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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Union's slow start in three simple stats

There’s no two ways around it: The Philadelphia Union are off to a poor start to the 2015 season, the latest installment of which is a dour 1-0 loss in Chicago. The macro components of the Union’s malaise are easy to pinpoint – things like three games without goals, lax set-piece defending, two straight games with red cards, etc.
Sebastien Le Toux and his fellow Union attackers
are just not hitting the target with shots.
(Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)

Those larger-picture issues are important, but it doesn’t say what the Union can do better to fix them, necessarily. So using the bevy of data available through MLS’ partnership with OPTA Stats, let’s dig a little deeper into what constitutes the slow start. Here are three figures that capture it pretty well:

4 – Saves by Rais M’Bolhi on shots inside the box

The Algerian goalkeeper played in a little tournament you may have heard of last year in Brazil, leading the Fennec Foxes out of the group stage in a historic performance. And while that’s all wonderful, the numbers in MLS are less favorable. He’s 1-3-4 in eight matches with the Union (still too small of a sample size to make a firm determination) having allowed 10 goals on 25 shots on target. This season, M’Bolhi has made four saves on shots inside the box. Two were against Fabian Castillo in the FC Dallas game (while Castillo's best chance hit the crossbar). One was against Jordan Allen and RSL, and one was on Kennedy Igboananike with a smart kick save against Chicago.

For comparison, Houston’s Tyler Deric has made seven saves on shots inside the box this season. Clint Irwin, who hasn’t given up a goal yet for Colorado, has six, including four against the Union on opening night alone. And they make a heck of a lot less than M’Bolhi does. To bring it back to M’Bolhi, he stopped five shots by Germany from inside the box in the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 loss alone.

M’Bolhi isn’t playing poorly and certainly isn’t the biggest issue on this team. But it's about the larger picture. Instead of getting a veteran center back or a competent left back or defensive cover that had played in MLS before, the Union spent that money on M’Bolhi under the assumption that he could steal games for them in situations like, oh I don’t know, being down a man for a half. (Ahem, Irwin.) The spent all that money on him so that he could help the team take the next step in a way Zac MacMath couldn't for three seasons. So far, he's fallen far, far short of expectations.

28.9 – Percentage of Union shots on target

The Union have fired 45 shots this season, and only 13 are on target. That number is 16th out of 20 MLS teams, which isn’t great. The league leader (surprise, surprise) is Seattle at 48 percent. But it gets worse.
Shots vs. Shots on Target in MLS, 2015 (Data via

Fernando Aristeguieta leads MLS with 15 shots and is second with seven on target. That means if you subtract the Venezuelan’s steadfast contributions, the rest of the Union have a measly six shots on target in four matches. Take out Aristeguieta and the Union aren’t even averaging a shot on goal per half. Worse, their on-target percentage sans Aristeguieta (30 shots, six on target) is a paltry 20 percent, which would be the worst in MLS for a team. That’s a big reason why the Union’s second leading scorer this season is Jamison Olave.
At least the need to take shots, a fairly basic aspect of scoring, appears obvious to the Union.

“We just need to go back and do the simple things,” Andrew Wenger said Sunday. “Really, I am talking about myself right now. Just kind of simplify it and get the season going our way. We have to remember we still have good players on our team. Guys that need to find a way to simplify things and get back to what we are good at.”

8 – Successful crosses in four matches
There are precious few ways to enter the dangerous areas of the pitch, as this series from Philly Soccer Page’s Kevin Kinkead logs. And through four games, the Union haven’t displayed proficiency in any of them. They have six successful dribbles in the attacking third this season, only one of which (Zach Pfeffer vs. Dallas) has occurred in the box. The Union aren’t great on long-ball passes, and they are simply woeful on set pieces, which isn’t a new complaint. So that leaves short passes (which are tough to quantify, though Kevin does a good job) and crosses.

It turns out that the Union are pretty anemic there, too. The Union have only six successful open-play crosses this season. They’ve had only two successful set-piece crosses (both from Pfeffer against Dallas). They’ve attempted 78 crosses on the season, yielding a success rate of 10.3 percent that I have to think isn’t good.

Diagnosing the issues behind this paucity of success is complex. Are forwards making the wrong runs? Taylor Twellman pointed that out on several occasions during Sunday’s broadcast. Is the quality of the ball not there? In a lot of cases, yes, particularly when Sebastien Le Toux has been serving them up.

When you’re talking about crosses, though, the obvious accessory discussion is about fullback involvement, and the Chicago game showed that it was far too limited, as it has been most of the season. Fabinho and Ray Gaddis were rarely involved in the attacking buildup, often leaving the Union to send four players to attack a back four plus one or two Chicago midfielders. That numerical disadvantage was reflected in their lack of clear-cut chances.

Here are the maps of successful passes from the Union against Dallas (Sheanon Williams, then Fabinho, and Gaddis) and Chicago (Fabinho and Gaddis).

Union fullback passing charts vs. Dallas, left, and Chicago. (Via

It’s like there’s a wall up in the attacking third. Going through the entire season, Union fullback have only attempted three passes inside the opponents 18-yard-box, none of them successful.

Fullback involvement can be a complex discussion: Is it because opponents have possession that fullbacks can’t get forward? Is it concern about cover in the backline? Is it a lack of width from the midfield/forwards or understanding between defenders and attackers? Either way, improving it can help eradicate the Union’s final-third wastefulness.

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