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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Union's 2017 fade in two theories

Putting the shortcomings of the 2017 Union into context,
it's a complex task. (DFM/Mikey Reeves)
Often the conversation surrounding the Philadelphia Union, particularly among members of the media contingent striving to make sense of the how and why of another playoff-free season, devolves into a declaration of, ‘they’re just not good enough.’

The standings can tell you that, for sure, but that’s unsatisfactory for the scientific part of my brain. And particularly given the last week, where the Union have squandered four points in stoppage time to resolve the mystery of if there’s a last gasp of intrigue remaining, the questions seem more salient.

So if I may, I’ll offer two explanations, one qualitative, one quantitative.

The “too much effort” explanation

This issue reared its ugly head way back in April when Portland came to town: The talent gulf between the Union and most opponents is vast. In terms of pure talent to start the season, I would’ve pegged the Union between eight- and 10th-best in the Eastern Conference. After the summer shopping, and the Union’s lack thereof, drop them a spot or two.

When you’re always at a collective disadvantage, you’re always playing catchup. Since John Hackworth was in charge, the prevailing mantra has always been that the Union can play with anyone. And that’s true, though in a parity-driven league, every MLS team is designed to be able to compete with anyone.

But when you expound so much effort trying to work back to level talent terms, you get these coin-flip games. The Union spend so much energy trying to stay within a goal of Montreal two weeks ago, then a pin prick pops the balloon and the release is a 3-0 loss. They work so hard against San Jose, then the late penalty kick deflates them. The talent gulf deprives them of ever starting at a position of power, which magnifies mistakes and lumps pressure on a young core.

Manager Jim Curtin is correct in saying that the Toronto loss last week is one of the few times they’ve been outclassed. But the Union are so often edged by small margins in a system of discreet point yields that it’s unsustainable over the span of a season. It doesn’t matter that their performance in San Jose was objectively worthy of two points; they get one or three, and the late mistake decided that.

That entails an inescapable conclusion that Curtin now owns but that has been obvious since March.

“I think we do recognize that a difference maker is something we need to add and increase,” Curtin said Wednesday in his off-week press conference. “We have a good group that creates enough chances in most games. We have to finish chances and do a good job of preventing them at the end of games.”

That game of catchup in the squad – of important depth ballast without that big over-the-top player – is mirrored in the way the results happen.

“Just not good enough” in numbers

Here’s a cleaner, numerical explanation:

Stats compiled from

These numbers are collected from MLS boxscores as provided by Opta Stats. Specifically, look at the shaded boxes for passing information.

The Union have played 27 games. They’ve won the possession battle just five times. In eight, they’ve completed passes at a higher accuracy than the opponent. There’s three games in which they bested opponents in both categories – the 2-1 loss to D.C. United April 1, the 2-1 win over Colorado May 20 (the Rapids were down to 10 men), and the 3-0 win over Columbus July 26 (the Crew finished with nine).

Here come the caveats: Possession is an imperfect metric of soccer competence. (See: City, Leicester in 2016.) You can control the ball and do nothing with it. You can string together passes in the defensive half at a high rate and, well, who cares? It’s possible to claim 30 percent possession and win; the Union were three minutes and one fluky Tyrone Mears goal from that last week (31.6 percent, a season-low).

But generally speaking, if you don’t have the ball and you don’t excel in connecting passes, that’s not a good thing.

Let’s zoom out for the macro view. Per, the Union are 17th in MLS with 47.2 percent possession this year. They rank 19th in MLS in passing success (76.0). (For what it’s worth, the Opta numbers sum to a slightly lower possession figure at 46.1; I’m unsure of methodology differences.)

These metrics guarantee nothing. The Red Bulls, for instance, are 20th in MLS in pass completion. But like the aforementioned Leicester City, Jesse Marsch predicates success on high pressure that turns opponents over in dangerous areas, requiring fewer passes to create scoring chances. Add Sacha Kljestan, an elite MLS playmaker, and the Red Bulls make the most from relatively few passes.

But by and large, the ability to keep the ball and connect passes correlates with success. Of the pass success rankings, the first team in the hierarchy not in playoff standing is Minnesota United, the Union’s next opponent, in 10th. On possession, only two teams outside of playoff positioning are among the 12 earning 50 percent or greater.

Let’s posit two polar opposites: Minnesota has a decent amount of possession (50.4), which would seem to be good. But given their error-prone defense, most of it is when they’re chasing games, which doesn’t lead to wins. The Red Bulls, at the other end of the spectrum, have a strategy that supplants the centrality of possession to success.

The Union, over the long-term, haven’t shown the ability to have either, a conversation which ventures toward the ephemeral commodity of “identity”. They won the possession battle in 17 of 34 regular season games, Curtin redoubling his “we want to be a team that possesses the ball” mantra. They were 4-9-4 in those games.

There’s no magic bullet here, no secret threshold that triggers an automatic win if you hit them. That’s just now how soccer works. But what the Union are doing in this area, it’s not working either.

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