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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

What a difference a year makes: The perpetual slide of the Philadelphia Union

For John McCarthy and the Union, the last year hasn't been great. (AP)
On this weekend a year ago, the Philadelphia Union was flying high. They had just handled Sporting Kansas City, 2-0 at home. With a record of 11-9-7, their 40 points were situated third in the Eastern Conference, three points from leaders Toronto and soaring over the red line for playoff qualification.

The question had ceased to be if the Union would end a playoff drought or even if they would break the franchise record for points in a season; needing just eight points from seven games, the Union would certainly blast through the 48 points they tallied in 2011 with even mediocre form.

Then the roof caved in. Seven winless to end 2016. Ninety minutes being comprehensively outclassed in Toronto on a Wednesday night in a gone-before-you-knew-it playoff berth. Then eight winless to start 2017 at so great a disadvantage that now, officially, has been deemed insurmountable.

For all the oddities of the MLS calendar, the schedule makers offer the Union symmetry. Saturday’s visit from Atlanta United marks the 34th regular-season game since that night 364 days ago against SKC.

Through all the ups and downs, what has this 33-game snapshot of Union existence shown? In short, it’s not good.

In that 33-game stretch of regular season, starting with the Sept. 3 loss at Chicago, the Union are 8-17-8. That includes the 0-5-2 stretch to end 2016 and the 8-12-6 mark they’ve stumbled to this year.

That’s 32 points in 33 games. There’s no result the Union can achieve Saturday against Atlanta to avoid falling short of the franchise’s lowest tally for a season, set in 2012 at 36.

A win Saturday is required to avoid falling short of the season-low set in the expansion year, when the club played four fewer matches. A loss Saturday would equal the franchise record of 18 set in 2012, which remains in play for the Union this year. (N.B.: I’m comparing this stretch to full calendar seasons, from the Union and other clubs, via MLS' Fact and Record Book. Even I’m not that much of a masochist to parse each team’s worst 34-game stretch across seasons, even if the info was complete enough.)

The Union in the last 33 games have a points per game average of 0.97. The sub-1 realm is where the truly terrible MLS campaigns reside. How bad? Well, bad enough that no Union team has ever been there before – the 2012 team came closest at 1.06 over a calendar season – and the Union have had some atrocious seasons.

The league-wide comparison doesn’t flatter either. Since 2000, when MLS scrapped penalty-kick shootouts, only 26 teams have posted a PPG of less than 1 in a calendar year, 14 in 34-game seasons. The group isn’t illustrious:

- Four were expansion seasons: Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA in 2005, Toronto in 2007 and Vancouver in 2011.

- Four were by Toronto, long a basement dweller.

- Five were by Chivas USA, which no longer exists.

- Adding the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny, which posted the second-worst PPG season ever trailing only D.C. United in 2013, six are by defunct clubs.

Despite cutting across seasons, the Union’s 33 games are fairly representative of a balanced schedule. Saturday’s Atlanta game will make 17 home and 17 away contests. The Union played Portland twice in this sample with no games against Seattle; the Red Bulls and Montreal each featured four times.

Take this information and draw whatever conclusions you will. It’s obviously hard to paint this as anything but a step back for a franchise that made the playoffs last year. It’s also more enduring than an easily dismissed cold streak. And for a club very fond of talking about building, this prolonged ineptitude seems contrary to that message.

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