Daily Kickoff 2.15.23
What you need to know

Jersey Week kicks off

MLS clubs are beginning to unveil their new kits ahead of the 2023 season. Which ones are instant classics? Which ones are duds? Decide for yourself by checking out the designs here.

USA, Canada & Mexico will auto-qualify for 2026 FIFA World Cup

What was long suspected got confirmed by FIFA on Tuesday: the United States, Canada and Mexico will auto-qualify as co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup. The decision leaves Concacaf with three remaining qualification spots, leading to six regional representatives in the expanded 48-team field for the North American tournament. Historically, the men's World Cup contains 32 nations.

Driussi signs long-term extension with Austin FC

Austin FC have signed talisman Sebastián Driussi to a contract extension through the 2025 MLS season with an option for 2026. The Argentine midfielder enters his third Verde & Black season with 30 goals and 12 assists across 54 total MLS appearances. He’ll remain a Designated Player, originally arriving in July 2021 from Russian Premier League side Zenit St. Petersburg as Austin’s attacking centerpiece.

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Let's have an MLS nerd discussion about Sebastián Driussi's contract

Generally, we try to put up a big tent around here at The Daily Kickoff, the world’s first soccer newsletter to make an Apple executive question their decision-making (probably). There’s so much MLS going on all the time that if we tried to dig into the details of every piece of news, you and I would both start to feel a bit broken inside the first time we woke up in the middle of the night from a stress dream centered around Colorado’s supplemental roster spots. But every now and then I get the urge to really, really dig into something with things like “data” and “numbers” and “competent analysis.” Fair warning, I’m going to try and at least give you the first two today.

Because, for one, yesterday was pretty quiet. And second, Sebastian Driussi’s contract has everything an MLS nerd could want. You’ve got roster building, you’ve got overperformance compared to expected goals, and you’ve got a star attaching themselves to a market with a newly created yet passionate fan base for the foreseeable future. This is a perfect storm of altogether kind of pointless inside the grand tapestry of the universe, but is still a really fun debate that boils down to one question: Hey, uhhhhh, should Austin have done that?

Right quick, let’s talk about what Austin have actually done. Driussi was and is a Designated Player. That hasn’t changed after yesterday. When it comes to the $5.2 million worth of cap room Austin and every other MLS team has for 2023, Driussi is still taking up just $651k of it, regardless of what kind of bump he just got on his contract.

It is fair to wonder how big that bump actually is though. Per the MLSPA, Driussi made roughly $2,317,000 last year. If he’s suddenly making $10 million a year more, well, that’s a lot less distressing if you’re an LA team or a Toronto team or an Atlanta team. It doesn’t change anything with your cap and you have less reason to worry about your bank account. If you’re the team in the smallest media market in the league, you might be a bit more concerned about a few million dollars here and there.

That said, it’s unlikely we’re talking about a massive bump up to a Lorenzo Insigne-level contract and, even in the smallest market in the league, I highly doubt we’re talking about a club that’s too worried about a contract they feel confident in doing any damage to their bottom line or their ability to make transfers. Point being, if you’re worried about the cash, I would consider not being that.

However, that bump does make Driussi harder to move along. Austin are locked in pretty much no matter what now through 2025. They’re clearly confident he can continue to perform at a high level after contributing to 29 goals in 2022. But should they be?

We’ve mentioned this roughly 437 times, but Austin caught some breaks last year. Remember, “expected goals” is a statistic that essentially tells us how likely a shot is to turn into a goal based on the location it’s taken from. It’s not perfect, but it is very, very good at telling us how successful a team or player should be in the long run. No team outperformed their expected goals numbers quite like Austin did last year. If we lived in a world where the Verde & Black played to exactly the level of chances they created and allowed last season, they would have finished about 14 points below their final tally of 56. Instead of a second-place finish, they would have ended the year 10th in the West.

Now, obviously, that doesn’t change the fact Austin had an outstanding season where they created a ton of big chances, controlled games and generally played excellent soccer. Part of the reason they got lucky is just because they got lucky. The other part is they continually put themselves in position to catch a break or two in a way most other teams didn’t.

Driussi is the poster child for that luck. No player outperformed their expected goals more. Driussi finished the season with 22 goals. That’s a league-leading 7.61 goals higher than his expected goals tally. That’s the second-biggest overperformance since 2013, per American Soccer Analysis.

That’s cause for worry when it comes to locking in a player for additional years. The odds he outperforms the chances he finds like that again are very, very low. Basing a contract extension on the total number of goals Driussi scored last year wouldn’t be the best idea. But saying he overperformed and therefore the extension is bad doesn’t quite tell the full story.

To keep it simple, let’s say Driussi scored at the exact rate his expected goals numbers suggested. How many teams would have taken an attacking midfielder putting up 15 goals and seven assists last year? Or any of their DPs, for that matter? Twenty-two goal contributions would have put him as a top-10 player in the league last year. To keep it a little less simple, his 0.41 expected goals per 90 minutes put him in the 97th percentile among attacking midfielders and wingers last season. Basically, even if he hadn’t gotten an added boost from some luck, he still would have been one of the most effective players in MLS.

It’s probably fair to say he doesn’t offer more than most defensively and isn’t the kind of attacking player that will create a ton of chances. But that seems like a fair tradeoff for the goal-scoring output he’s capable of and the constant threat he poses. If Austin want to lock down that caliber of player for additional cash and no additional cap hit, it seems like a solid move.

Maybe most importantly though, they’ve locked down a star a relatively new fan base can rally behind. LAFC have Carlos Vela, Atlanta had Josef and Austin just got Driussi for the next few critical years of establishing the team as a permanent cultural force in the city. That makes this as good a decision as any.

Other Things

Orlando City sign defender Salim after SuperDraft selection: Orlando City SC have signed 2023 MLS SuperDraft selection Abdi Salim. The defender, picked No. 17 overall (first round) out of Syracuse University, has signed through the 2023 MLS season with club options from 2024-26.

Atlanta United's Paulo Neto wins 2023 eMLS League Series 2 title: Atlanta United’s Paulo Neto made it two eMLS League Series presented by Coca-Cola Zero Sugar titles in as many tries this year, winning his third straight trophy overall by capturing the 2023 eMLS League Series 2 to remain the competition's dominant force.

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