Los Nerdes Verdes: Third Coast, Best Coast?

East vs West

The conventional wisdom this season has been that the Western Conference is superior to the East — demonstrated by how much the power rankings have been dominated by the LA teams, CCL winning Seattle, and a rotating series of other Western sides including, at times, Austin. The question is whether the data backs up those takes, and in general, it does.

When we look at cross-conference results, the West takes the head-to-head over the East in both share of wins and goals scored. The only edge the East has this season is in xG, indicating that they’re either getting a bit unlucky, padding their xG stats against weaker Western conference opponents, or a mixture of both.

Recent history follows a similar trend with the Western teams winning a higher percentage of cross-conference matches in every season going back to 2019. Interestingly enough, the MLS Cup winners in both 2021 and 2020 came from the East. While this is an incredibly small data set, it’s worth considering that an easier path to the championship game may be an advantage. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Supporter Shield winner has more often than not come from the weaker conference, highlighting the benefit of playing poorer competition in racking up total season points.

2022 (to date)202120202019
Western38%38%36%*42%
Eastern32%*21%*30%38%
Ties30%41%34%19%
Bold indicates MLS Cup Champion *indicates Supporter Shield Winner
 

Austin in the Mix

2021 was a strange year for a league attempting to come back to full strength while navigating the many issues brought on by the COVID pandemic and the associated restrictions. One quirk of those changes was that cross-conference matches were severely limited, substituted instead with more regional rivalries where travel could be more easily managed.

As a result, Austin played just two Eastern teams last season, the first a 0-1 loss to now-Western Nashville and the other a rather lackluster nil – nil against Columbus Crew. What amounted to 0.5 pts/game last season against the East looks wild compared to havoc the Verde have unleashed on that conference in 2022. To date, Austin’s dropped points just a single time against Eastern Conference opponents. That game, a 2-2 draw against Orlando City could have easily been a win, having notched a whopping 3.5 xG against a nine man side.

Austin can solidify their perfect season against the East with conference-leading NY Red Bulls coming into Q2 on July 24th before they end the season on a run of twelve games against Western conference foes.

The Matchup

Speaking of foes, Houston are officially out of the running for Copa Tejas, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a role to play. Regardless of how this game goes, either Austin or Frisco can capture the Cup with a win in the head to head rematch on Saturday. The Dynamo’s 111th minute equalizer against Dallas over the weekend, however, means that a win today would put Austin in the driver’s seat — needing just a tie on Saturday to capture the cup in their second season.

There are certainly holes in this Houston squad that can be exploited. They’ve had real trouble building attacking pressure — netting the 8th fewest goals off the 5th fewest assists in the league. The hope among their fans is that the arrival of Héctor Herrera will help resolve those issues. In the Mexican international’s 36 minute debut, the team did look brighter, tallying a +2.48 xGD/90 while he was on the field. Should he get the start tonight, you’d have to think Austin will want to pay special attention to his movement in the midfield.

On the other side of the ball, Austin should have no real difficulty controlling the midfield. Houston have the 2nd fewest successful pressures and the least in the middle third. The outlook on their on-ball defending only gets worse when you pair that with tackling against the dribble which is also 2nd to last. Giving Austin FC’s first ever all star, Sebastian Driussi, significant time on the ball in the midfield is likely a recipe for disaster for the Dynamo.

Wrapping up a long road trip, returning to the comfort of home facilities, and an injury/suspension list that’s emptier than we’ve seen in weeks means we’re likely going to see a much more familiar lineup than what we saw against Atlanta. 

Austin’s flexibility on how they want to play has been a real asset this season, but we’d wager we’re going to see a classic setup from the Verde tonight. At home, against an opposition that has a <50% possession stat, and facing a playmaking midfielder that the squad will look to deny time on the ball all lead us to believe we’ll see a focus on controlling the game.