In we go:
The big question for Austin, heading into 2022, was whether they could build upon the promising stuff they'd shown in their debut season – some slick passing and well-drilled off-ball movement, especially in attack, as well as a clear ethos about being a team that wants the ball – while shoring up their weaknesses (basically everything else). And while it's mostly fair to say that those are the same questions that every expansion team faces, it’s also fair to say that Austin were distinct, if not precisely unique, in how much of a gap there was between their "hey they look pretty good!" moments and their "wow, this is definitely an expansion team" moments.
Their highs were really high and their lows were really low. What it came down to was that against some of the poorer, less defensively disciplined teams in the league, that ability to use the ball sometimes made the Verde look like an irresistible force. Make bad teams chase, open up new gaps in the process, then hit those gaps. Rinse, repeat, win. Austin showed a good chunk of that last year.
Against better teams, Austin got ripped the hell up. They were worse off than simply having zero answers. Rather, the answers they tried to provide (i.e., building through an opponent's press or pressing higher themselves in order to tilt the pitch) badly exposed their Achilles' heel, which was transition defense. Any time they went out there and tried to impose themselves upon a game against a good team, they were just begging to ship three goals.
So things had a way of spiraling clear out of control when it started going bad last season. About once a month Austin would put forth the type of performance that made you think they didn’t have a clue, or a prayer, or any hope of being a competitive team as soon as this year. And to suggest that, actually, a lot of the structure was good and worth working on improving rather than scrapping entirely, even if the bumps in the road felt like craters, was to court scorn, ridicule and angry grackles.
And yet now, nine games into the season, here we are: Austin are 6W-1L-2D with a league-best 22 goals scored and a league-best +14 goal differential. All that slick passing and well-drilled off-ball promise they showed in 2021? This is what it looks like in 2022:
That’s what improving upon those underlying strengths from last season looks like. I would argue, though, that the improvement in the underlying weaknesses has been even more dramatic, and now that we’re more than a quarter of the way into the season, I think it’s a large enough sample size to really start trusting the numbers.
Of all of those, this is the big one: In 2021 Austin were 27th out of 27 teams in xG allowed in transition, as per Second Spectrum. It was a perfect storm of personnel (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a slower collection of players in MLS) and approach (get on the ball, get those fullbacks forward, defend with a single pivot, take risks).
In 2022 they are 9th in that same metric. The personnel has changed only marginally so they are still susceptible to getting blown up against particularly athletic opposition. But head coach Josh Wolff has tweaked the personnel within the formation, putting Alex Ring as one of the two 8s in the 4-3-3 rather than having him deep as a single pivot, but also having him frequently drop back in order to give second-year man Danny Pereira some defensive help while allowing MVP frontrunner Sebastian Driussi the freedom to freelance as a pure No. 10. That, in turn, makes the whole thing operate like a 4-2-3-1 for good chunks of time. On top of the improved midfield balance, Wolff is keeping the fullbacks lower while getting more width from the wingers.
Obviously it’s working.
“It's something we talked about a lot in the offseason. Game management, understanding what it's going to look like in the first 5-10 minutes, knowing what we can do to opponents as the game goes on, being aware of the climate, being aware of what are the strengths and weaknesses of our group vs. our opponents,” Wolff said afterward. “There's a lot that goes into it. Last year we learned a lot, we grew, we put in a foundation that has us in a place now where we're operating at a higher level, and there's a real fluidity and understanding because of the work that we did last year.”
All of the above is true, but here's the rub: this has all come against just about the softest schedule imaginable, and it’s all happened with Austin overperforming their expected goal differential by – I am not making this up – 11.5 goals, or 1.28 goals per game as per American Soccer Analysis. To put that into context, the best any team’s done over the course of a full season in the past decade is Atlanta United in 2017, who clocked in at 0.75 goals per game above expected.
The way to look at this is that all the promise their intricate, ambitious, ball-dominant approach showed against some of the, um, less good teams in MLS in 2021 has turned into actual dominance against those same teams in 2022. That is real, measurable growth.
But now the other shoe is about to drop, and that theory is going to get stress-tested against the other half of the table. Seven of Austin’s next 10 games are on the road, and eight of those 10 are against teams that I’m pretty sure are either very good, or very talented, or both. It’ll be a measure of that “xG allowed in transition” number as well as a whole host of other advanced metrics – many of which think that Austin’s nowhere near as good as their current record (their goals above expected mark being one of them).
