Ceding the Middle
It’s 8:30 pm Central, you’ve either settled yourself into section 103 at Q2 or into your couch with your beverage of choice. At the ref’s whistle, Austin FC’s inaugural squad pushes forward, hustling to impose their possessive-first strategy onto the game. By about the 70th minute, it’s starting to feel more like a rowdy game of foosball than a professional soccer match — the ball careening between both team’s 18s.
The back-and-forth, often frenetic, pace of these games – while exhilarating – has been exhausting. If you feel the same way, we actually have some data that may justify where you’re coming from. Apart from the emotional attachment to the hometown’s first Men’s professional sports team, the statistics show this team plays a significant amount of their soccer in either their own third or the opponent’s. Only 40.2% of our touches come in the middle third of the field. While that’s more than any other spot on the field, it’s also significantly less than the league average.
In fact, we spend the 2nd least amount of time in the middle of the field. Possession in the middle of the field for its own sake doesn’t necessarily add value. It’s tough to envision a coach in the world that wouldn’t want you to take space in front of you if available, and the league-wide data highlights that point. The two leaders in that category are Nashville and Inter Miami — clubs with a wildly different level of success this season. However, for a team that’s looking to bring a possession-first, almost Spanish-like strategy in attack, it may be a surprise to see that the Verde & Black don’t do a majority of their build up play out of the middle.
This trend applies on the flipside as well. Our opponents this season have spent just 39.7% of their possession in the middle of the field — a full 4% under the league average! This willingness to essentially leave the middle of the field available to be traversed may also help tell the tale of some other statistical trends we’ve seen. Austin continues to sit near the top of the league in blocked shots as does Brad Stuver in saves. The approach to invite attack towards our own goal and clamp down feels akin to a bend-don’t-break attitude.
Despite putting together a rather middling campaign this year, Real Salt Lake are a statically strong team coming in at 6th in both goals and goals against per game. A lack of consistency’s been the name of the game, with the Albert Rusnák-captained squad failing to win back to back games since the opening two weeks. What version of RSL shows up to Saturday’s match against the MLS newcomers may be the overriding factor for how this game shapes out.