Preseason Postcard: Austin Just Tapping Potential After Semifinals Finish

April 15, 2024
By Evan Lepler

When Steven Naji was named Head Coach of the Austin Sol in 2020, he was the fifth person to hold that role in five seasons. Now, as he begins his fifth year on the job, it’s evident that consistency at the top has paid off.

“The difference now is players know what they can expect from my program,” said Naji. “If you’re gonna be a part of the Austin Sol, you need to have high expectations.”

Having gone 9-3 in each of the past two regular seasons, the Sol reached new heights by improbably toppling two favored foes in last year’s playoffs. But the lingering lessons from a lopsided loss to New York at Championship Weekend loomed large in the aftermath of their roller-coaster postseason journey. 

“We got humbled,” Naji acknowledged. “And the early offseason, we felt humbled. Our leadership regrouped.”

Three of the four captains for the upcoming season are taking on that responsibility for the first time with the Sol, though none of the names are significant surprises. Mark Evans, Kyle Henke, and Joey Wylie will collaborate with returning captain Evan Swiatek, and their preseason has been marked by a process of trying to become more professional.

“Every part of what we do is being more professional,” said Naji. “[We are] holding each other more accountable. We don’t want to repeat anything that happened at Championship Weekend last year, and our practices and preseason has reflected that.”

With slightly refined attitudes shaped by last year’s highs and lows, the top 14 scorers from the 2023 Sol are all back in ’24. But that does not mean the lines will remain the same. Naji specifically mentioned how Wylie and Matt Armour, both D-line leaders in recent years, are poised to expand their games and contribute more on offense. 

“Joey’s throwing arsenal has blown up,” said Naji. “He’s taken it to heart to play the smartest defense that he can, and he’s become a student of the game versus just a raw athlete. This year, I expect Joey to be one of our most recognizable players.”

As for Armour, who’s established a reputation as a top handler defender, his role will also grow. 

“He might be on the stat sheet moreso than he has been in past years,” added Naji.

After operating in the daunting shadow of Dallas’s big budget existence from 2016-19, the Sol gradually progressed toward big brother stature in their home state, becoming dominant against their Texas rivals in recent years. Austin’s a perfect 13-0 against Dallas and Houston over the past two seasons, while going just 7-8 against the rest of their opponents, including the playoffs. The 2024 schedule includes seven games against the Legion and Havoc, four games against the Flyers and Hustle, and one home interdivisional matchup vs. Chicago, a Central squad that edged the Sol in Illinois two years ago. 

“The Union picked up champions and players of world-class caliber [in free agency]; I’m excited to see how they’ll perform on the second day of Texas heat,” commented Naji. “That Chicago game [in 2022] left a bad taste in our mouths, so I’m excited to get redemption on that Chicago matchup from a couple seasons ago.”

One other big difference for the 2024 Sol is their new home venue. After years of bouncing around various stadiums within Austin’s city limits, they are expecting all of their games to be held at The Pitch this season.

“I’m looking forward to having a lot of success there,” said Naji. “The closest thing I can compare it to is Madison. It’s like a modern Madison. It’s state of the art [...] We’ve actually been practicing there, and in past years we haven’t gotten to practice in our home facility. Getting reps in the place that we’re hoping to defend, that’s been a big part of [our preseason story.]”