Even if they mostly fail those tests, I still think what we’ve seen here is a bigger picture argument for having a bigger picture in mind when building a team. It is damn hard to improve when you’re tossing stuff at a wall and just seeing what sticks. When you have an actual framework, which Wolff clearly does, you can tweak and adjust and improve, and take incremental steps toward the ultimate goal of contending for trophies. The first step is beating the brakes off of bad teams, and Austin have been doing just that for two months.
I will be surprised if Austin end the season at or near the top of the table, which is where they’re residing now, but they’re damn sight closer than they were last year, and they’ve managed it in pretty linear fashion no matter how the next 10 games turn out.
As for the Dynamo…
This sequence alone should be impetus enough to develop some d-mid depth behind Matias Vera, who missed this one. Yikes.
“It’s kind of just the same old story again. I felt, again, we were the better team by a mile, but we just switch off for a couple moments during the game. They score on a set piece and then they score on basically a recycled set piece as well. We play so well for 89 minutes of the game. We’re the better team. We’re keeping them pinned in. We’re pushing the tempo, creating chances, all that stuff. We just switch off for a moment and it hurts us.”
That’s Atlanta United left back Andrew Gutman following his team’s latest disappointment, a 2-1 loss at CF Montréal. Much of the above is overstated – for one, CF Montréal were only too happy to concede possession against this Atlanta team, and for two we’re going to dive into that “creating chances” bit in a second here – but a decent bit of Gutman’s take checks out.
In particular it’s that his side does get on the ball, and does do a pretty good job of creating tempo, and then does, almost invariably, shoot themselves in the foot on restarts. Sometimes they just get dunked on, as happened on the first Montréal goal, but sometimes they just… forget to play?
I’m not even going to show you the clip of the second Montréal goal, I’m just going to show you this screenshot:
Two guys unmarked at the near post! Yes, Kamal Miller had just snatched Jake Mulraney’s soul, which pulled Gutman out toward the edge of the 18, but there are supposed to be rotations behind him if/when that happens. There’s supposed to be awareness of the next possible danger, and that just doesn’t really seem to exist for these Five Stripes this year.
I still think they have the pieces to be pretty good, maybe? Even with all the injuries their talent level is high, and Gutman’s right that they string some nice possession sequences together and effortlessly get into the attacking third pretty much every week. Teams that do that tend to have pretty good seasons.
Once they get there, though, that same lack of chemistry Atlanta have shown defending restarts reveals itself in attack. A disproportionate amount of the possession the Five Stripes generate turns into low-percentage shots from distance, or into nothing at all because there are no kill patterns and very little coordinated movement. As such they take just 57.7% of their shots from inside the box, as per TruMedia, which is 22nd in the league.
Miller, who was the Man of the Match, might’ve said the quiet part out loud about that in the postgame presser.
“Atlanta is one of the better teams in possession. They are usually on top of the game. To beat this team, you have to defend well for 90 minutes,” Miller explained, before adding “their possession doesn’t matter too much."
Oof. Gonzalo Pineda’s got to figure out how to fix that.
As for Montréal, this game was just another entry in the big book of “if you’re not going to play particularly well, being really good in dead ball situations is a nice hack for picking up points."
I don’t think this one’s going into the time capsule for Wilfried Nancy or anyone on this roster aside from Miller, but regardless, Montréal have won four of five and are now six unbeaten. They are a good team doing good team things and are climbing the standings because of it.
11. I’ve maintained for a while now that Patryk Klimala is actually very good. He has taken my faith and gone out of the way to test it, securing a spot over the past two months as one of the more profligate strikers in recent league history.
Well, chalk one up for the old eye test (and the advanced numbers, which also think Klimala’s very good) following RBNY’s come-from-behind 2-1 win at Chicago on Saturday. Klimala came off the bench at halftime following a lengthy weather delay and helped his side to 45 minutes of almost complete dominance, eventually getting the equalizer from open play 15 minutes from time, before potting a PK winner in second-half stoppage.
The Fire, even with Xherdan Shaqiri back, create almost nothing. Jairo Torres, who arrives this week, should help, and I actually kind of wonder if they should put Torres in as a 10 (which is where he’s played during the Clausura) and shift Shaqiri out to the wing. At this point it feels like putting Shaqiri in a spot where his only responsibility is to hunt chances makes the most sense, because he has not looked at all comfortable running the entire show.
