Analysis / Union

Philadelphia’s tactical pragmatism equals points

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Soccer fans are pretty finicky, and I’m no different.

I’ll lament play when it strays from the majestic styles regularly displayed on our TV screens. We have been quite spoiled watching tiki-taka develop over the last several years. You could even point to Bayern Munich’s skillful play that took down Barcelona’s beautiful style earlier this year as another evolution of attractive football.

When it comes to Philadelphia Union, the play on the pitch has led many (including myself) to complain via Twitter and other realms.

But while the numbers show that things are a little bit ugly on the field, John Hackworth probably deserves a bit of a break. Because in the league table, the results are showing.

Stats confirm pragmatism

We’ve heard Coach Hackworth talk about wanting to play a better style, more along the deck, and all of that stuff. Then we’ve all put our noses up to the slightly polluted air surrounding PPL Park and said to ourselves, “Uh, this doesn’t pass the smell test.” No, that’s not the smell of the burnt sulfur from the refinery. Rather, the play on the field isn’t quite as attractive as advertised in Hackworth’s comments.

The stats tend to agree:

Union Stats 2013 v2

2013 Philadelphia Union offensive stats

The passing stats indicate that, yes, the Union are less fluid on the road. They:

  • Attempt nearly 63 fewer passes per game on the road than at home. (That would be even more drastic if not for the Vancouver  match in which the Union played for 80+ minutes a man up).
  • Complete nearly 50 fewer passes per game on the road, a 15 percent decline from home games.
  • Complete 1.25 percent less of their passes on the road.

As possession in soccer usually involves being accurate with your distribution, that’s a lot of possession and attacking potency being conceded.

At home, even a 73 percent completion percentage seems low. The home team is usually expected to dictate play.

While my compilation of passing stats is more rudimentary, official stats provided at WhoScored.Com unfold a slightly different story (because Opta’s official statistics remove completed crosses from passes). The Union are 13th out of 19 in passing accuracy, but actually improve to 10th in the league on the road.

One other interesting tidbit from WhoScored –  the difference between Philadelphia’s home and road tactic isn’t as stark as some of their rivals. The Red Bulls lead the league in home passing accuracy, but drop below the Union to 12th on the road. Kansas City ranks 3rd at home but 15th on the road. Pragmatism isn’t just a Philly thing.

The numbers that matter

What matters most at this point in a long soccer season is points earned. A team wants to put itself into that top 5, and Philadelphia is there right now in the midst of the hunt.

The Union have done that in part with dramatic  improvement on the road. Yes, the club’s points per game rate at home has improved from 1.35 in 2012 to 1.69 in 2013, but the difference on the road is even more significant: 0.76 ppg in 2012 to 1.33 in 2013. The team still has 5 road matches remaining, and they have already surpassed their 2012 road win total and are drawing at a better clip.

Sure, the Union have benefited from a number of opposing team ejections. That certainly makes earning points easier.

But the numbers are consistent with a Union team playing more cautiously on the road. The hole that develops between Carroll/Daniel and Casey/McInerney lends itself to a lot of spotty passing days — especially when Danny Cruz and Sebastien Le Toux have the tendency to look to get involved on the front of the attack, rather than checking back to give the central midfielders options.

The other thing about pragmatism: It’s a solid playoff tactic. Dominic Kinnear has built a coaching career off riding an organized game plan to success. Even Los Angeles seem more dangerous on the counter than when they enjoy lots of possession. Sporting Kansas City are also a team that knows how to play some D.

Pragmatism equals wins

Whether you are enthused about the on-field product’s aesthetics or not, Hackworth has constructed this team towards returning to the MLS Cup Playoffs. There are some extenuating circumstances in the construction, among them a DP salary that is currently showing no benefit to the product on the pitch and a Roger Torres saga that clearly isn’t changing any time soon.

These tactical decisions are based on fielding the XI that Hackworth feels gives him the best chance to win. The table gives a view that these decisions are working. Saturday’s draw at Red Bull Arena may have had an air of luck to it given New York’s dominance in the match but, as Chelsea FC proved in 2012 (and many other teams—including some in MLS—before them), pragmatism can yield results.

As long as the results continue to come, fans will have a tough time selling a need to return to a more eloquent style of soccer on the pitch.


  1. Jim Presti says: is a great resource. Loads of stats and analysis. You can really dig in deep if used in conjunction with OPTA.

  2. Nice post, Earl. I can’t believe all the flak that Hack is catching. The team is clearly, dramatically outperforming expectations. Typically, a coach gets a lot of credit when that happens, but not in Philly – we love to hate! His signings have been good given the obvious financial restraints ownership is imposing. The “DP” problem was just a solution to a bigger “Adu” problem, and is likely to be off the books next year. While I love Roger’s style of play, it definitely doesn’t fit with our current system, and we have to be honest, he is a defensive liability. Here’s hoping that McInerney can get on the board and steal a couple more points for us down the stretch so we can make the playoffs and everybody can enjoy a big serving of humble pie.

  3. I enjoyed the read. For the most part, I think our soccer is ugly because our play is ugly, not because our tactics are ugly. We lack quality players on the field in a few positions, in my opinion. I don’t say that as a complaint, just an explanation for our unattractive brand of play.

  4. Southside Johnny says:

    Have to agree with Juest. Pretty soccer doesn’t happen without at least somewhat skilled, creative midfielders. I don’t know why we don’t accept reality and just play with 6 defenders and 4 forwards. It couldn’t look too much different.

    • The Chopper says:

      That is essentially what we are doing. John Hackworth looks at his roster and says this is what gives us the best chance of earning a result. Using a lineup that lacks any offenive midfield presence. We are 25 games into a 34 game season. His team has taken points in 18 of those 25 matches. Based on what this team was last season, it is pretty darn impressive. In most places that gets you nominated for coach of the year. In Philly it gets fans calling for your head because you play an I attractive style and Roger Torres doesn’t play.

