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Oppo Research: 5 Things about Austin FC

Phil West of Verde All Day tells us about Austin's struggling offense, Brad Stuver's excellent season, and explains the myth of The Groin Demon.

Gyasi Zardes has scored plenty of MLS goals, but none so far in 2024. Photo:

In this edition of Oppo Research, Hudson River Blue spoke with Phil West of Verde All Day to learn more about Austin FC, New York City FC's opponent on Saturday night. Here is your NYCFC vs Austin preview.

Austin FC at a Glance

• League Form: L-W-D-L-L

• Record: 7W, 6D, 8L | 27 points, 10th place

• Scoring Leader: Jader Obrian and Sebastián Driussi, 5 goals

• Assist Leader: Alex Ring, 3 assists

1. The Groin Demon

Hudson River Blue: Two years ago, Austin finished second in the Western Conference but lost in the Conference Finals against LAFC. Since then, Austin failed to make the playoffs last season and currently sits in 10th place, just outside of a playoff spot. What changed since that historic 2022 season, and what needs to change going forward for Austin to return to that level of success?

Phil West: It boils down to two key factors in 2023: Diego Fagundez wasn't nearly as effective as he was in '22 in unlocking Sebastián Driussi's full potential before getting traded for Memo Rodriguez and bags of GAM in the summer, and then Verde got hit with a bunch of injuries leading to the team using eight different center backs in a pretty nightmarish season. (So many of them were groin injuries that fans created mythology around something called The Groin Demon to explain it.) At the end of 2023, Verde jettisoned a lot of players, and in May, had to expunge underperforming designated player Emi Rigoni on the cusp of an auto-trigger in his contract (courtesy of former NYCFC and Austin FC sporting director Claudio Reyna) allowing his 2025 option and its $2 million of payment to kick in if he made a 12th appearance.

So, the roster's been running purposefully lean while new sporting director Rodolfo Borrell works on the rebuild. He's got three good ones already signed for the summer transfer window — designated player Osman Bukari, fullback Mikkel Desler, and center-back Oleksandr Svatok, but they're not able to play until July 20. So, on the bright side, you drew Verde on the lean side of the transfer window, unlike Charlotte who comes to town in two weeks. Until then, and until Borrell gets to swap out additional roster pieces at the end of this season, what Austin's got going for it is grit and heart, especially at home, where it's currently an OVEN outside.

2. Offensive struggles

HRB: Austin has struggled offensively this season, averaging 1.1 goals per match, which is tied for the fewest in MLS. With talented attackers such as Sebastián Driussi and Diego Rubio, who have combined for nine goals and two assists, what’s holding them back from reaching their full potential?

PW: Oh, that's the big mystery! Much of the struggling's been on the road, where they tend to play more conservatively, but they've gotten off less than three shots on goal a match in 13 of 21 matches so far. I've been crunching league-wide numbers on how Verde compares to other teams in games with offensive paucity, and it's bad.

What's worse in the very short term: Rubio, who hasn't shown as much consistency as we'd all hoped for after a solid start, is out this match on yellow-card suspension, in part because of a mass confrontation incident in the most recent loss (a bad loss at that) against Sporting Kansas City. We've asked Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff about it. He says it boils down to execution. But the striker position has been the sole domain of Rubio and Gyasi Zardes this season. Zardes has yet to score in 2024. Clearly, the No. 9 position is still an overall weakness for the team.

Sebastián Driussi's outstanding 25-goal 2022 season

3. Brad Stuver is loved by the Austin faithful

HRB: On the other hand, former NYCFC goalkeeper Brad Stuver is doing an excellent job in Austin. So far this year, he kept six clean sheets and saved 72.2% of shots to come his way. How has Stuver treated the Austin faithful, and how has Austin’s defense benefited because of him?

PW: I wrote about how Matt Freese and Brad Stuver should be on this year's All-Star team. They're similar in that there were sub-level expectations for them before they won their respective starting jobs and then just kept elevating their games. Stuver, like Freese, has great Post-Shot Expected Goals Minus Goals Allowed numbers, and that's good because that's my favorite goalkeeper measure of all.

In addition to the work he does in goal, he's a great humanitarian (working with a lot of charities and getting some ESPN Espy nominations to boot), he's incredibly analytical and erudite about the game, and he's got a lot of captain-y qualities. We love him. (When you hear what sounds like a "booooo" on your broadcast after a Stuver save, it's grateful home fans saying, "Stuuuuuuu.")

4. The X-Factor: Gyasi Zardes

HRB: What's the X-factor that could decide this game?

PW: How long Zardes lasts in this match. If he can give a full 90 or close to it and do Inscrutable Zardes Things or even, you know, score, it could be a good night for Verde. If he has to sub out, we have an idea of what Josh Wolff will do sub-wise, and it's not optimal.

5. Predicted score, Starting XI

HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI? Final score?

PW: This feels like a fluky 1-1 draw to me.