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Conference Finals on Sunday

LAFC host Austin FC at 3 pm ET on ABC and ESPN3 (Spanish broadcast). Then Philadelphia welcomes NYCFC to Subaru Park at 8 pm ET on FS1 and FOX Deportes. You can learn more here.

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Is Austin the worst conference finalist of all time?


Well, glad we could clear that up. I’ll be honest, I just wanted to ride the wave here. I’ve seen a lot of “Doubting Austin” talk lately and no one can actually seem to point to anything besides a bunch of preseason predictions everyone openly admits are lacking a hilarious amount of foresight and context. Because in MLS, the only smart prediction is every prediction will be wrong.

That being said, I think the preseason predictions are a great framework for assessing just how remarkable Austin’s season has been. Yeah, no one is confident in their preseason predictions. But they’re not based on nothing. I mean, I had Austin 12th because…well, I mean they finished 12th last year, the West added Nashville and Austin added good but not team-changing MLS journeymen from free agency like Ethan Finlay, Maxi Urruti and Felipe Martins while losing underperforming DPs (but still DPs) Tomas Pochettino and Cecilio Dominguez.

As it turns out, Finlay, Urruti and Felipe were all outstanding this year and losing Pochettino and Dominguez didn’t matter one bit. Longtime MLS vet Diego Fagundez put together what might be the best season of his 12-year career. Dani Pereira took a step forward and helped solidify things in midfield. And Sebastian Driussi took a Hany Mukhtar-esque leap forward. To be fair to me though, I did kind of see that one coming.

Back in January, I picked out some players who might, essentially, “Do a Hany.” Driussi made the list.

“Not that Driussi necessarily played poorly. In fact, five goals and five assists over 1,379 minutes put him nearly even on output with Mukhtar’s Year 1. What really gets him on this list is that Austin FC as a whole should be primed for a Year 2 bump.

Progress isn’t linear and players and teams don’t always increasingly get better over time. However, we can point to Atlanta United, LAFC and Nashville as recent examples of the success Year 2 can bring for an expansion team. The Verde & Black didn’t match the on-field success of those teams in Year 1, but they had a tactical identity and underperformed their underlying numbers by a significant amount. They couldn’t even accidentally score for large chunks of the year, but Driussi’s midseason addition helped with that some.

If Austin can improve with Driussi as a focal point of the attack and fellow Year 2 player Moussa Djitte occupying defenders at striker, then the 25-year-old Argentine could have a big year.”

The “Austin could get a big year two bump” take wasn’t a hot one at the time. I think everyone recognized the work Josh Wolff had done in creating a tactical identity and that they weren’t far away from executing it. But when it came time to put a number to it, it was impossible to just assume it would all click from the jump this year.

However, I know when I mentioned a jump in Year 2 for Austin, I envisioned something on the verge of a home playoff spot if some things broke the right way. What they’ve accomplished is clearly far beyond that. And now we know from the eye test they’re clearly one of the best teams in the league. What makes that fascinating though, is their biggest doubters aren’t people. Their biggest doubters are numbers.

Like I said from the start, I’m not here to seriously consider this team is the worst conference finalist ever. I’ve watched this team play. But a decent argument can be made through underlying numbers Austin might at least be the worst group to make the conference final since 2013.

Per American Soccer Analysis, Austin have the second lowest expected goal differential of any conference finalist since 2013. Last year’s Portland team is the only team lower. Per ASA, Austin had the second lowest goals added differential of any conference finalist since 2013, ahead of only 2016 Seattle, who went on and won MLS Cup anyway.

It’s not that those numbers are useless. They’re still great frameworks for understanding which teams are generally succeeding at the things that win games. In fact, the underlying numbers suggested four teams were performing at a level higher than the average MLS Cup winner coming into the playoffs: LAFC, Philadelphia, NYCFC and CF Montréal. Austin are the clear outlier here.

That’s what’s outstanding about this league though. The setup means everything is decided on the margins. It’s part of why home-field advantage is bigger here than any other league in the world. So when a team puts together a clear ethos game after game—a tough task for 90% of the league—they can catch a few breaks and create plenty of their own luck. Austin have accomplished that on a major scale. Maybe more than any team we’ve seen in a long time. That’s not a criticism, that’s a cause for celebration.

Because Austin have made it further than any number or anyone suggested they would. Except for, of course, Austin itself. In the end, it’s odd this is being positioned as a story of doubt. This is a story of belief.

In MLS, that might just be enough to win the league.

Other Things

Olsen, Perez reportedly interview for Houston Dynamo coaching job: Houston Dynamo FC have conducted an in-person interview with Ben Olsen for their head coaching job, sources confirm to MLSsoccer.com. The Dynamo have also interviewed El Salvador national team manager Hugo Perez, per sources. The Athletic's Sam Stejskal and Pablo Maurer first reported Olsen's interview. They also reported Olsen and the Dynamo are "engaged in discussions" that are "far along."

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