The Galaxy, who had taken 10 points from their previous four games, looked frustrated for two big reasons. First is that Jonathan Bond flapped at a corner which gifted Marcelo Silva the only goal of the game, and second is that they’re still getting absolutely nothing from their wingers, including a pair of DPs in Kevin Cabral and Douglas Costa.
It’s to the point where we’re going to have to slap the bust label on Cabral*, who is flouting the David Gass Theorem of second-year improvement by registering a whopping zero goals and zero assists through 500 minutes. Costa, meanwhile, has 1g/0a in 460 minutes, and was yanked at the hour mark in this one after smothering a bunch of Galaxy attacks in the crib.
(*) Giving Cabral a five-year DP contract remains one of the most jaw-dropping front office decisions made by anyone in recent MLS history. He was a marginal Ligue 2 goalscorer!
Given how poor those guys have been (Samuel Grandsir has been a bit better, but is not a goal threat) and how much of a boost Dejan Jovelic has provided the past couple of weeks when coming on to play up top next to Chicharito, I kind of suspect that a 3-5-2 is coming soon from Greg Vanney & Co.
As for RSL, this snapped a five-game winless skid and they managed it in the same way they managed their hot start back in March: by scrapping like hell and getting a monster performance from Zac MacMath.
9. FC Cincinnati picked up their third win of the year, going to Toronto and taking a 2-1 result out of BMO Field against the reeling Reds. In 2020 and ‘21 Cincy had four wins each season; in 2019 they had six. So yes, they’re well ahead of their traditional pace under rookie head coach Pat Noonan.
This is not just getting a lucky, scrappy run – Cincy are, if anything, underperforming in the win column. Their xG differential is 9th in the league as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, while American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added metric has them 10th. Cincy are playing well, and have managed as much while juggling injury absences and a new formation.
TFC are not playing well, and it largely comes down to the fact that they allow so many penalty area entries. Those entries then result in a ton of shots allowed, with a league-worst 72.8% of those shots coming from inside the box.
They can’t stop or win the ball through midfield. They can’t scramble well in the box. It’s a deadly combo.
8. Columbus broke their five-game winless skid with a 3-0 home win over D.C. United, getting a pair of goals off of set pieces and one off a lovely ball over the top from Josh Williams to Derrick Etienne Jr., who finished smoothly past Jon Kempin.
With Lucas Zelarayan not fit to start the Crew played out of a 4-3-3 with Artur at the back point and Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris further forward as dual No. 8s. As a result they played a little quicker and more direct, hitting fewer switches of play. I’m not sure that will be a permanent thing, but it worked in this one.
Goalkeeper has been an issue for D.C. over the past couple of years no matter who’s been in net, as both Kempin and Bill Hamid have been in the bottom quarter of most advanced goalkeeping metrics since the start of last season.
7. The guy who’s topped most goalkeeping metrics for the greater part of four seasons finally made his 2022 debut, as Matt Turner was back in goal for the Revs in their easier-than-it-looked 2-0 win over Inter Miami, who came crashing back down to earth after their good four-game run. Turner had to do next to nothing in order to post the shutout, making just a trio of routine saves.
While that was the biggest story in Revsland, let’s not overlook the impression Homegrown attacker Damian Rivera made in his starting debut in lacing home the game’s first goal. Beyond that, though, it looks like Carles Gil’s sideline chat with Bruce Arena last week paid formational/tactical dividends.
Here’s New England’s shape with and without the ball in the loss to D.C. United:
Here’s what those same graphics, which come from Second Spectrum’s tracking data, looked like against Miami:
It’s still hyper-aggressive with the ball – they throw both fullbacks forward in a way few MLS teams would dare – but the structure, for this week at least, was much more sound, and allowed them more midfield control than they’ve had in most outings this season.
6. Bruce Arena wasn’t the only manager to change his team’s shape this weekend, as Robin Fraser flipped his Rapids side into a 4-3-3 for the first time in a while and was rewarded with a pretty commanding 2-0 win over visiting Portland. Gyasi Zardes started as Colorado’s No. 9, while Diego Rubio played in the midfield as something close to a true No. 10 before seeing red just after the hour mark.
