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

Monday, May 16, 2016

How the Union have improved from last season in four stats

On many fronts this season, Keegan Rosenberry, right,
and the Union are markedly better than last year's bunch. (AP)
Believe it or not, the Philadelphia Union are a third of the way through the MLS season. By the time the league breaks for Copa America in just two weeks, we’ll essentially be halfway home on the 34-game season.

As such, the time for talking about starts to the season is near its end. The targets of what teams are and what they aspire to be have a little more time to resolve into one distinct point. But the cost of the weeks spent in that quest for self-discovery are compounding with each turn of the schedule.

It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about most teams, and the league’s playoff structure doesn’t require teams with championship ambitions to perform at their peaks in May. Even for the Union’s bright 10-game salvo, christening Jim Curtin’s team as anything more concrete than encouraging is problematic.

What we can say with absolute certainty is this: The Union of 2015 (and 2014, and 2013…) were afflicted by myriad problems. The 2016 team has made demonstrable progress on many of those fronts. In a number of categories, the Union have been vastly improved from failed seasons past.

Here are four areas in which the Union are proving this season to be different:

‘Keeping things steady

So once or twice in the past, some people on the Internet may have poked a little fun at the Union’s goalkeeping situation. In their defense, it’s only because the Union have consistently produced such ineptitude at the position that it does boggle the mind.

As long as Andre Blake is healthy, though, the goalkeeping ghosts remain silent. Blake has gotten plenty of attention this season, for the quality of his saves and his potential at Copa America with Jamaica. He’s on the path to being an elite goalkeeper, and it won’t be long before a club in Europe comes calling for the 25-year-old.

What’s important for now, according to the Union’s past, is that Blake is providing better goalkeeping than the Union has ever gotten.

For starters, Blake’s 33 saves already constitutes the sixth-best total in a season in Union history. And he’s had only 10 games:

Player, Season GP Saves GAA Sv % CS
Zac MacMath, 2013 34 101 1.29 68.7 12
Zac MacMath, 2012 32 93 1.34 66.9 8
Zac MacMath, 2014 29 77 1.55 61.6 5
Chris Seitz, 2010 23 68 1.86 59.6 0
Faryd Mondragon, 2011 27 49 1.04 62.0 7
Andre Blake, 2016 10 33 1.10 75.0 2

Obviously, Blake requires time to catch his predecessors in most of those categories. But with the exception of Faryd Mondragon in 2011, Blake has the lowest goals-against average. He’s also way above anyone else in save percentage. Some of those metrics are independent of Blake as a goalie (for instance, Blake has little control over how many and how dangerous of shots he faces). But he’s doing a job within the confines of a team structure, and that’s leading to results.

Two’s company

The Union have allowed 11 goals in 10 matches, tying them with Toronto for the lowest total in the Eastern Conference and second-lowest in MLS. That’s a healthy number since, as Curtin referenced last week, his team is in any game where they allow one goal or fewer.

And that’s precisely what they’ve done: The Union have a streak of 11 games dating to last season of allowing two or fewer goals.

Generally speaking, it’s obviously beneficial to prevent the opponent from scoring. But these numbers require context. In 2014, for instance, the Union didn’t allow more than two goals in a game for the first 12 matches, averaging 1.25 per game. That early stinginess didn’t portend success on balance for the season. In 2015, they conceded 1.8 per game over the first 10.

In 2011, the Union’s first and still only playoff appearance was backstopped by holding opponents to two of fewer goals in each of the first 26 games.

So why might the early goal parsimony be particularly vital this season? Look at 2014: The Union went 12 games without allowing an opponent a goal-figure greater than two. Then New England came to PPL Park and hung five. Within a month, John Hackworth was fired.

Tranquillo Barnetta alluded to the fact Saturday in Montreal that the team didn’t collapse around the early goal as in past years. So keeping opponents under two goals – whether it’s a rampant Dallas in the opener or a menacing Galaxy midweek – allows the Union’s self-belief to keep flourishing.

A self-possessed ideology

Not to invoke the name of Hackworth again, but there was a time when a Union manager decreed that passing and possession to be the way of the future, and the players he assembled tactically scoffed at him one misplaced pass at a time. There, skepticism that the Union could unlock the secret to fulfill that ball-keeping edict found its logical roots.

But Curtin’s reinvention and the players he’s deployed have made good on the training-ground emphasis.

Last season, per Opta Stats, the Union won the possession battle seven times in MLS games. They were 2-4-1 in those games (seven points).

In 10 games this season, the Union have been on the right side of possession six times (Dallas, Orlando, Seattle, San Jose, L.A. and Montreal). They’re just 1-2-3 in those games (six points), illustrating some of the fallacy of taking the numbers as gospel truth.

However, there are other meaningful figures here. Last season, the Union’s possession bottomed out at 32.4 percent (in the Sporting KC debacle, aka the Raymond Lee Incident, aka the final nail in Rais M’Bolhi’s coffin. Good times!) On 10 other occasions, the Union earned less than 40 percent.

This season, the Union’s worst game was the home win over New York City, when they owned 35.1 percent of the ball. The three other games on the wrong side of the midpoint have resided in the 40s.

Possession is an extremely imperfect metric as a determinant of team success (ask Leicester City). But what the Union’s figures say is this: They may not be winning games directly as a result of having the ball, but unlike last season, they’re not letting teams steamroll them off the pitch and deprive them any ability to generate attacking momentum. Even if they’re not winning because of their time on the ball, they are no longer losing because they’ve been denied the ball.

True to formation

In 10 games, Curtin has repeated the same formation on three occasions. He started the same 11 players against New England March 20 as against Chicago April 2. He named an identical lineup April 23 against NYC and Wednesday against the Galaxy. And the group Curtin penciled in Saturday in Montreal matched a week earlier against San Jose.

In 2015, Curtin cobbled together the same starting lineup a grand total of once: Three days apart for Columbus and New York City in early June. That includes Open Cup games.

Even if you just consider the field players, separate from the carousel of four goalies, Curtin used 36 distinct combinations in 39 games.

Curtin only deserves so much credit for this, much the same as he only deserved a certain amount of blame last season for the spate of injuries and suspensions. But stability is something the Union prized in the offseason. So the investment in sports science to more closely monitor players’ efforts in training likely correlates with the diminished incident of soft-tissue injuries. The regimentation of a two-deep depth chart standardizes roles and reduces the flip-flopping (Ray Gaddis as left or right outside back, specifying footedness of central defenders, the floating conundrum of Cristian Maidana, the wing or central dilemma with CJ Sapong, etc.) that contributed to last season’s incessant changes. And all those relationships that have been allowed to prosper certainly bring benefits on the field.

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