Los Nerdes Verdes: A Tale of Two Beginnings

A Tale of Two Beginnings

“On paper, this team will be at a clear talent deficit against almost everyone they line up against.”

That’s from Tom Bogert’s 2023 season preview for MLS newcomers St. Louis CITY SC. Along with his outlook, not a single one of the thirteen expert predictions cited had them finishing higher than 13th in the West. Not even the most optimistic St. Louis supporters would have seen this start coming. To everyone’s surprise, they now sit 1st in the West with the league’s best goal differential and 2nd-highest goals scored. Not only that, but through their first 23 games, they have the most wins and highest points per game of any expansion team dating back to Chivas in 2005. There’s also been only one expansion team (LAFC in 2018) that averaged more goals per game (1.87 vs 1.96). 

All things considered, it’s hard to believe this is their first season — especially when compared with how Austin started their franchise. Through the same stretch of games, Austin had accumulated fewer than half the points per game and scored fewer than half the goals. Results aren’t where the contrasts end. Stylistically, the two teams couldn’t have approached their first years any differently. Whereas Josh Wolff emphasized controlling the pace through possession (55.8% through the first 23 games of 2021), St. Louis are more than happy to let the opposition control the ball — possessing at just 43.5% (the lowest share for an expansion team’s first 23 games since fbref started tracking in 2017) and waiting for a chance to counter. 

So far, that’s worked really well for them, but there’s a question about how high the ceiling is; just ask Nashville about 2022 or Red Bulls about… forever. 

Looking Forward

St. Louis fans are likely just as sick of hearing it as we were last year, but the underlying statistics point to luck playing a factor in their success. Despite carrying a +16 GD, their xGD isn’t even in the positive (-0.7). It also helps when opposing defenders turn and pass you the ball, which shockingly has happened more than once

St. Louis have won four games this season in which they accumulated fewer xG than their opponent. That was the same amount of “undeserved” games that 2022 Austin won over the same stretch, so your view of how the second half of St. Louis’ season will turn out likely revolves around how much stock you place in the underlying analytics and how you view the sustainability of the newcomers’ playstyle.

The Matchup

There was no shortage of dramatics in the first matchup between these two sides. After opening the 2022 season with crushing 5-0 and 5-1 victories, Austin FC supporters were gearing themselves up for another quick start and the MLS debutants seemed like the perfect opponent. After taking an early punch in the 24th minute, two goals from the Verde & Black in the second half gave the game a familiar comeback aura. That was before former Austin FC player and 2023’s first villain, Jared Stroud, called for the ball — leading Kipp Keller to inexplicably turn around and play the St. Louis player in on goal. The collapse was made final in the 86th-minute, and Austin’s season since hasn’t caught fire in the way most fans expected.

Despite the result, Austin did largely control the match back in February — dominating the possession for the game 59-41 and leading St. Louis on xG to 1.23 to 1.18 before the Stroud goal. That possession discrepancy will almost certainly be the case again with Austin sporting the league’s 9th-highest possession stat this season. That makes the recipe for success relatively clear (although easier said than done) — convert chances and limit mistakes in the back. 

It seems only fitting that the Verde’s first opponent post-League’s Cup early exit is the same team they opened the season with. In many ways, this feels like a fresh start — despite having already played ~⅔ of the season. Austin are as close to 2nd as they are to 11th (+/- 5 points). The Verde & Black will have to make their run without fan-favorite, Diego Fagundez, for the first time in club history after a shock trade to the Galaxy. The good news is that word out of camp is that every player (bar Zan) is back in training.

With Diego gone, and some potential flexibility in the tactics, players are out of excuses to earn their spot. Who steps up to close out the year?