Featured / MLS

The real reason the Union aren’t winning

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It’s time to accept that this is who Philadelphia Union are right now:

They’re good enough to beat bad teams, draw with mediocre teams, and lose to good ones.

The Union have won one game in the last two months and just two in the last three months. Their record since June 1: 2 wins, 4 losses and 8 draws. Their two wins came against two teams in the league’s bottom third in the standings, New England and Chivas USA. Their losses came to the last two MLS Cup champs (Real Salt Lake and Colorado), the Eastern Conference’s first place team (Columbus), and the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps. Only the last should come as a surprise. And they drew everyone else.

The opening season stretch that saw them go 6-3-2 wasn’t dramatically different. They beat the bad teams (Toronto, Vancouver, San Jose) and the teams that were struggling at the time (Houston, Chicago, New York). They lost to three good home teams (Los Angeles, Dallas, and Portland) on the road. They pulled off home draws against the team’s top two teams (Los Angeles, Seattle).

What changed? The schedule

The biggest change has been that their schedule got a whole lot tougher. Some teams they beat early in the season (Houston, Chicago) are improved. The only cupcakes they played the last three months were San Jose and New England, and the Union took four points from those two road games.

The reality is that this is what most expansion teams do in North American sports if they are on a positive course of development. They build a young team, with a core of a few good veteran leaders. They struggle the first season but show signs of life throughout it, tantalizing you with young talent too inexperienced to know how to win at the professional level. If they advance to the middle of the pack in season two, then it’s a terrific step. If they’re among the league’s top third of teams by their fourth season, the franchise is a massive success.

Some clubs exceed this, like baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and MLS’s Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders, all of whom had major success within their first few seasons.

Far more teams fall short, taking many years before winning teams finally emerge. (Examples: MLS’s Toronto FC, baseball’s Seattle Mariners, and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.)

Back to reality: The table doesn’t lie

The Union’s great start made many lose sight of this. Some dreamed of a conference title. Sports Illustrated didn’t follow the team closely enough and just looked at the standings when it named Peter Nowak mid-season coach of the year. For a brief while, it looked like the Union might just match the Sounders, the grand MLS success story.

Now that the Union’s record more appropriately matches their logical growth curve, it’s not time to panic. It’s time to right perceptions.

Carlos Ruiz’s departure didn’t cue this six-match winless streak anymore than Freddy Adu’s arrival did. The Jordan Harvey trade has had far more negative statistical impact. The Union have scored 1.25 goals per game with Ruiz on the roster and 1.2 without him. They’ve surrendered 0.94 goals per game with Harvey and 1.25 without him.

But the biggest impact was a tougher schedule. The table doesn’t lie (once you’ve played enough games, at least), and when it tells us the Union are a mid-tier team, it’s right. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s where a promising young team should be.

Now that they have a weak New England squad coming into town this week, let’s see if the Union stay true to form. If so, it should be a victory.


    • Sure, they show data that could theoretically show Ruiz changed the team defensively, but when trying to explain why, they say, “…given the numbers and stats available to us, it’s impossible to say.”

      Could it be that his games were against poor offensive teams? Seven of his 14 games were against then-bad teams (Hou, Van, SJ, Chi, Chivas, DC, NE) and 3 were against teams having trouble scoring (NY, Por, KC) at the time. I’m not saying the opposition is the full reason why. But it’s hard to argue it wasn’t a factor.

  1. Actually, we are called the Cam-olina Panthers now.

  2. tsmitty53071 says:

    Don’t think Harvey is the problem at all, although he was better than last year, I think the D as a whole has been slipping.

    And I’ll give you numbers post trade for Vancouver:
    Harvey has played 6 games w/ the whitecaps (been there for 7) GF: 1.16 GA: 2.33
    Other 20 games w/o Harvey:
    GF: 1 GA: 1.4

    So would we be worse now if Harvey stayed? IDK but it seems that Vancouver is, on the D side now.

  3. Interesting article. However, bad move with the picture. Shame on you for sending the wrong message regarding the fans.

