For the first time in its 104 year history, FC Augsburg enters a new season in the highest tier of German football. FCA gained promotion by finishing second behind Hertha Berlin in 2. Bundesliga last season, tying with the Berliners in allowing the least amount of goals scored while ranking third in scoring behind Hertha and Energie Cottbus. Despite their +31 goal differential following a +20 goal differential in 2009-2010, the club’s goals are realistically modest. But that hasn’t stopped over 17,000 Augsburg fans from snapping up season tickets, and the Augsburg region of Bavaria is buzzing with excitement.
It is quite understandable that expectations are modest — Coach Joe Luhaky stated simply that “Our goal is to be in the Bundesliga in 2012/2013 as well,” while Sporting Director Andreas Rettig soberly deflated a bit of the promotion euphoria immediately after Augsburg’s promotion-clinching win in May, stating that “the relegation battle has already begun.” He further expressed his thoughts on the club’s future, stating that he desires “[To] establish ourselves among the best 20 clubs in Germany” on the official Bundelsiga website. His expectations are thus for FCA to be a yo-yo club, swinging back and forth between the top two divisions of German football, as Rettig certainly realizes that there are only 18 teams at the top. But the club is in full support of Luhaky, going as far as to state that he’d be retained even if FCA were to lose every match this upcoming season.
One reason for limited expectations in the beautiful Bavarian city is the team’s low budget, which is reflected in the club’s lack of high-profile players, and even the lack of players on the roster with 1. Bundesliga experience. Goalkeeper Simon Jentzsch, 35, has by far the most experience at the top tier of German football, with 241 Bundesliga appearances for 1860 Munich and VfL Wolfsburg. He was also a champion, playing backup to Diego Benaglia on Wolfsburg’s 2008-2009 title team. But in addition to Jentzsch’s experience, only defender Sebastian Langkamp, midfielder Sascha Molders and defender Jan–Inger Callen-Bracken among the rest of the club have spent time in 1. Bundesliga, and that time was brief. Dutch Coach Luhaky also has limited top-flight experience, coaching at FC Koln from 2000-2005, although he did lead Borussia Monchengladbach to promotion following the 2007-2008 campaign.
Luhaky, 48, took the reins at FC Augsburg in April, 2009. He led the club to a third place finish in 2009-2010 in the 2. Bundesliga and a run to the semifinals of the German Cup, before gaining automatic promotion after last season with a 2nd place finish. Although Luhaky found success with a 4-4-2 formation last season, speculation is that he will employ a 4-2-3-1 lineup in the upcoming season, not only because he deems that the formation needed for success in the more competitive league, but because Augsburg look to start the season lacking strikers, as Torsten Oehrl and Nando Rafael are both sidelined with long-term injuries. Veteran Michael Thurk, 35, will most likely lead the frontline.
The Good News and the Bad News
While the bad news is that club management hasn’t brought in any proven Bundesliga players to help FC Augsburg in their transition to top-flight play, the good news is that most of the club, with two very successful 2. Bundesliga seasons behind them, remains intact.
Probably the biggest signing to date by Augsburg has been the acquisition of midfielder
Lorenzo Davids 25, the nephew of the bespectacled Netherlands star Edgar Davids. Young Davids, though, doesn’t earn a paycheck by sheer virtue of his famed surname….he’s played over 131 matches with Dutch side NEC since 2007. The remainder of Augsburg’s offseason additions come from other 2. Bundesliga sides: Langkamps (Karlsruher SC), Mölders (FSV Frankfurt) and, Dominic Peitz (FC Union Berlin), while forward Edmond Kapilani returns from loan at SC Paderborn 07 and Akaki Gogia returns from his time at Wolfsburg. Patrick Mayer is a 22 year-old striker who joins Augsburg from 3rd Liga side 1. FC Heidenheim, where he scored 30 goals in 64 appearances.
The main offseason losses from the FCA squad include Ibrahima Traore, who headed to VfB Stuttgart, and Dortmund loanee Moritz Leitner, who returned to the Yellow-Blacks. Lukas Sinkiewicz left FCA for VfL Bochum, while Kees Kwakman will spend the new season with FC Groningen and loanee Soren Bertram returned to Hamburg SV. The departed quintet appeared in 69 matches for FCA in 2. Bundesliga last season, contributing only three goals to Augsburg’s league total of 58 goals scored in the past campaign.
