s definitely growing. We have a young national team of players playing all around the world and I think youth academies are doing a great job around the country. I think we’re always striving to be better, and so is our national team,” Wahl says.
“The experience of a youth player in the US now is entirely different than when I was a youth player and it’s entirely better. I think we’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve got to keep improving.”
Back in his playing days, California-born Wahl played largely as a center back, marshalling the rearguard action of backlines in Major League Soccer’s eastern and western conferences. Given his experiences and the game’s ever-developing nature, how does he view the role of a center back today?
“It’s an interesting role because as more and more teams are building out, that position, same as the goalkeeper, has changed so much. So many possessions now start with the goalkeeper and the center back and even if you’re a team that doesn’t emphasize build-out, that position has become even more important [in the build-out phase],” Wahl says.
“The technical skillset of a center back is completely different than maybe 20 years ago. Defenders aren’t expected just to head the ball and clear the ball and be physically strong; there’s a better game understanding on the offensive side that’s expected.”
When it comes to the best in the business in the central defensive role, Wahl cannot see past the obvious candidate. Like many around the world, he considers there to be a clear number one in the contemporary game.
“More value is placed on center backs now, especially technically skilled ones. I really like Virgil Van Dijk, he has the total package. It’s so rare that you have someone who’s as calm on the ball as he is and as physically gifted as he is. He’s the top guy right now.”
Naturally, during the course of an accomplished career such as Wahl’s, he has been fortunate enough to share the field with some extremely talented players himself. There are a few who stand out.
“I played with a lot of really good players…there were so many great leaders who I played with. Federico Higuaín is a guy who just left the Crew [in October, to sign for DC United], he’s Gonzalo Higuaín’s brother. He played for Columbus and his vision and his skill level was just incredible,” Wahl says, before continuing:
“Kasey Keller in Seattle was a fantastic leader and his experiences led the group. Freddie Ljungberg in Seattle was really fun to play with. His combination play and passing ability was really impressive.”
While at the height of his own journey in soccer, Wahl also played with some younger stars who have since gone on to establish themselves in the league and beyond.
“Fredy Montero killed it in the league in our first couple years [at Seattle Sounders]. He’s a Colombian player who was a very dangerous striker.”
Wahl played in MLS during the period in which the league initially began to attract some of football’s biggest names to American shores. As he ponders some of his toughest opponents, you could be mistaken for thinking Wahl was attempting to rattle through the list of the English Premier League’s 100 club membership…
“A lot of times teams typically paid more and had more firepower on the offensive side. Therefore, if I was facing a team, typically we’d be facing the high-profile players like Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and those sorts of guys. Even with them being at the end of their careers, they were still amazing,” Wahl says.
With the end of the playing chapter of his career completed, Wahl now works for Austin FC as the club’s Academy general manager. Even in just the past 12 months, the requirements of the job have changed.
Now, Wahl is involved in “the day-to-day operations of the academy,” whereas “last year I wore a lot of hats and it was mostly head coach Junro [Narita] and myself leading the academy side: that’s everything from ordering uniforms to setting up our playing style and the way we train; getting facilities, registering our team, and hiring,” Wahl says.
“Now, as we’re getting bigger, we’re bringing in people to specialize in those areas. My day-to-day role now is more about managing some of the staffing and hiring.”
He continues, “we’ve brought on a guy named Juan Delgado who’s taking the lead on our methodology and our style of play within the Academy, making sure it’s connected to the first team. He’s worked with Valencia and Aspire Academy [in Doha, Qatar] and has coached some of the best players in the world. He’s going to take the lead on teaching our coaches how we want to coach as a club.”
Wahl hopes to promote some of the young players he coaches in the coming years to the club’s first team ranks. Ultimately, Austin FC’s Academy has a clear goal for the future.
“Our objective is to one day help produce a local professional play for Austin FC,” Wahl says.
The Texas capital currently has a population well in excess of 2,000,000 inhabitants. The talent, according to Wahl, is there.
We start out with some younger age groups and I think there’s a lot of talent here in Austin,” he says.
“There have been professional players come from this area before and I think now that we have a local team, part of our responsibility is to — with the help of the local clubs — improve the game here and create more players than the area has in the past. We take on that challenge and embrace it.”
In particular, “there’s a lot of LatinX talent that we want to support and there’s a lot of talented players in the region.”
With his employers’ debut MLS season now less than a year away, Wahl is visibly thrilled about the prospect of the league finally arriving in ATX.
“I’m super excited. Every day we drive by the stadium site and see the progress and it’s awesome to see that the actual building is going up now, it’s well on its way. It’s nice to see a tangible object that is now starting to represent our club and I think it’s going to be really special, that moment when we have our first kick-off,” Wahl says.
“I can imagine being pretty emotional about it because so many people have put in so much work to make this happen. I think the community has really embraced the club, and with the season ticket deposits and a lot of corporate interest, the city’s expressing that they’re ready for MLS and excited about Austin FC.”
THE FANS’ PERSPECTIVE…
Q&A with Tony Cardone, Director of Social for Austin Anthem, the independent Supporters’ Group for Austin FC.
As a group, how excited are you that ATX will finally open its doors to MLS in less than a year from now?
You could say we’re excited. Some of our members have been a part of Austin Anthem since 2013, with many having been supporters of Austin’s MLS movement long before that. We can hardly wait to see a dream many years in the making come true.
Why will Austin be a good addition to the MLS map?
We’ve long believed that Austin makes a great soccer city for a lot of reasons. It’s a young, diverse city that’s fond of green spaces. We consistently rate atop nearly every metric for soccer viewership in the country, and that’s because we are a city of locals and transplants who have supported every sort of soccer. We’ve got supporters who grew up huge UANL Tigres fans, supporters who bleed Liverpool red, and we’ve got folks with closets full of Borussia Dortmund kits, not to mention parents experiencing soccer for the first time through their kids playing for teams across the region. Our coalition of members draws from so many different fan experiences, and we think we’re going to bring something really special to MLS.
How much does Austin want and need this? Has it been a long time coming?
Austin doesn’t really “need” anything. At least, we like to think we’re too counterculture to “need” something like Major League Soccer. We really, really, really wanted it though. Two years ago, dozens of Austinites were camped out in Austin City Hall speaking before our City Council in support of a stadium agreement. One of those meetings ended in the wee hours of Friday morning — somewhere around 3 a.m. if I recall correctly — after several hours of non-soccer related zoning debate. During those meetings, it became obvious to us that we were not alone, and we had something special on our hands. There were so many people in Austin (and surrounding cities) that knew the importance of a MLS team in our city, and were willing to fight midweek Austin rush hour traffic to speak for sixty seconds at City Hall for the first time ever.
How do you expect the team to compete in its first year? Do fans and onlookers need to be a bit patient?
I’d expect the team to be competitive right out of the gate. A seasoned GM in Claudio Reyna, a young but seasoned coach in Josh Wolff, top-notch youth academy staff, and a world class stadium have set some lofty expectations. However, we have to be aware of the reality that all new teams in MLS face, and that’s the unpredictability of the league. Some don’t find their feet at all in the first season, like FC Cincinnati. Others are far more successful, like LAFC. Being competitive for a MLS Cup playoff spot would be an excellent way to start the franchise. That being said, being patient is key to building long-term success, something which I think is far more important than just the results of the first season.