After Julio Cascante’s injury and Austin’s defensive implosion in an embarrassing 3-2 defeat in the season opener to St. Louis, many seemed to believe that the backline might be a potential reason for a dip in Austin’s play this season. However, nearly a quarter of the way into the season, unexpected concerns about Austin’s attack have popped up, and for good reason.
Firstly, we need to rewind. In mid-July of 2022, Austin battled back to secure a crucial road 1-1 draw against FC Dallas, in a match that they seemingly got points out of nothing. Per FBRef, Dallas claimed a 2.1-0.7 advantage on expected goals (xG). I had noticed continuations in Austin’s miraculous performances, so I did some research on how they were pulling these kinds of results off.
What I found was simply staggering. Up to that night, Austin had scored 42 goals in 75 shots on target, a rate of 56%. That tracked out to exactly 2 goals per match despite only hitting the target 3.57 times per match. At that point, Austin only won the xG battle 10 times in 21 matches, yet sported a record of 12 victories, 5 draws, and 4 defeats.
I immediately started pumping out predictions about a slow decrease in form, but the scintillating form of Sebastian Driussi and Diego Fagundez continued, and Austin finished the season 2nd in the West, and finishing in the semifinals of the playoffs. In all, they scored 65 goals and conceded 49, but per xG predictions they should’ve been outscored 50.9-52.7 on the season.
Now, obviously, some of Austin’s success is due to simply playing great soccer, but it’d be foolish to say that luck was often on the Verde and Black’s side in last year’s dream campaign. With that knowledge in my head, I reduced expectations slightly for Austin in 2023, figuring they’d be whipped right back to the mean.
However, I don’t know if anyone could have anticipated this. Austin has scored only one goal in their last four MLS matches, and a measly 6 in 7 matches in MLS play. Now that we’ve established that last season was a statistical anomaly, it’s a good time to list reasons for the lack of attacking threat in Austin this season.
It is completely fair to have the desire to start one of the more expensive signings in Austin’s short history (Rigoni’s $3.64 million transfer is only behind Driussi’s $6.4 million move), and the highest-paid player in the squad at a whopping $54k a week, but it should be clear at this point that Rigoni is not cut out for the starting squad.
We could start with the fact that he’s failed to get a goal contribution in 17 matches (11 starts, 947 total minutes) in MLS play since joining Austin late last year. Struggling this year isn’t surprising, but not doing anything even in 447 minutes of match time last season where Diego Fagundez couldn’t stop dishing out chances and assists is disappointing.
Perhaps the more disappointing aspect of this move is the continual insistence on playing him. Despite his ineffectiveness, Rigoni has started in all 7 MLS matches this year, averaging 75 minutes per match. The hesitance toward bringing him off the bench for once and letting Ethan Finlay start on the wing is puzzling, to say the least. A switch might be necessary to spark something in the attack.
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The striker position as a whole
This is an issue that I feel was masked by the incredible play of Fagundez and Driussi last season, as the strikers only netted a combined 13 of Austin’s 65 goals last season. However, it’s been at a new low this season. The 2023 signing of Gyasi Zardes has been completely ineffective, and Maxi Urruti has only been marginally better. New signing Will Bruin has barely featured.
The solution to this problem is not so clear. There are three aging strikers on the roster that either haven’t impressed or haven’t played at all.
Do note that Moussa Djitte will likely return in July, as he’s in the middle of an uneventful loan with Ligue 1 side AC Ajaccio. Djitte has shown zero contribution in six appearances, and Ajaccio seem relegation-bound (8 points from potential safety with 7 matches remaining), so don’t expect them to trigger his buy option. However, Austin slapping a buy option on Djitte likely means he’s not involved in the long-term plans, which seems like a silly mistake now.
The form of Fagundez and Driussi
I find it unfair to expect Austin’s star duo to live up to their historically good 2022 campaigns, but in the early stages of the new season, they’ve failed to provide that spark that pushed Austin past opponents all of last year.
After a 6 goal, 15-assist season in 2022, Fagundez has only registered a single goal contribution in 2023, an assist in the season opener loss to St. Louis. Driussi has a goal and an assist, but that’s a far cry from the 22 goals and 7 assists he had last season. Austin desperately needs at least one of these players to step up and provide the veteran presence in attack that currently feels missing despite the abundance of experienced players.
This is not an issue that can necessarily be solved right now. Josh Wolff’s 4-2-3-1 system has shown its potential to work, as long as he keeps up with it (No more attempts at throwing 3 at the back like he tried in the abysmal performance against Houston). All in all, there’s no need to completely overreact, although dialing down expectations a bit for this season is definitely necessary.
However, if we’re in an overreacting mood, my completely unrealistic preference would be to simply let 2/3 of Urruti, Zardes, and Bruin walk this offseason, retain Djitte, sell Rigoni to whoever will take him, and use the third DP spot on a striker that can combine mobility and technical ability. Also, hold onto Driussi for dear life because it might get dark if he leaves for a European club next year.
Cover photo courtesy Austin FC