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

Monday, May 1, 2017

We're going streaking: Diving into the Union's interminable winless run

Saturday's draw for Alejandro Bedoya, right, and the Union
to Joao Pedro's L.A. Galaxy makes it 16 straight games without a win
for the club. (AP)
I made an attempt in Monday’s paper to hit whatever passes as positives with regard to the moribund 2017 Union season, and the dredging left me slightly spent. So in the constant drive for content and the absence of any positives on the team side, figured I’d steer into the skid as it grabs headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

There’s ambiguity in the numbers that bothered me that I needed to get to the bottom of: I tweeted two weeks ago about the Union’s historical standing in the annals of MLS winless streak history. Those numbers weren’t cut and dry since I remained unsure if they factored in playoff games officially, since teams on historic winless streaks shouldn’t be making the playoffs, as I understand that concept. But the Union broke the mold with their slide last year somehow not precluding playoff positioning.

That led to a deeper dive to add texture and context to the teams the Union are chasing (read: praying to avoid). I was unsurprised – and you may be, too – to find a strong correlation between lengthy winless streaks and both missing the playoffs and low finishes in the standings. (You know, correlation vs. causation but in this case, just no.) By necessity this season, the Union have clung to the notion that they’re just one win away from a sea change in results like an ideological lifesaver. The truth is that there’s very, very little historical context to back that assertion, though the Union are bucking other trends.

Here’s the list of the eight most barren streaks in MLS history, annotated by the seasonal breakdown of those games and the team’s record in the streak. You’ll note that each winless gamut has bridged seasons.

Colorado Rapids, 18 games (July 30, 2014-April 4, 2015 – 14 to end season, 4 to start), 0-13-5
Real Salt Lake, 18 games (Aug. 10, 2005-May 6, 2006 – 12 to end season, 6 to start), 0-16-2
San Jose, 16 games (Aug. 8, 2014-March 7, 2015 – 15 to end season, 1 to start), 0-9-7
UNION, 16 games (Sept. 3, 2016-present – 7 to end season, 1 playoff game, 8 to start), 0-10-6
Chivas USA, 15 games (Aug. 12, 2012-March 2, 2013 – 14 to end season, 1 to start), 0-11-4
D.C. United, 15 games (Aug. 10, 2013-March 29, 2014 – 12 to end season, 3 to start), 0-11-4
Real Salt Lake, 15 games (Sept. 23, 2006-June 17, 2007 – 4 to end season, 11 to start), 0-6-9
Toronto FC, 15 games (July 28, 2012-March 2, 2013 – 14 to end season, 1 to start), 0-11-4

Quick accounting note: For weeks, I’ve excluded the Union’s playoff loss from the streak or added it with a caveat, unsure if the other streaks were just regular-season matches while similarly ignoring playoff contests. Since the Union are the only member of this ignominious octet with a playoff loss, I’m factoring it in now.

In a class of their own

Let’s take the glass-bottomed boat tour of MLS futility. One team appears twice: Real Salt Lake. You’ll note they were in their second season of existence in 2005, then had a similarly arid run a year later. Chivas USA’s streak was at the other end of its being, the next-to-last season where the writing of impending doom was on the wall for the Goats.

From the hopeful department, of the 14 seasons blighted by the non-Union streaks, only one has resulted in a playoff appearance, which didn’t occur during the streak: D.C. United’s worst-to-first turnaround from 2013 to 2014 transformed them to Eastern Conference champs, though their run of travails in 2014 was arrested at three games. It’s not much hope, but it’s some precedent.

One other factor that differentiates the Union’s slide is that it’s the only one not featuring at least 10 winless games on either side of the offseason break (yet). The Union have evenly divided the frustration at eight games in each 2016 and 2017. That should be concerning – each of the other seven teams quarantined their debacle to one disastrous, go-get-em-next-year season. Six of the seven ended the season on double-digit streaks, playing out the string or hanging on for high draft picks. (D.C., you’ll recall, did win the U.S. Open Cup final in the midst of its nosedive.) The contagion of the Union’s losing ways could speak to a larger, more systemic rot.

Misery loves company

We should take a moment to consider the Union’s illustriously inglorious neighbors, who are a who’s who of MLS basement dwelling. RSL in 2005-06 lost 16 times in 18 games, which is hard to do. From 2005-07, it finished in the bottom two of a 12-team MLS. Colorado didn’t finish better than 17th in MLS in its two-year slide, and San Jose at least pulled out of the tailspin that was the dying days of the Goonies era to finish 13th in MLS in 2015.

Chivas’ struggles, finishing 9th in the West and 18th in MLS both seasons, were well-documented, as was D.C. United’s standard for MLS failure in 2013. And that 2012 team was historically bad – you’ll remember that it started the season on a nine-game losing (not winless, losing) streak that it ended May 26 against the Union, costing Peter Nowak his job, then embarked on a 14-game winless streak. That’s a lot of terribleness to fit into one season.

I should finish this on a positive note, if one can be detected. Two of the streaks – Colorado and Chivas – ended their streak against FC Dallas, though the Union don’t play Dallas until Aug. 5 (the streak would get to 30 games if it improbably persisted that long). Of the other seven streaks, four ended at home, while three managed a road breakthrough. There’s an Any Given Day lesson in there, but it’s ringing hollower and hollower with every passing week.

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