  5. Here is the thing… soccer is not about statistics. Here baseball, football, etc… statistics are adored. Not soccer. In Europe they don’t even count assists. So, what I see is a team that’s playing crap. No need to know how many incomplete passess they had while walking backwards and suffering from a slight cold. They need to play the game instead of butchering it. Which is exactly what they are doing.

    • Southside Johnny says:

      Yes, IL, that is the thing and while crap soccer becomes systematized and embraced as a tactic, skilled players like Torres and others sit and watch. Young players trying to develop and go to the next level are stifled and ignored. McInerney gets a call up and plunges into quality play at pace, learns all he can and comes back with a somewhat different approach which, of course, doesn’t play here. But hey, we might make the playoffs where in a world of imposed mediocrity (oops, parity) we might win a couple of ugly games. BFD

      • Don’t blame parity for the empty bucket. Every team plays by the same roster rules and not every team does this. Also I can’t imagine reducing parity would increase the level of play; it would just mean a handful teams dominating which would mean very boring seasons

      • I don’t necessarily agree. There are five (5!) playoff slots in each division there would be more than enough playoff slots for teams to fight to get in.
        Not that it matters either because recent history has shown us that those handful of teams usually get their shit together and end up winning the cup anyway. It can be argued that opposed to most other sports playoffs create less interesting soccer because the more powerful teams know they can dick around during the regular season turn it on in the playoffs and make a serious run for the cup.

      • Southside Johnny says:

        Of course you are right. I’m just venting. It just sucks to have to settle for this approach to claw our way into the playoffs with so much strength in the back and up top. I’m just not satisfied with having to bunker and claw our way into the playoffs. It isn’t helping the team or individual players develop. It just takes some heat off the FO.

  6. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    Fair points, and I think we should give Hack more of a break than we normally do, but my biggest problem isn’t even with the “ugly soccer.” Ugly soccer is more of a symptom than the problem. Lack of possession is more of a symptom than the problem.
    When we look at the stats and Philly’s objectively good season (points wise), it belies the fact that we have also given up a lot of winnable points because of our shambolic midfield and oftentimes mediocre wing play.
    What is frustrating is that the Union could have a team that could realistically contend for the supporters shield if we had a midfield to match our forward corps and backline.
    Depressingly, I think this has mostly to do with Keon’s underwhelming play this year. Caroll I can live with; he’s a pure no 6 and often does his job well. As Geoff Cameron showed in his pairing with MB90, having a pure no 6 can do wonders for the attack. Even Cruz I can somewhat stomach; he’s not as valuable as Hack thinks he is, but he does tire out the opposing backline and is the only player to provide pure wing play.
    Ultimately, Keon is the one who is really dragging the whole team down. He’s forcing Carroll to provide link up play without adequately covering for him defensively, with the expected results. Imagine just how much more service our forwards would get if we had a proper attack-minded midfielder like Mix Diskerud on his slot.
    I’ve made peace with the fact that Kleberson is unlikely to see any real minutes before the end of the season. But that doesn’t mean Keon is the solution. I like the guy, and he’s done good things for the team in the past, but he is bringing us down right now and that is a fact.

    • Southside Johnny says:

      I have liked Carroll since he started in this league, but he isn’t helping this team. He’s still very good at man marking, but that’s about it. He participates in the chaos and negative synergy in the midfield by passively reacting to what goes on around him. I never see him even attempt to correct his misguided wingers or central partners. He just tries to fill the spaces himself or come to their rescue. He’s basically more of an enabler than a leader and absolutely no help in the attack. Dmids are key in initiating the counter and he consistently cannot see or execute those passes. And Cruz? OK…I’m done. I hate myself for getting so negative, but WTF…

    • Agreed, re: Supporters Shield. I think if the Union fix the Daniel/Cruz spots, they’re one of the league’s best teams. I think the back line and forwards are that good. If Michael Farfan could step up like we think/hope he can, this is a championship contender.

      • idunnoaboutthat…..

      • I agree with you Dan and the numbers don’t lie. The fact is we are where we are because our defense and offense are both usually really sharp. What we are missing is a just a little bit more quality in the form of a more present midfield. I don’t think it is overly optimistic to say that if we had that all season we would be in the top 2 (or 3) in points per game.


        There is a total of FIVE points separating the top 10 teams. Why not us?

        So let’s redefine the expectation. The U are making the playoffs. If you’re happy with that, well you can just skip on to the winter transfer market, nothing to see here.

        If you’re not quite satisfied, and realize that while the U are not the most talented team (despite our rose colored outlook), and they don’t play what anyone, anywhere (outside of Stoke,England), would describe as attractive soccer. They are in a position to grab one of the 3 remaining spots for CONCACAF Champions League (2 MLS Cup finalists & SS winner). The challenge is looking at our PPG, we’re 9th out of that top 10.

        That, would be cool.

    • “mostly to do with Keon…”
      Here’s a fact: We are earning 1.87 PPG when Keon starts, 1.00 PPG when he doesn’t. Clearly it’s not all his fault.

    • McMohansky says:

      You make good points, and I completely agree about easing up on the coach.
      I disagree with Daniel being the reason we are not better than we are. It is Farfan. Daniel is who he is. He is doing the job asked of him. I don’t enjoy watching him play for 90 minutes, but that’s a different issue.
      If Farfan were more consistently effective he would be starting over Daniel. It is he who is preventing this team from reaching the levels it can this year. I like Farfan’s game and want him to succeed with this team. He has been more effective lately coming off the bench, hopefully he keeps it up and can perform that way in the starting role, if given the chance.

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