The Inaugural Recap
The inaugural Austin FC season was full of ups and downs. From a start that saw the Verde & Black capture 6 of a possible 9 points to a 14 game stretch in which they were only able to net 8 goals, calling the season an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. As year two of the club’s journey comes hurtling towards us, we wanted to take a step back to gain some perspective on the club’s expansion year and how it ranks compared to those in the past.
At a high level, every major statistic tells a similar story — Austin FC’s inaugural season was, historically speaking, bad but not awful. Two general indicators of success, goal differential and points per game, put Austin FC as 12th out of the last 17 expansion teams. While Expected Goals have only been tracked since 2018, a gap of 0.26 between the team’s xGD and actual GD actually shows that the Verde & Black were (for lack of a better word) unluckier than most in their first season.
A point of note for those looking to get a read on Josh Wolff’s possession-minded approach, Austin FC is just one of three expansion teams with a +50% time of possession since the stat was kept by FBRef.com for Atlanta United’s opening season in 2017.
The inconsistency that Austin FC experienced and general anxiety felt by the supporters bore out in the data as well. Of the seventeen expansion teams that we analyzed going all the way back to Chivas’ opening season, Austin FC ranked dead last in the percentage of games that ended in a tie.
After analyzing the first season the question becomes, what kind of bounce is reasonable going into season 2? There are the outliers on either end of the spectrum like Atlanta United who won the Cup in their second season and Portland who saw almost a full quarter point per game shaved off their year one tally. When viewed as a whole, however, the news is great for Austin FC. On average, every major indicator of success that we looked at improves from an expansion team’s first season. It makes sense. As the Verde & Black fans are well aware, there are certain growing pains that come with conjuring a soccer club out of thin air — coaching staffs working to implement their vision, players who have never played together before, construction of a new stadium that results in (let’s just say, hypothetically) an eight game road trip to start a season. What may be even more reassuring than the average improvement is the consistency and regularity. Out of the 16 past expansion teams we looked at, just 2 failed to exceed their first season’s points per game.
If we were to apply the average bump in stats from Austin FC’s first year, here’s how we’d sit and what our MLS rank would have been compared to the rest of the 2021 field:
There are noticeable improvements, but strictly looking at Pts/Game, Austin achieving just the average 2nd year bump is not going to blow the socks off anyone and would result in ATXFC still missing out on a Western Conference playoff bid. The secret sauce is what’s currently unanswered: is there something about Josh Wolff’s philosophy and team structure that can capitalize on the additional time and experience, and were the moves made by Reyna and his team at the tail end of last year and over the offseason enough to fill the gaps? Through stats we’ll start to share out as the season revs up, the nerds here at LNV are optimistic, but ultimately only time will tell.
We’ve seen that clubs can expect to see an improvement from year one to year two, but how predictive is a franchise’s inaugural season results towards their later success as a club? Afterall, none of us want Austin FC to be just slightly better than average. We want to compete for titles. The answer is (and be prepared for the hot take to end all hot takes): somewhat predictive. There are certainly patterns that emerge. Perennial contenders like Seattle and LAFC began their MLS campaigns on a strong foot, placing 3rd and 1st respectively in points per game their first season. There’s also the nightmare scenario for Austin FC: teams that started poorly and could never find their footing. Cincinnati, who are coincidentally Austin’s opening day opponent, put together a poor start and have gone on to record three of the worst MLS seasons of all time.
Despite those strong examples of correlation, there are too many outliers to say for sure that a club’s inaugural season can predict future success. Toronto FC are a notable exception to the rule. In their debut back in ‘07, they racked up just .8 points per game. Since then, they’ve gone on to appear in 3 MLS Cups and take home one title. There are also those that started out strongly and have since fallen off. Orlando FC, with the likes of Kaká, Brek Shea, and a young Cyle Larin, electrified the MLS in their opening season — consistently putting up strong performances in front of their sellout crowds. Falling just short of the playoffs that season, they weren’t able to capture any momentum from their bright start and haven’t sniffed contention since.
If the Austin faithful are looking for a poster child for the idea that it doesn’t matter how you start, look no further than NYCFC. Putting up fairly middling statistics in their debut season, they worked and reworked until they reached the mountaintop in 2021. Perhaps the most uplifting/reassuring aspect of their journey was the consistency, reaching the playoffs in every year but their first.
The moral of the story? Nothing is yet written in stone, and Austin FC has everything to play for going forward. We can’t wait for more nights at Q2 with you all and hope you follow along with us on another season of data-filled insights. Stay Verde!