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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The bad news in the Union's playoff chase

After Saturday’s surprising (and surprisingly efficient) 1-0 win at Montreal, I decided to wait a few days to levy the less uplifting news that the MLS standings had to offer for the buoyant spirits of Philadelphia Union fans. Certainly after the emancipation of the Union from the specter of Rais M’Bolhi’s continued presence Monday, no one wanted a dousing of cold, logical water.

But the truth remains fairly bleak for the Union. For weeks, the Union haven’t sustained enough success to consider it important where other teams stood. But now that they have the chance of parlaying their Montreal win into a mini-streak when New England comes to town this weekend, it’s worth getting the standings to fess up their secrets.

First, the good news: After weeks of stagnation, the Union have created daylight between themselves and Chicago in the basement of the Eastern Conference. The Union’s 27 points are just one behind a crowd of three teams – Montreal, New York City and Orlando City. NYCFC is going nowhere quickly with its aged and perpetually strained midfield, and Orlando is in freefall with one win and 24 goals allowed in its last eight games, usurping the Union’s long-secure place as MLS’ leakiest team.

Here’s how the league stands this week:

Source: MLS Soccer.

So, all that good news is mitigated by one single nugget of negativity: The Impact, which occupy the sixth and final playoff berth, have four games in hand on the Union. If we even out their games-played total, the Impact’s points-per-game average yields 33 points, six ahead of the Union.

There are more problems for the Union in the playoff chase. The middle of the Eastern table isn’t setting the world on fire. But the Union are far behind even by those standards.

First, let’s look directly at the Impact, since they’re the most realistic target at the moment. Montreal owns a 1.27 ppg average. For the Union to reach that mark, they’d have to tally 43 points after 34 games. That requires taking 16 points over the last eight games, call it 5-2-1. That’s possible, if unlikely, especially with a U.S. Open Cup final taking precedence.

Then there’s the historical perspective: Since 2010, when MLS expanded to 16 teams (with eight making the playoffs), no team has finished sixth place or better in their conference with a points-per-game tally as low as the Union.

(Note: San Jose is represented as the sixth-place team in the West due to a higher ppg than Seattle.)

This graphic isn’t exactly uplifting for Montreal, either. The average ppg to earn sixth over the last five seasons is 1.34, putting it behind the pace. Over the last three years, as expansion has increased, it’s been more like 1.4. New England, for its summer struggles, are pretty secure at 1.36 given the cushion beneath. Ditto for Toronto, shocking as this may be to hear in certain areas, at 1.42.

So what’s it all mean? It’s tough to draw concrete conclusions given the small sample size and the constant fluctuation in conference sizes. But two things are relatively secure given the Union’s current predicament: 1) If the Union hope to make the playoffs, they require a torrid finish to the season; 2) They could use significant help, courtesy of a stumble or two from the clubs currently in playoff position.

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