Los Nerdes Verdes: Taking Aim

““You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – Wayne Gretzky” – Michael Scott” – Los Nerdes Verdes. 

To be successful in this league, you have to score goals. Of the four remaining teams, three of them top the league in total goals scored this season. NYCFC, the one team outside that bunch, are no slacks themselves – sitting in 7th. The correlation goes further than that. Every team in the top eight in Goals For made the playoffs. 

While not perfect, the xG statistic is an indicator of the likelihood that any given shot – taking into account factors like shot location and vicinity of defenders – will result in a goal. The comparison between the number of shots a team takes and the average “quality” of each of those shots can tell you a lot about how a team generates their chances. 

Looking at a team like Atlanta, they put up the most shots in the league but ended up in the middle of the pack in total goals due to the below-average quality. Wooden Spoon recipients D.C. United, on the other hand, had an above-average quality of their shots but they got off so few shots that they ended up with the lowest xG in the league.

Today’s matchup is one between two teams with a higher-than-average shot quality. The difference? LAFC racked up 25% more shots than the Verde & Black over the course of the season — leading to a total xG discrepancy of 11.4.

Bending and Breaking

Shot quality conceded is more about individual team storylines over noticeable trends. The elite sides certainly stand out on this side of the ball with Austin’s conference semifinal counterparts all popping up in the top quadrant. For the rest of the league, however, how teams approach the game defensively has a huge impact on these statistics. 

For Austin, the story defensively has been one of giving up a below-average number of shots, but the ones they are conceding are of worryingly high quality. That passes the eye test as well. Mistakes in the back and dangerous transitions when overcommitting are much more likely to lead to high-quality chances than those against a set block of defenders.

The Matchup

LAFC are about as statistically dominant as it gets – having wrapped up the regular season top two in goals, goals against, xG, and xGA. One of the only places in which they don’t dominate is in possession. A 51.8% season-long average does indicate that they tend to dictate the tempo of the game, but at just the 10th-highest time on the ball, it also shows how efficient they’re able to be. The discrepancy between the possession and offensive output also provides a glimpse into how lethal they are on the counterattack. How often Austin defenders are put into one-on-one defending positions and how effective they are in containing the LAFC front three before reinforcements arrive will be key to winning.

Austin ended the season 2nd to worst in the number of errors conceded that led to a shot. The Verde must limit those mistakes in this match — LAFC are far too good in the final third to give them extra bites at the apple. The California side are 3rd in the league in the number of completed passes in the final third and 2nd in completed passes into the box. 

Making tactical predictions is particularly difficult in a match like this because so much of it will come down the how each manager will set the teams up to play. LAFC can beat you by dominating possession or by sitting back and capitalizing on the counterattack. In stark contrast to last year in which Austin lined up to play a possession-focused brand of soccer to hell or high water, the Verde & Black have shown this season that they’re also able to win in a number of different ways. Just last week, Austin trotted out more of a double pivot with Ring and Pereira – a tactic that worked brilliantly in its intended goal of clogging up entry passes into Ferreira and largely taking him out of the game. In contrast to the FC Dallas frontman, LAFC’s Chicho is much less touch dependent in his impact. 

More than the personnel themselves, where they’re set up and how they’re instructed to play is going to set the tone. We’ve seen Austin and LA play both kinds of games this year, one a 2-1 win that told MLS Austin is for real and a 4-1 drumming at home that left no doubt. 

Last year, Josh Wolff caught flack at times from fans and the media for overthinking personnel decisions and match tactics. He’s got it right more often than not this season, and this game is shaping up to be a true chess match. How he sets up the squad and the changes he’s willing to make throughout may make the difference between LAFC cementing their claim as the West’s best side and Austin continuing their cinderella run.