  4. I feel like the author of this article was listening in on a conversation I had with my roommate the other day…if we had spent the entire season around where we are now in the table, I think most of us would have been incredibly happy with the team’s improvement from last year; but because we held first for so long, however, expectations weren’t managed properly.

  5. I am still pretty disappointed because I still believe we can do better. I still believe we should be doing better, and Nowak’s game day deficiencies is spiting us.
    Look at it like this: we had to suffer through weeks of out of form play from Mapp and Le Toux for a decent game from both of them. What does it mean for us? Now matter how awful they are for the rest of the season, we will be stuck with them.
    I think it’s impossible to underestimate what a lack of a consistent starting XI does for a team. How does anyone expect 90 minutes of consistent play when we have a different lineup/formation every week. Throw in questionable lineups (Mapp and not Daniels, Le Toux and not Marfan, Pauno/Naka and not Torres/Adu, and Garfan instead of a real LB), and our coaching staff is hurting this team.

    • Glad to see you back and great point about needing a consistant lineup…I do however believe that we are not capable of achieving more than what we have with the players we have currently.

      • I know, I am not saying we would be the best team in the league or even the best team in the East. All I mean is that we would 1) not lose games we clearly should win and 2) Even when we lose, we would look GOOD doing it. Not some half-broken, shell of an offense that looks like it was thrown together during the pregame (like it probably is!).
        We may not be a better team than we are showing, but we totally should LOOK like a better team than we are showing.

  6. re-calculate that average goals/game without Ruiz after you take out the 6 goal toronto game, which is obviously an outlier, and I’m sure you’ll see just how hurt by his absence we are. Yea, he wasn’t the hardest worker, but he got the job done, which we can’t really say about anybody else on the team.

  7. Soccerdad1150 says:

    Good stuff, Dan. I’ve been saying this all along…

  8. For nearly a year and a half I commented constantly about us needing to get rid of Harvey and bring in a better left back. I was supportive of the trade that sent Harvey to Vancouver, but I was expecting that the deal signaled the coming arrival of another, stronger LB. Instead we saw the LB spot filled by a an attacking midfielder. I can’t judge Michael Farfan harshly at all because he is perhaps the biggest victim in the whole situation. Nowak is taking a young, promising player and playing him out of position, which not only hurts the team, but must be causing Marfan to lose confidence in his own abilities as well. Thus, hurting his progression as a player. Nowak and Hackworth must see something in Michael that tells them he can play this position, but it is clear that he is not ready. If they want him as their future left back this is a bad way to go about it. Baptism by fire only causes a player to get burned.

    • Gabe, not Michael, though he has been played out of position as well.

      • My mistake. Keon Daniel played a game or two at left back as well if I am not mistaken. Regardless of which young midfielder Nowak is putting at LB the issue remains the same. Didn’t Tait(sp?) say via twitter that he would be signing today? Any word or rustling from the Kremlin yet?

  9. Does anyone know why Marfan started at leftback instead of Garfan last game?

    • Andrew Desiderio says:

      chalk it up to another mysterious personnel decision that never gets explained

      • Yeah, you would think the journalists who have access to Nowak would have asked about that. I haven’t seen anything but I definitely could have missed it.

    • Marfan started over Garfan, because Nowak liked the way Marfan looked in practice that week. From what I understand Marfan would much rather play at midfield. The team is in a slump right now, mainly because the team is tired, its getting late in the season, they need some wins to re-motivate them.

  10. Great post, and one I agree with.

    I get the sense that a lot of Union fans don’t really have an appreciation of how good the rest of the league is, or how hard it is to go from an expansion team to competing for trophies. The idea that the Union should be better than they are now is sort of unreasonable–it obscures just how impressive the past two years have been.

    This is a team that is going to make the playoffs, that’s never been out of a game, and that has only lost one game at home. I think Union fans need to acknowledge how impressive that really is, and recognize that it takes a long time to build a champion (look at RSL’s climb to dominance).

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