Finding Ways to Win
Basically from the moment of Austin’s inception up until the 5-0 win against FC Cincinnati on the opening day of the 2022 season the criticism of Wolff-ball had been: well they can keep possession but what are they doing with it?
Those criticisms were well founded and backed up by the data. “The Horseshoe of Sadness” was a phrase popularized last year to highlight the trend of useless ball rotation between fullbacks and centerbacks – actions that inflate the possession stat without putting any real pressure on opponents. Last season, Austin averaged 54% possession (4th in the league) but scored just 34 total goals, a tally that saw them finish tied for last. Possession for possession sake has never really been a formula for success in Major League Soccer. In our analysis last season, we found that the correlation between time on the ball and offensive success is much weaker than in the leagues across the world where the talent is generally higher.
Of Austin’s nine wins last season, just three of them came when they controlled less than 50% of the possession. And of the twelve total games in which they ceded the ball a majority of the game, they lost the xG battle in all but three.
This season, Austin FC look like a team reborn. Not just in wins and losses, but in the varied ways in which they’re finding points. Despite Josh Wolff’s ball-dominant philosophy, the Verde & Black have consistently put together competitive performances in games when they didn’t have a majority of the ball. Maybe surprisingly, Austin’s best statistical showings this season have come when they have less than 50% of possession. From there, two hypotheses jump to mind: either Austin is scoring early and allowing their opponents to chase the game or the Verde and Black have been clinical in the counter against teams that are too comfortable on the ball.
The data actually tends to point to both. There have been six wins this season from Austin in which the other team dominated control of the ball. Of those, three were grindy affairs including 1-0 wins against Charlotte and Montreal in addition to LAFC’s singular season defeat at home of 2-1. The other three ended in blowouts – 3-0 Atlanta, 3-0 RSL, and 4-1 LAFC. In each of those three-goal wins, there were flurries of goals in short periods that ultimately saw the good guys pull away.
Last season’s knock that Austin couldn’t capitalize on the possession doesn’t seem to have carried over to 2022. In games in which the Verde controlled more than 60% of the possession, their goals for and xG are fairly on par with their season-long averages. Where the real issue has been is on the defensive side of the ball. The Red Bulls putting four past Austin back in July despite possessing just 27% of the ball is a painful example of why defenders need to be switched on at all times.
Vancouver don’t control their own destiny, but even being on the cusp of a playoff berth has to feel like a victory in and of itself. They come into this game with a -17 goal differential, second worst in the conference. And yet, they’ve found a way to claw out results and are five points off Minnesota for the final playoff spot.
Stylistically, there aren’t many teams that sit as deep as the Whitecaps. They have by far the league’s lowest average possession at 41.8%. 56% of all of their tackles and 35% of all of their pressures take place in their defensive third, the second and fifth highest shares respectively. Statistically there aren’t many bright spots for the Canadian side. They’re near the bottom of the league in goals, xG, and goals against. Austin’s had a run of games as of late against teams who utilize a back five with wingbacks including a frustrating 2-1 loss to Portland. That’ll be the case again today. Vancouver were the beneficiaries of a poor D.C. United side looking to start fresh. Acquired from D.C. back in July, Julian Gressel has been the elite chance creator the Whitecaps were hoping for. The wingback is first on the team in Shot Creating Actions per 90. Lockdown awareness and positioning from the Austin CBs is going to be necessary to keep crosses from turning into goals.
Dallas’ loss earlier means that Austin have now secured the 2nd spot in the West. With Gabrielsen listed as questionable and the season winding down, it’ll be interesting to see who makes the start for the Verde & Black.