Regression? Never Heard of Her
We’re back! As Austin FC kicks off their 2023 season, expectations range from making another solid run in the playoffs to taking MLS Cup, the Supporters Shield, the Leagues Cup and eventually making it all the way through CCL to the Club World Cup. Wishful thinking aside, one thing is clear: much more is expected of this team this year than a year ago.
The national discourse around Austin FC headed into the ‘23 season is unusually stats-focused. Austin scored far more goals last season than their xG would suggest. The Verde’s G-xG was 13.1, a number that placed them atop the league by a margin of around 30%. The question has become, “will Austin FC regress to what the statistics said they should have scored?”
The best answer, however, probably isn’t yes or no, but instead “does it really matter?” The year before Portland made the MLS Cup finals they overperformed their xG by 12.9. While they regressed closer to their expected goals, they were arguably a stronger, more resilient team. Similarly, the Union last season overperformed their xG by 10.7. They come into this year as trophy favorites, and you hear much less about them regressing. Talent and quality cover up a lot of cracks.
Addition by Subtraction (and Addition)
Austin FC were quite active in the offseason, locking in their two primary playmakers (Driussi and Fagundez) to longer term deals while an unanticipated departure of the Verde’s talisman defender pushed the club to sign fellow Scandinavian CB Leo Vaisanen. Meanwhile, in a more deliberate bit of business, the Verde & Black are now home to MLS and USMNT veteran Gyasi Zardes. The 31 year old is a much more well-rounded offensive number 9 than anyone Austin’s had on their roster in their first couple of years in the league. Statistically, there should be a significant bump from Maxi, and while Djitte had his memorable moments, Zardes will provide a much more consistent weapon.
Over the last couple of weeks, there have been rumors surrounding whether we’d actually see longtime mainstay Alex Ring lose his central midfielder starting job to Owen Wolff who by all accounts has impressed during the offseason. The stats point to a potential reason for that change. Ring, whose role alongside the more defensive Dani Pereira asked him to crash the box, racked up 5 xG. While he did put 4 in the back of the net, that -1 xG-G was the lowest on the team. A stronger finisher of the ball could see Austin add yet another weapon to the attack.
While the starting lineups will look fairly similar to last season, there are three key changes we know (barring injury) will be rolled out week one. Here’s a statistical look at all three:
Gyasi over Maxi
Maxi scored some absolute bangers last season, but there’s no doubt Gyasi was brought in to be an upgrade, and we’ll have a chance to see what he can bring week one. The expected stats show that the Verde supporters should see a more consistent attacking threat. Zardes had the league’s 25th highest xG/90 at 0.44 — above the likes of Jesus Ferreira, Carlos Vela, and Maxi (77th). Maybe even more important than goalscoring is the playmaking in and around the box. Gyasi almost doubled up Maxi in both expected assists and shot-creating actions. There are not many better pressing attackers in the league than Maxi, and he’ll remain a vital rotational piece as well as a spark plug off the bench.
Rigoni Over Finlay
While nobody expected Ethan Finlay to be a consistent starter for the Verde last year, he had one of the best seasons of his career once he stepped into the job. The ability from Austin’s third DP is apparent, however, and Rigoni will certainly be the favorite to hold the starting job this year. The Argentinian can hurt you in ways Finlay just can’t with Rigoni’s Successful Take-Ons in the 73rd percentile compared to Ethan’s 8th.
Vaisanen Replacing Gabrielsen
Austin FC fans are understandably nervous about the state of the Verde defense coming into year three. While we don’t have easily-comparable stats, Vaisanen’s speed should make him a good fit for a team that’s naturally going to give up transition opportunities. His quality on the ball should also allow Austin to play more directly from both CBs.
We don’t have a statistical representation just yet on how St. Louis will look to set up, but everything we hear from camp along with manager Bradley Carnell’s history with the Red Bulls organization suggests we’ll see something similar to how the NY-based side set up last year. Sporting a unique style for MLS, the Red Bulls were the 2nd-least ball-retentive team in the league. What they did do really well was press effectively from a high press or a mid block, looking to create chances from turnovers in dangerous areas. They did that to great effect in their matchup with Austin last year, walking away with a 4-3 victory.
A bit of bad news for St. Louis: for that style of play to be effective you need an immensely well-organized and bought-in group. Whether they’ve been able to build that over the course of a single preseason is yet to be seen. Done ineffectively… there should be consistent, high quality opportunities throughout the game for Austin. Our three keys to game:
Direct, long balls from Austin FC’s CBs: A more direct game had been a point of emphasis last season, and doing this effectively from your CBs allows you to skip the midfield where the opposition’s pressing style will look to create turnovers.
Eliminate Mistakes: Turnovers will be St. Louis’ primary source of chance creation. Unfortunately for Austin, they were the 2nd worst team in giving up errors that led directly to a shot last year.
Target Rich Environment: The addition of Zardes and the improvement of Rigoni should give Austin FC’s elite crossers more targets to aim for. How well that’s executed both in the normal run of play and in transition will tell the tale of just how many the Verde can hang on the newcomers.
Because of the opponent, this first matchup likely won’t tell us much about how this season will turn out, but it’s safe to say anything other than a win would turn heads around the league. Listos!