The Momentum Myth
With Austin FC officially being eliminated from playoff contention after a 0-1 loss to Minnesota United last Saturday, the conversation has since turned to what there’s left to play for through the remaining few games of the season. Within those conversations, a common theme has emerged: momentum. The idea that how you close out a season directly affects how you start your next campaign is deeply rooted in conventional wisdom. Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense. Being able to look back on positive results knowing that you have the capability to take on your upcoming opponents should yield better results, right? Well, the data seems to suggest that’s not the case.
In analyzing non-playoff teams during the three seasons since 2018, there is almost no correlation between how a team ends their season and how they start the next. While the graph below uses data from the last 5 and first 5 games, the lack of correlation is present whether you look at 7 or 10 games as well.
While there will be opportunities for greater analysis on what ATXFC fans can expect from a season two, it’s also worth mentioning that this lack of tangible momentum applies to expansion teams as well. Looking all the way back to Chivas and RSL in 2005, the way that non-playoff expansion teams ended their season is just about as uncorrelated to their next season start as the league-wide trend.
A Look Forward
These trends (or lack thereof) beg the question, “what is there left to play for?” The answer, ironically, is probably still momentum — just not in the conventional, straight-foward way it’s often framed. There are non-results-based factors that make up a successful club: brand power, ability to attract top-tier talent, and at the heart of it all: fan enthusiasm and confidence. How Austin FC closes out this season — whether it’s putting on a good show, proving they can hang with the MLS mainstays, or showing the team is capable of meaningful improvement — can have an outsized effect on how outside stakeholders feel about the team going into season two.
These last few games are also invaluable on an individual player level. Players who may not have received as much playing time as their counterparts have real game-speed opportunities to stake their claim heading into the offseason. It’s also hard to overstate the value of chemistry building moments for some of the Verde & Black’s newer additions, including players like Driussi and Djitte that are expected to make meaningful contributions to the 2022 campaign.
Today’s game also offers Austin the unique chance to rewrite some of the bad taste our Texas derby results have left in fans. Will ATXFC take this opportunity to push back on the worst-in-Texas moniker or does the side continue to limp towards the finish line?