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By the numbers: Why can't Austin FC win?

Austin FC continues to turn out large fan attendance despite a slew of losses. (Austin FC/Twitter)

As Austin FC's standings continue to plummet, so does their fans' confidence in the team's game plan.

In August, we asked fans on Twitter why some of them think Head Coach Josh Wolff should be ousted just a few months into his first season. Dozens of fans left (very lengthy) responses on various ends of the #WolffOut spectrum, but all came to a clear consensus: the new club's game plan is not working.

That lack of cohesion was made all too clear over the weekend. In what may have been the lowest blow yet for the stumbling first-year team, Austin gave up a point to last-place Houston Dynamo within the first minute of play in a 3-0 loss on Saturday.

Some of Austin's flaws seem to contradict Wolff's original game plan: a lack of intensity, unforced errors and a lack of confidence in the final third continue to beset the team. But sometimes the team's biggest issues are hard to see with the naked eye.

Los Nerdes Verdes, a team including Travis Greenfield and Erin Kubatzky that writes for Austin FC blog Capital City Soccer, seek to break down those long-running issues.

Los Nerdes Verdes (from left: Sal and Erin Kubatzky, Travis Greenfield and Kingsley Powers-Greenfield) seek to find answers to Austin's biggest triumphs and defeats through the numbers. (Los Nerdes Verdes)

Each week, the two find a dataset that stands out to them and create fun, engaging tables and graphs to break down the club's best-and worst-stats.

"Saggy in the Middle"

When Austin FC lost 5-3 to rivals FC Dallas and lost a lead in a 2-1 defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps, many fans pointed to the team's slow defense and errors from center backs Julio Cascante and Jhohan Romana, but the Nerdes found another culprit.

Austin FC is "Saggy in the Middle," the two said, ranking 24th and 27th of the MLS's 28 teams in tackles and pressure in the middle third of the field.

A few weeks earlier, the duo also found flaws in the middle: as of Aug. 14, Austin FC holds just 40% of their possession in midfield, ranking second to last in the league.

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law"

Wolff's "positional play" method—a complex style popular in European leagues—has yet to pay off, and neither has their tendency to hold possession. According to Greenfield, holding possession has a higher correlation to success in Europe, South America and other high-caliber leagues. But it doesn't hold much weight in MLS.

"A lot of people touted the way Josh Wolff wants to play as something that's going to be kind of revolutionary... and that's very possession-heavy style, soccer that hasn't been done successfully in the MLS too much," Greenfield said. "And the way that kind of manifests on itself on the field so far seems to be this willingness to hold on to the ball, play a lot of passes, but something that's not necessarily good for progressing forward."

Austin's inability to transfer possession into goals may come down to their passing, which is actually impressive at first glance. While the team is second in MLS for pass completion, they aren't as adept in passing up the field. That translates to big losses to teams like the Seattle Sounders that tend to hold off on possession.

A silver lining

Austin is an outlier in a few positive ways as well. In June, the Nerdes found that while Austin's expected goals against are high, the actual number of goals they give up are shockingly low. As of June 19, the team was expected to give up 2.16 goals per match, the second-most in the league, they actually rank 10th in keeping teams out of goal.

Greenfield said this comes down to two factors: the power of keeper Brad Stuver and the defense's shot-blocking prowess, though both have been less effective in recent weeks.

"In the story you tell about Austin FC this season, especially through the statistics, you have to mention Brad Stuver," Greenfield said. "It's this bend, don't break method where we allow them to come into the defensive third and try to clamp down."

While Greenfield admits that numbers reveal only part of the story, he's found Los Nerdes Verdes have united both seasoned soccer fans and newbies with their fun, Austin-centric content (see headlines like "Austin FC takes shots from Manchaca").

"There is a huge group of people who like to engage in soccer the same way that we do.. and it's just been really fun to try to bring those two types of fans together in a way," Greenfield said.


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