Even down a man the Rapids were dangerous, and actually found the second goal while playing 10-v-11, though it’s fair to say they’ve yet to truly find their finishing boots this season.
Same for the Timbers, who have now won just once in their past seven, and word is that a new forward is incoming.
5. The spirit of Matias Almeyda lives on in MLS with this application of his attacking corner kick theory:
This ended up being the decisive goal in Orlando’s 2-1 home win over Charlotte. I’m not sure what Miguel Angel Ramirez was thinking there, nor am I sure why we’re seeing this type of approach on corner kicks more and more often. If it’s late in the game – or at least midway through the second half – I’d get it. But just before the break against an Orlando City team that still never looks like they’re about to explode for multiple goals, why take such a crazy risk?
4. It took a while, but NYCFC eventually wore San Jose down on Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, picking up a trio of second-half goals en route to a comfortable 3-0 win. There were no real tactical adjustments from Ronny Deila on display here, just his team’s ability to slam the pedal down once Alex Covelo made a pair subs in an ill-advised gambit to stretch the game out.
The Pigeons have now won three straight, scoring 14 goals in that span. On top of that, they got Maxi Moralez back after he’d missed the past month to injury.
The real architect of this pass, though, is head coach Nico Estevez, because this is a very good example of how positional play is supposed to work. Coordinated movement between Pomykal and left back Marco Farfan opens space for 1) Pomykal to get on the ball in the spot with no pressure, and 2) Arriola to check in the half-space with no one around him because Farfan’s early overlap has pulled Sporting right back Cam Duke (in for the injured Graham Zusi by this point in the game) to the touchline.
The final step is Farfan keeping his own run going all the way into the box, which drags multiple defenders out of Ferreira’s path and allows him to cut back onto his stronger right foot and have a shot. Goal.
For a while it felt like that goal, which put Dallas up 2-1, was going to stand up, but credit to Sporting for fighting back and finding an equalizer after Dallas had gone down to 10 men (Brandon Servania entered in the 60th, picked up his first yellow in the 63rd and second in the 67th. Impressive!). It finished 2-2.
Sporting are on a five-game winless skid while Dallas are unbeaten in seven.
2. There is an inevitability to this year’s version of LAFC that no previous version – not even the 2019 group that won the Supporters’ Shield with a then-record 72 points – possessed. That inevitability was on display on Sunday night, when they spent all night banging on Dayne St. Clair’s door until finally, 10 minutes from time, Ryan Hollingshead battered it down by volleying home from six yards after a corner kick had been headed right into his path.
- LAFC are merciless on set pieces. They lead the league with eight goals in nine games.
- Even when they come way upfield and press, they don’t concede many chances. The Loons got one good look on the break early in the second half, but that was it.
- They’re getting a ton of productivity from the bench, which has produced eight of their 21 total goals.
- Maxime Crepeau does not concede soft goals.
It is a credit to the Black & Gold that there was basically zero #MLSAfterDark energy to this game. There was just a really good team – the league’s best, I think – methodically bending an opponent until they broke.
1. And finally, Nashville opened their gorgeous new stadium in the most fitting way possible: with a 1-1 draw. They got a late equalizer via a Randall Leal PK after Mikael Uhre had gotten onto the end of a Daniel Gazdag long-ball and given the Union a lead midway through the second half.
The ‘Yotes have now drawn 29 of their 66 total MLS matches since coming into the league in 2020. Incredibly, they’ve now drawn 15 of their 28 home matches. I think it is a legitimate worry, and I think that if you’re a Nashville fan in search of reason to believe it’s going to get better at home, then Ake Loba’s turn – in which he made Jack Elliott touch grass – is at least some sort of sign that they might be about to get something from their record signing. I’ve banged the “they need more spark than Hany Mukhtar alone can give them!” drum a million times at this point, but now still feels like a good time to hammer it again: there is just zero magic in this team’s attack outside of Mukhtar. If they’re going to start turning some of those draws into wins, they need Loba to be more than just ornamental.
As for the Union, they did their typically excellent job of riding out the moments in which the game seemed to be getting away from them and then hitting like lightning once things tilted their way. You need a star goalkeeper to make that blueprint work, and Andre Blake was certainly that on the day.
The real star, though, was that stadium, the latest and biggest of MLS’s soccer-specific crop: