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

Monday, April 17, 2017

The striking difference between MLS's top teams and the Union

With four of Orlando City's six goals this season,
Cyle Larin is showing just how big an impact a star striker can have.
We’re a month and a half into the MLS season, which is long enough to draw some conclusions. One parallel should seem obvious, both for its prevalence in the standings and its utter depravation around Philadelphia.

The Union are last in MLS with a scant two points from six matches. They are the only team remaining in the league without a victory. Those myriad struggles have elicited finger-pointing and rationalizing in recent weeks, with blame doled out to the players (some more than others), the coach and higher rungs of the organization.

One thing seems abundantly clear: The Union roster as currently constructed seems to be talented enough to only get wins when everything goes correctly. Its margin of error is so razor-thin that bad bounces or even average performances from a multitude of players can’t be surmounted.

A potential reason for that is revealed by a glimpse at how successful teams are getting things done. Stack up the list of MLS’s top scorers next to the standings, and you’ll see the immutable conclusion that a star goal scorer can paper over many, many cracks in a side.

Causality here is difficult to determine – are the teams winning because their top forward is scoring, or is the forward scoring because he’s a cog in a winning team? Shoring up weaknesses at the pointy end of the attacking spear with one lights-out scorer is not necessarily a panacea, but it’s certainly one of the easiest avenues toward getting a team back to sustained competitiveness.

The list of contenders for surprise of the early season is lengthy, and all are in position due in some part to explosive strikers.

Portland leads the way in the Supporters Shield standings and has two scorers tied for second with five goals apiece – Diego Valeri (aided by two penalty kicks) and talismanic target man Fanendo Adi. The Western Conference’s biggest surprise is Houston, which sits fourth with a 3-2-1 mark. Powering its rise is the resurgence of Erick Torres, the early Golden Boot leader with six markers. (In the causality debate, Cubo’s contributions are difficult to overstate: The Dynamo have allowed as many goals as the Union, 11, tied for second-most in MLS.)

Sporting Kansas City is one of two unbeaten teams in MLS; it has used a surge from Dom Dwyer to turn the last two tight games from draws to wins.

Eastern Conference leader Columbus boasts a pair of four-goal scorers, with Justin Meram and forward Ola Kamara. Orlando City has scored just six goals as a team this season; four have been deposited by Cyle Larin. The Canadian forward has three game-winning goals, which would’ve been ninth-most in MLS all of last season.

Chicago’s rise to third in the East owes as much to the impact of Bastian Schweinsteiger as four goals by new arrival Nemanja Nikolic, who has hit the ground running. Ditto Josef Martinez in Atlanta, plus Kenwyne Jones is in the goals now, too. The Red Bulls have Bradley Wright-Phillips, and New York City FC has, well, you know…

Only FC Dallas seems to buck the trend with its balanced attack and the #TheYearofKellynAcosta.

Twelve players in MLS have four or more goals this season; only three – Minnesota’s Christian Ramirez, L.A.’s Romain Alessandrini and Salt Lake’s Yura Movsisyan – are on teams below the red line.

The conceit is how much this production costs. Exclude David Villa’s multimillion-dollar contract and most of these guys are on non-bank-breaking deals. (We don’t know what Nicolic or Martinez makes; I’d venture to guess the latter, on loan from Torino, is over a million, and Nicolic could well be, too.)

Adi and Wright-Phillips each make around $710,000 in guaranteed compensation per year, according to filings from the MLS Players Union last September. Valeri and Dwyer are in the $610k range. Torres checks in at $590k, Kamara at $457k. Movsisyan makes just over $200,000 a year. (Larin’s draft status makes his $177,000 an unrepresentative steal.)

Even if you factor in scheduled pay bumps for 2017, none of those is exorbitant. Plenty of speculation in recent weeks in Philadelphia has clustered on the roster makeup and how the Union spent the 2017 offseason. We don’t yet know the salary numbers on Haris Medunjanin, Giliano Wijnaldum and Jay Simpson, and those players still have time to become impactful members of the club. (Both Medunjanin and Simpson were signed using Targeted Allocation Money, if that tells us anything.) I’d be willing to bet the salary numbers sum to easily in the range of these impact strikers. Even those on the high range, like Martinez and Nicolic, probably draw numbers in line with what the Union are playing Alejandro Bedoya to be on pace for 34-game averages of two goals and zero assists.

Even without wading into the Union’s small-market status and the prickly debate it engenders, the Union are a club that isn’t getting the bang for its roster bucks. And the route to better capitalizing on could very well be a single, influential star up top.

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