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

Monday, September 26, 2016

The daunting dozen: The Union's harrowing late-season history

This late season stumble by Andre Blake and the Union
at the hands of Montreal's Matteo Mancosu has become the norm
for the club in recent years. (AP)
There’s an exclusive club that the Philadelphia Union belong to, one they’d love to graduate from, one whose membership dues are being paid again this fall in accordance with a familiar and dispiriting pattern.

In MLS history, two clubs have never won more than 12 games in a season. One is Orlando City, which won 12 games in its inaugural season of 2015 and guaranteed in Saturday night’s drubbing by D.C. United that it will miss the mark for another year, sitting at seven wins with four matches to play.

The other is the Union, and the odds of the club escaping that miasma even in this resurgent season are getting slimmer with every passing non-win, even if Saturday's 1-1 draw in Toronto is objectively a positive result.

The Union’s season-best for wins ominously endures at 12, set not in the playoff season of 2011 but in 2013, when the Union accumulated 46 points yet finished seventh in the East (they could end up fourth this year and in the playoffs with fewer points, but that’s another story).

Looking at wins historically in MLS is fraught, given past practices like the shootout and vacillating schedule lengths. But if we narrow the scope to the parity-riddled expansion era of 34-game schedules since 2011, the Union’s lack of wins still resonates. Minus Orlando City and the Union, the other 18 extant MLS teams have not only won at least 13 games in a season at least once; they’ve all done so within the last four seasons. The longest such drought, beyond the Union, is Chicago and Colorado, each of whom won 14 games in 2013 and have struggled since.

That means 16 clubs have authored a better season in the last three years – including this in-progress campaign – than the Union ever have. (And by the way, MLS’s three extinct franchises – Miami, Tampa Bay and Chivas – all have at least one season of 13 wins or more.)

That may seem like piling on an undistinguished Union resume that needs no tarnishing. Edmund Burke never wrote about soccer, but the pertinence of this look back isn’t just trivial measurements. It’s the troubling trend it illustrates: The Union, as we’re seeing now, are atrocious at finishing seasons.

Sometimes, the forces driving a low win total are benign. In 2011, for instance, the Union won 11 games but drew 15 times, gleaning valuable points in a season where a preponderance of draws drove down the threshold for playoff qualification. They still tallied a franchise-best 48 points. (It’s worth noting that the Union are bucking the trend of rampant parity this season, with an Eastern Conference-low nine draws.)

The inability to soar past 12 wins is alarming. In 2011, they were flying high, in first place with eight wins by mid-July and three and a half months left. They then embarked on an eight-game winless streak and finished the season winning just three of their last 15, or 17 if you include the playoff cameo. 

Eerily, 2012 played out the same way … you know, after Peter Nowak was fired and the John Hackworth bump furnished five wins in eight. That gave the Union seven victories by July 29, only slightly behind the 2011 pace. The response? An eight-game winless streak, and just three wins in their last 15. Can’t make this stuff up.

The halcyon days of the Conor Casey era carried the 2013 Union to 10 wins by Aug. 10. They imploded, winless in the next five and victorious in three of 12 to end the string. The 2014 gamut culminated with one win in seven, five of which came at home. And last season is shrouded in the Open Cup hangover, but it actually propelled the Union to an uncharacteristically strong – yet ultimately fruitless – finish with four wins in nine.

This could all become a footnote in the previous chapters of the Union’s existence, written by people summarily dismissed from the club, if it wasn’t echoing into the future. The Union recorded its eighth win this season July 9; it appeared to be a matter not of if but how far they would surmount that 12-win standard.

In 12 games since, they’ve won three times and are in the midst of a four-game winless run (0-2-2). With three games left, the haunting specter of the three-wins-in-15 finish remains improbably in play, though even that probably can’t keep the Union from the playoffs.

Before the season, being in this position as September winds down was the stated objective of the Union’s new regime. But the goalposts have been moved by the Union’s early-season achievement, and accruing late-season momentum in the pursuit of a postseason run – not merely a token, one-and-done appearance – is the refined objective.

As with everything else the Union have done this year, achieving that new goal requires upending a lot of bad history.

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