This is what regression to the mean looks like:
GD - xGD
Points per game
All the above data is per American Soccer Analysis, but I looked at Opta, FBRef, Sportec and a few other places, and guess what? They all tell the exact same story as the above.
Austin were extraordinarily lucky last year, both with their finishing and by almost entirely avoiding injuries. They had what I would consider to be fairly normal luck this season – in terms of injuries the center backs were hard hit, but everyone else was mostly fit – and that normal luck laid bare this team’s shortcomings in both roster construction and game model.
The roster construction shortcomings mainly exposed the lack of top-end talent on the wings and up front. The wingers varied from functional (Ethan Finlay) to unplayable (Rodney Redes), while Gyasi Zardes didn’t quite fit with Sebastián Driussi in the way everyone suspected he wouldn’t quite fit with Sebastián Driussi (both guys score their goals with one-time finishes off of box movement).
What was exposed in the game model was an over-reliance on crossing the ball and some pretty catastrophic rest defense, which is to say that for the better part of the season, every single turnover felt like a five-alarm fire headed in the other direction.
The good news is that there’s a new front office in town, as sporting director/chief soccer officer Rodolfo Borrell was brought in from Manchester City. He has already remade the scouting department and technical staff under him, and also made the somewhat surprising choice to retain head coach Josh Wolff.
An executive of Borrell’s stature wouldn’t have taken the job if he wasn’t allowed to pick his own head coach, so the fact that he’s keeping Wolff (a move I don’t dislike) speaks volumes to me.
Anyway, next year is Year 4 of Austin’s MLS existence, but in a lot of ways, what happened in 2023 means next year will feel like Year 1 v2.0.
Formation & Tactics
Almost always a 4-2-3-1 with Driussi as a No. 10, lots of possession and both fullbacks pushing forward. That’s not to say there weren’t other looks (we saw both a 5-4-1 and a 4-5-1 from Austin this year), but they had a pretty well-defined approach.
Their main tactic, unfortunately, was launching hopeless crosses from the flanks. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Austin’s cross ratio – that is, the percentage of passes into the box that are crosses – is 48.4%, which is easily highest in the league.
No one else is over 42.5% this year. Only one other team in the TAM era has been over 45% (the godawful 2020 LA Galaxy). You have to go back to the 2014 Chivas USA side to find a side with a higher cross ratio than this year’s Verde & Black.
Last year Austin were middle of the pack at 35.5%. They need to get back to keeping the ball on the ground in the final third.
A six-game stretch in late June saw Austin go 4W-1L-1D, including back-to-back, 3-0 Copa Tejas wins over Houston and Dallas. These were pretty easily the two best all-around performances of the season by the team, and putting them together in these two matches allowed Austin to retain the Copa Tejas crown for 2023, which ain’t nothing.
The real highlight, though, is this freaking rabona through-ball from Driussi in the game after that pair, which turned into a 1-1 draw down in Fort Lauderdale:
Lord have mercy.
Austin followed that up by getting wiped out by two pretty poor Liga MX sides in the Leagues Cup. They then followed that up by going 0W-5L-3D in the regular season post-Leagues Cup, which put paid to their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs hopes.
None of it compares to this:
Probably the worst loss by an MLS club in continental play. Ever.
Owen Wolff wasn’t great at central midfield, but he was great for an 18-year-old at that spot, and durable, and showed real glimpses of high-end potential as a box-to-box No. 8. He’s just a few months older than guys who’ve gotten much more pub than him at that spot this year – Benja Cremaschi, Noel Buck, Obed Vargas – but he played more minutes than any of them, and most of his minutes were good or promising or both.
When Borrell tears this roster down to the studs this winter, I don’t think he’ll need to touch that central midfield trio. And I don’t think anybody saw that coming so soon with Wolff.
Austin fans felt I was too quick to judge DP winger Emiliano Rigoni, who was brought in at the transfer deadline in the summer of 2022.
I was not.
Five Players to Build Around
- Driussi (AM/SS): More of a goalscorer than an orchestrator, and the signings this winter have to reflect that reality.
- Wolff (CM): I don’t think it’s wrong to expect a huge step forward from him next year.
- Danny Pereira (DM/CM): More of a deep-lying playmaker than a ball-winner. I feel like they should just lock him in a room for three months with “Ozzie Alonso’s Greatest Hits” playing on loop.
- Brad Stuver (GK): Quietly continues to be one of the best goalkeepers in MLS, with a third straight excellent season. I don’t think anyone outside of Austin understands how good this guy is.
- Jon Gallagher (FB): Has turned into an elite attacking threat on the overlap from either side.
I think the backline is going to get a lot of attention, and should – the loss of Ruben Gabrielsen after last season was one of the most significant, most underappreciated departures in the league. There will be time and money and resources spent to patch that particular hole, which has turned into a crater.
But the priority has to be on fixing the attack around Driussi. They need one of their new DPs (and I’m assuming there will be two new DPs) to be a winger whose primary responsibility is playmaking rather than goalscoring, i.e., someone whose presence in the half-spaces allows Driussi to drift into the box in the final third, and who doesn’t always settle for crosses.
Rigoni was supposed to be that guy, and he’s under contract until the end of next year. But, uh, yeah.
I think the other DP should be a No. 9 of some type, and by “some type” I mean “is maybe as comfortable drifting wide in combo play as he is occupying center backs in the box.” What I’m talking about is the pre-Erling Haaland CFG prototype No. 9 and, well, Borrell knows how to spot those guys better than I ever will, right?
Anyway, it was a bad, unfun year for Austin. But this offseason ahead should be a blast.