Looking Ahead by Looking Backwards
FCA took a giant step forward in the past season by reducing their goals surrendered, allowing 13 less goals than the previous season while only scoring two less. Their formidable defense looks intact with the return of 30- game men Gibril Sankoh, Axel Bellinghausen, Paul Verhaegh and Uwe Moehrle, along with Canadian international Marcel de Jong, who appeared in 27 league matches, former Gladbach backliner Callen-Bracker, who came over in the winter transfer window and veteran Jonas de Roeck. Behind them will stand Jentzsch, who will be backed up by young Mohamed Amsif, who got one start last season against MSV Duisburg.
The incoming Davids would appear to have a spot in the starting XI as a defensive midfielder. Midfield holdovers for FCA include Daniel Brinkman, Tobias Werner (who chipped in five goals), Daniel Baier, Marcel Ndjeng and Andrew Sinkala, with youngsters Thomas Rudolph, Moritz Fog and Daniel Framberger looking to force their way onto the pitch. The bulk of FCA defections in the offseason consisted of midfielders, but the loss will hopefully be offset by the introduction of Davids and the 6’5″ Peitz, while hopefully one of the aforementioned youngsters will step up and be counted.
Going into the season, the attack seems the weakest portion of the squad, The injured Nando led the club with 14 goals in league play, and another four in Cup action last season, while his injured teammate Oehrlein struck seven times. Twenty two year-old Stephan Hain notched 10, while Michael Thurk added 9 strikes and has been knocking in goals in the preseason. Molders has proven he can knock in goals at the 2nd division level, but can he make the transition to greater competition, as can Hain and Thurk? The same can be said for young striker Patrick Mayer, an intriguing prospect up top, although he will be making a big leap from 3. Liga competition to the Bundesliga.
FC Augsburg have only dropped one preseason match, to Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem 1-0, among their preseason matches that end on July 30 with a friendly against RW Oberhausen. FCA haven’t exactly faced a schedule of giants in training, though, with Greek Super League side Panionios the only other “name” opponent, although Panionios finished 10th in the Greek table last season (out of 13 teams). FCA spent the early part of training in Bad Gogging, before finishing training in Austria in Walchsee.
FCA did whip up on Panionios, 5-0, though, over the weekend at the recently renamed SGL Arena (formerly Impuls Arena). The 30,000 seat arena, that can be expanded to a capacity of 48,000, opened two years ago. SGL Group obtained naming rights to the arena in May and is a global corporation with 2010 fiscal year sales of 1,382 million Euros, headquartered in Wiesbaden. FCA also just announced a partnership with Augsburg sports retailerSport Forg, who will have an advertising presence in FCA marketing and promotional campaigns and also be a supplier to the rising club. The match against Panionios was part of a “Family Day” celebration for FCA fans, which included face-painting, goal-shooting and two hours of autograph signings by players and coaches.
Thoughts About the New Season
FCA have developed over the last three seasons from a club allowing 1.35 goals per match three seasons ago, to allowing 1.17 two seasons back and then a stingy 0.79 goals per match last season. Clearly, Lukahy is a strong defensive tactician who’s players have absorbed his teachings, making FCA a difficult team to break down and overrun.
FCA is also a veteran side — many of the players are in the 25-32 years old age range, with lengthy experience (albeit little in a first division atmosphere). This is not a younthful side, just lacking in name recognition. At least five players on the squad share with Lukahy a Dutch background either as citizens or players. The club’s defensive improvement under Lukahy implies the players respond to their coach and take his tactics seriously — this seems a real team.
FC Augsburg opens its inaugural Bundesliga season at home against SC Freiburg on August 6, with the rest of August featuring road trips to 1. FC Kaiserslautern in Week 2 and 1. FC Nurnberg in Week 4, with a home match against 1899 Hoffenheim sandwiched in between. Certainly the SGL Arena will be packed, and the atmosphere intense for the two home games — and it’s easily conceivable that FCA could nick results in any of these August matches. Getting off to a good start in the unpredictable Bundesliga would be a boon to FCA’s chances of avoiding regulation.
Most pundits and fans probably see FCA as the team most likely to be demoted, and considering the team’s maiden voyage in the top-tier, its players’ lack of first division experience and the club’s modest budget, it’s an easy pick. But that overlooks what may be accomplished by a team with solid community support, some impressive sponsorship, an almost new stadium, a savvy coach and a cadre of veteran professionals. No matter what happen, though, this will be a year to remember in for FC Augsburg fans.