We’re one game away from being halfway through the 2023 MLS season and things are, to be blunt, not going that well for Austin FC. The team sits 8th place in the Western Conference standings, was bounced out of the U.S. Open Cup at home, and maybe most embarrassingly, took an early exit in the CONCACAF Champions League to a little-known Violette side. These results have led the #WolffOut movement to become louder amongst part of the fanbase and have ignited a vigorous debate about the merits of keeping him.
Many people who are less inclined to move on the from the current head coach will point to injuries, being a 3rd year club, turnover at the Sporting Director position, and last season’s Conference Final run as reasons to keep him in Austin. And those are all valid points. Context matters when making decisions.
But I’m here to tell you, I’m a data guy. Give me the information in black and white. So, let’s take all of the emotion out of what should be a business decision: #WolffIn or #WolffOut.
Josh Wolff has coached 92 games as the head man for Austin FC. The match breakdown is:
|MLS Regular Season||84||31||38||15|
|U.S. Open Cup||3||1||2||0|
The overall numbers are not great. Wolff is averaging 1.28 points per game in league play. To be fair, that number is dragged down significantly by the expansion 2021 season which was impacted by a COVID era roster build and eight straight road games to start the year. Wolff’s points per game by year so far look like the model of inconsistency, though this year’s club is by far the closest to his overall average.
2021 – 0.91 PPG
2022 – 1.64 PPG
2023 – 1.19 PPG
What’s especially interesting about the outlier 2022 season is that 51 of the 56 total points secured during the season were after just 27 matches. That 27th match is an important one:
Over the final seven regular season games following that match, Austin earned just five points and scored a total of 6 goals. Four of those seven matches were against teams that missed the 2022 playoffs. In fact, since that LAFC match, Austin’s record is worse than mediocre across 23 matches:
|MLS Regular Season||23||6||11||6|
That equates to 24 points in 23 matches, or 1.04 PPG.
When just looking at the 2023 season, Verde have played 9 matches against teams above the expanded playoff line and seven games versus teams below.
|vs Teams Above||9||3||4||2|
|vs Teams Below||7||2||3||2|
This is where the alarm bells ring, as Austin has dropped 13 points this year against teams that are currently on the outside of the playoffs. Just turning those two draws against teams outside of the playoffs into wins would equate to Austin sitting in a comfortable tie for 4th place in the West. What compounds this even more is that Austin was playing its worst soccer before Diego Fagundez and Sebastian Driussi were sidelined with injuries. Austin was winless in four tries prior to Diego’s injury, a streak that extended to winless in six games before Driussi was also side-lined, which in my view hurts the argument that much of this team’s woes comes from missing key offensive pieces. The fact of the matter is that over the last 23 regular season MLS matches, including the final seven last year with a fully healthy squad, the team has underperformed, with the offensive production being particularly to blame.
The Goals, or Lack Thereof
There’s a number that #WolffOut advocates continue to come back to, pointing out a trend that is seemingly not changing for the better. Since that fateful match on August 26, 2022 against LAFC, Austin FC has played 30 matches in all competitions. The team has scored 30 goals, or an average of one per game. That is the same pace of scoring provided by the 2021 expansion season. Here’s a chart showing ATX’s scoring output over this game stretch.
|# of Goals Scored||# of Times Accomplished|
|4 or more||0|
Yes, you are reading that chart correctly. Austin has been shut out 11 times in the last 30 matches. Since we’re willing to give a pass to year one, it’s important to note that the Verde were shut out just twice all season in the 28 games though the LAFC match.
The lack of production seems to be from the lack of creating shots. Austin is in the bottom half of the league in total goals, shots, and shots on target. Why is that? I believe the answer lies in the passing numbers.
Austin have 5,695 accurate passes so far this year. 3,311, or 58%, of them have been in the back zone. How does that compare with teams in the top eight teams in MLS?
|Team||# of Completed Passes||# of Back Zone Passes||Back Zone Percentage of all Passes||Goals Per Game|
|St. Louis CITY||3,738||1,802||48%||2.13|
|New England Revolution||5,808||3,049||52%||1.56|
You’ll notice that the top four scoring teams in this chart all have less than half of their completed passes in the back zone. Spend more time passing forward in MLS = scoring more goals. Makes sense, right? Last year, Austin’s back zone passing rate was 53.7%, meaning the Verde & Black are spending more time on the ball in their own end this year than last.
What if I told you that the “Austin has had too many injuries to the back line” narrative is overrated? Would you believe that the team’s goals against per game is almost identical this season to 2022 in MLS play?
|Season||# of Goals Conceded||Goals Against Per Game|
|Season||# of Shots Against||Shots Against Per Game|
This is where the #WolffIn argument fails the most for me, because it is in many ways predicated on excusing bad injury luck this year while forgetting that Austin was very fortunate last year with a minimal number of injuries throughout the season. The facts show that despite losing Julio Cascante in the first 10 minutes of the year and moving Alex Ring to center-back out of necessity, Austin’s defensive output has remained largely the same.
Everything about this team’s performance has trended downward since that Friday August evening. Some will argue that the club made the Western Conference Finals and that has to count for something, but I would counter that without a fortunate hand-ball in stoppage time, Austin was going home in round one despite being up a man for more than 30 minutes. And it’s beyond clear that the dramatic drop-off has been due to the attack and not the defense.
Maybe not coincidentally, that 30 game run marks the beginning of Emiliano Rigoni’s presence on-field for Austin FC. Did his signing mess up the chemistry of a team that was clicking on all cylinders prior to his arrival? Possibly. But I would also argue that’s on the head coach for not recognizing the effect said player may or may not be having on the overall system, especially when that coach is supposed to be one focused on a possession-based, high scoring offensive philosophy.
The numbers are clear.