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

Monday, August 10, 2015

Backed into a corner: The Union's set-piece struggles

There are plenty of areas in which the Philadelphia Union have proven substandard this season. But perhaps the most glaring, most thoroughly deficient area of their game is their execution on corner kicks, where the only substantial outcome for the Union this season is, well, generating this:

Alexi Lalas schtick aside, here are the pertinent figures: Since the start of the 2014 season, the Union rank second in MLS, having earned 348 corner kicks in 58 games, an average of exactly six per game. They led the league in 2014 with 211 corners and sit fourth this year with 137. (First since the start of 2014 is New England with 353.) Add in the bevy of Open Cup games – I account for all but the Rochester game, since those stats appear to exist only on the hand-written stat sheet provided postgame – and the total elevates to 411 – 265 last year, 146 this year.

In that time, the Union’s total number of goals produced off those corners is a whopping nine. Just 9.

Despite the addition of CJ Sapong's aerial threat this season,
the Union remain woeful on converting corner kicks. (AP)
If you can’t remember any offhand, that’s not a surprise, so let’s break them down.

In 2014, the Union scored three goals directly off corners (which I define as a ball played in from the corner and scored before the opposing team can clear it from the 18-yard box). Jack McInerney scored in the opener against Portland, Maurice Edu equalized late against Real Salt Lake and Sheanon Williams made this great run against Colorado. Twice, the Union scored on second balls (i.e., a corner cleared, then put immediately back in), with like Edu in the Open Cup against Harrisburg City and Andrew Wenger from a pinball off a couple of heads against Toronto. In addition, Edu drew a penalty kick on a corner against the Red Bulls in July.

This season, the return is even sparser. The Union have twice scored off corner kicks: The Jacob Peterson own goal in the April 5 shootout in Kansas City that gave rise to #SetPieceOrgy and courtesy of CJ Sapong June 6 against NYCFC. In addition, we can add one indirect goal, though it’s a stretch, with Edu jumping on the rebound of a Fabinho shot from outside the box after he corralled a corner clearance by Montreal June 27.

In total over the last year and a half, the Union have scored five goals directly off corners, meaning that 1.22 percent result directly in goals. If we widen the parameters to consider goals indirectly created – the nine referenced above – the hit rate is still a paltry 2.19 percent. With the Union averaging 5.7 corners per game this season (they’re on pace for 194 in MLS) and converting one of about every 48 corners into a goal, that means they can expect a goal off a corner once every eight or nine games.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of production. So let’s put it into perspective. (For this portion, we'll consider the direct number of 1.22 percent – five out of 411 corners – since that seems most in line with the way other analyses treat goals from “corner-kick situations”.)

One way to look, as this post highlights, is the goals scored off corners as a percentage of a team’s goal tally. The Union have scored 80 goals in MLS over the last season and a half, five directly from corner kicks. That’s 6.25 percent, which is lower than the lowest MLS average in the five years from 2005-10

There’s plenty of math on the subject, and a lot of it focuses on shots generated off corners and the value that they have, both in comparison to open-play chances and in absolute terms.

To boil it all down, as this Washington Post piece does, the prevailing estimate is that corners turn into goals about 3 percent of the time, positing that teams score once every 30 or so corners. (This two-part look at the English Premier League corroborates that conclusion. The average at the 2014 World Cup, meanwhile, was 4.45 percent (16 goals off 358 corners). Those numbers put the Union decidedly behind the pace, even if we widen the scope to include goals scored indirectly.

Or we could put it in real terms. Take Kansas City, for instance. Without delving too deeply into their season (or the fact that they possess two crossing mavens in Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber), we can glean that SKC scored its first and third goals off corners in that win over the Union back in April. Just this weekend against Toronto, SKC scored a goal off a free kick (different set-piece discussion, I’m aware) and drew a penalty off a corner. That's a comparable level of production as the Union off corner kicks considering just two games. 

It’s anecdotal, I know. But finding instances in which the Union positively impacted games on such situations are few and far between this season.

For all the numbers, there’s a qualitative temptation to see the Union’s lack of set-piece production as especially pronounced. They aren’t great with the ball – ranked by Who Scored as tied for 18th in possession and 17th in passing accuracy – and often bunker in to cover defensive inadequacies. They’re in the top five in MLS in crosses per game, an offensive tactic that shares obvious similarities with corner kicks. A stated goal in the offseason was to be better in the air, hence the arrival of three upgrades in that area in Sapong, Steven Vitoria and Fernando Aristeguieta. Yet still the struggles on corners continue.

In reality, a game like Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Orlando City could’ve been swayed by one moment on one of the Union's seven corner kicks, a moment a more efficient team could’ve seized. Instead, like so many others before it, the Union let it go by the wayside.

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