Analysis / Union

Are the Union where they belong?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: According to almost any metric you can find, yes, the Philadelphia Union are right where they belong.

After twelve games, the Union are 5-3-2 and squarely in the middle of a competitive Eastern Conference. For the most part, they have earned points against teams below them and dropped points against teams above them in the standings.

Though they currently find themselves in the playoff picture, is this Union team ready to compete over the long haul?

There for a reason

When we say the Union are right where they belong, the clearest indicator is how the team has done against teams that appear better than them compared to how Philly has performed against teams that appear worse than them. The Union have earned 0.25 points per game playing against teams that average more points per game than they do. What this really means is that Philly earned a point against Seattle and got nada out of matchups with KC, New York, and LA.

In contrast, the Union are averaging 1.88 points per game against teams that are worse than them in terms of PPG.

Jack attacks the weak

So it is no secret that Philly is in the playoff hunt because they beat up on teams beneath them in the standings. But those who watch the Union might say a more accurate statement is that teams below Philly have no answer for Jack McInerney.

Indeed, all eight of McInerney’s goals have come against teams earning fewer points per game than the Union. While this may seem a cause for concern, consider that the Union have scored in every match against teams above them in points per game. So while the better teams have been able to keep McInerney off the scoreboard, they have exposed themselves in other ways. If Philly is to become more than just an also-ran this season, they may want to focus less on getting other players involved offensively and more on shoring up a defense that seems overmatched by strong opponents (11 goals in 4 games against teams above them in PPG).

Should any of this be worrying?

No matter how you frame the 2013 season, it appears clear that the Union are in for a playoff fight. But fear not: There are some positive signals emerging from the team’s up-and-down start to the year.

If we extrapolate Philly’s performance over the first twelve games to the next twelve, we find the Union with approximately 34 points. This assumes that Philly continues to earn 0.25 points per game against teams with better PPG than them and 1.88 points per game against teams with lower PPG.

This total would be six fewer than Houston had after 24 games last season when they were the number five seed. But Houston regressed in the latter stages of the season, going from 1.66 PPG after 24 matches to 1.56 after 34. The Union are currently earning 1.5 points per game, a pace that, historically, would put them squarely in the playoff picture come October.

There are other indicators that the Union are in a good position heading into the hot, meaty portion of the schedule.

Columbus, the team most likely to pressure the Union for the final playoff spot, has played seven of their first eleven matches against teams below the sixth spot in the standings. The Crew have earned 1.85 points per game against those teams, meaning they have taken only two points from teams above them in the standings.

Crucially, Columbus plays eight (or nine if you assume Seattle will get there) of its final 13 games of the season against teams in the top half of the standings. The Union only play six top teams in that span.

Why are the final three months of the season so important?

The Gold Cup.

The Union will likely lose Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke for most of July. That means that they will only have their first eleven reassembled for the stretch run.

On the surface, it might appear less useful to have top players back for a stretch run against weaker opponents. But the reality of the Union’s situation is that they don’t need to take points off of teams like New York, Kansas City and Montreal.

The secret to making the playoffs is beating everyone else.

So when the Union play five top teams from late June through July without their top striker or their starting defense, its unlikely they will be dropping points they would not have dropped had those players been present. In fact, the Union’s biggest match during that stretch may be a July 12 home game against Chivas USA. It is a game that demands a winning scoreline, and it will have to be done without three of the team’s top players.

One final positive for the 2013 Union: Continuing at their current pace, they would have 34 points after 24 games. That is the exact same number of points the Union’s 2011 playoff team had at that time.

The Union clearly do not look like MLS Cup contenders, but they have found a formula for playoff contention. And that is a clear step forward from last year.

 

8 Comments

  1. JediLos117 says:

    Yes

  2. OK, so here’s what is sure to be an unpopular opinion, but just thinking out loud. Club before country.

    “So when the Union play five top teams from late June through July without their top striker or their starting defense, its unlikely they will be dropping points they would not have dropped had those players been present. In fact, the Union’s biggest match during that stretch may be a July 12 home game against Chivas USA. It is a game that demands a winning scoreline, and it will have to be done without three of the team’s top players.”

    Clubs pay the players. Fans buy tickets or online access to see their teams, and hopefully that team’s best players, do their best to win games. I certainly support US Soccer when they play, but I support Philadelphia Union at all times, win or lose. Winning is nicer, though. 🙂 The casual fans that MLS needs to hook are not going to understand why the players they want to see and are told are the stars of the team are suddenly not playing for weeks at a time due to international games. At the risk of Americanizing it a bit too much, that doesn’t occur in other sports.

    Please don’t misunderstand, I don’t know if there is an answer or compromise to this, or even if it’s a real issue. But if the Union drop winnable points because 3 or 4 core players are on US duty, I personally find that to be a bit of a shame.

    • Steve l. says:

      I will say this, I don’t think klinnsman will take both parke and Okugo at the same time, he would know how much that would hamstring a club and dispute what some peope would say he can’t be that dumb. He had a look at parke in the winter, I think he may pull in Okugo to get a look or parke to get more of a look, but I don’t think he’ll pull both at the same time. Of course this means I will be totally wrong. I think he’ll call in jack, but we have enough quality at forward to stay afloat for awhile without him.

  3. I think the U have a shot at the 5th playoff spot, mostly because no one below us is looking good. However, we need to watch out for Colombus definetly, and maybe New England.

    • Yea we are getting into the playoffs by defult. Unless we get one or two key injuries, then there will be trouble.

    • New England has been doing not so bad recently, i wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to get better with agudelo on board

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