Los Nerdes Verdes: Shaking the 8 Ball

First 8, Next 8

“Austin FC should be thanking the schedulers,” “they’re just bonus games,” “they can’t keep this up against good teams.” The Verde faithful have heard it all this season. J. Sam Jones, who writes the analysis for MLS Soccer’s weekly power rankings, sums up our perspective perfectly:

“[E]ventually, saying ‘Austin ain’t played nobody’ reaches a point of diminishing returns. Especially when they’re taking care of that weaker schedule with ease and with a style that indicates their attack truly does have the kind of bite worthy of a top spot in the Western Conference standings.”

You can only beat the team in front of you, and you can’t win the MLS cup in eight games. However, it is possible to hold these two ideas at the same time: the opening to this season was about as good as Austin FC could have hoped for and we can’t truly say how good the Verde are until we tackle these next eight matches. 

The first Texas Derby of 2022 will mark the start of a stretch of matches against a set of opponents that are statistically superior to what this team is accustomed to this season. At a high level, perhaps the most jarring indicator of the difference in quality is the average power rankings. The average ESPN ranking for Austin’s first and next eight opponents jumps from 21st to 9th while MLS Soccer’s difference clocks in at 19th to 11th. 

The qualitative highlights include a trip out to LA to play league leaders LAFC in addition to a home and away against LA Galaxy who slot into 2nd and 3rd in the MLS and ESPN power rankings respectively. Austin closes out this eight game stretch against Charlotte FC who have put up a relatively strong opening start to their inaugural season, bolstered by head turning home field crowds. This stretch of games will also set the tone for this year’s Copa Tejas, with both Houston and Frisco on the schedule.

Statistically, the differences in quality between Austin’s first eight and next eight are quite stark:

2022 MLS per 90 stats to date
Avg Points
1.08 → 1.70
Avg Possession
47.8% → 50.8%
Avg Goals
1.23 → 1.34
Avg Goals Against
1.68 → 1.02
Avg xG
1.26 → 1.32
Avg xGA
1.64 → 1.25

The number that really jumps out to us is the average goals against per 90. While we see improvements in every category, the 37% reduction in this stat blows away every other. This is shaping up to be an “unstoppable force meets an immovable object” situation as the Verde & Black have been an offensive juggernaut this season. Sitting atop the league with 2.37 G/90, something’s got to give. How much that number comes down over the next eight matches is going to be the difference between the momentum rolling and a derailment of the Austin FC hype train.

The Matchup

Ending 2021 as the only team in the West to finish lower than Austin, Houston has been much improved this season. While not the astronomical change that’s garnered headlines for the Verde & Black, the Dynamo are putting together a nice start and sit on the cusp of the final playoff position even as they wait for their big name signing in Héctor Herrera to make his debut. 

Statistically, Houston doesn’t do anything particularly well or particularly poorly — ranking in the middle of the league in most indicators of offensive and defensive success. Still — and this is an indication of the quality of Austin’s opening schedule — there is only one squad from those first eight opponents that have let in fewer goals than Houston (Minnesota) and only one that’s scored more goals (San Jose). There’s also the issue of home field advantage. Notable from our analysis earlier this year, Houston had the greatest difference between home and away points in 2021. That trend was unfortunately exemplified by their matchup against Austin last season, with the Verde sleepwalking to an 0-3 away defeat.

Possibly the most intriguing story to watch is going to be Maxi Urruti, whose goals/90 tally with Austin has more than doubled over his time in Houston (0.28 → 0.65). Should he score, he’s already stated that he plans on not celebrating out of respect for his old team, but whether he’s able to find the back of the net may be the difference in a repeat of last year and continuing a 5-game result streak.