Analysis / Union

The statement game

Photo: Paul Rudderow

That’s what you call a statement game.

Philadelphia Union pulled off a huge win Friday to get back in the playoff hunt, and they did it the same way they have all year.

The ugly way.

The calls for Roger Torres and Kleberson are wastes of time.

John Hackworth’s team has won games all season thanks to a solid back line, lethal counterattack, and hard-nosed play. Nothing is changing. And they might actually make the playoffs this way.

It isn’t pretty, but it worked.

An underrated back line

The Union owe their win in part to one of the league’s most underrated back lines.

Here is a bizarre pair of stats:

  • No team has given up more goals this season from the 61st through 75th minutes than the Union, whose 15 goals are the league’s worst. (Chicago is next with 11.)
  • No team has surrendered fewer goals during the rest of each game than the Union with 24.

Why do the Union have the league’s best defense at all times other than this 15-minute stretch of games? What’s going on during minutes 61-75? Is it letdown? Loss of concentration? Do the midfielders fall off defensively once fatigue hits around the 60th minute? Or is this when the opposing team’s halftime adjustments finally gain fluidity and knock down the Union?

You decide. (Share in the Comments section.)

Either way, it didn’t happen Friday.

Weathering Kansas City’s assault from the wings

The Union back line weathered an absolute assault from the wings. Graham Zusi, Jacob Peterson and Chance Myers completed 12 of 25 crosses. (The rest of KC was 1 for 10.) That resulted in 11 shots: 8 went off target, 3 toward goal, and the Union blocked two and left the third for Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath to save.

Did the Union benefit from epically bad finishing from Dom Dwyer, who failed to put a single one of his seven shots on frame, including six headers from inside the penalty spot? Definitely.

But the Union also benefited from a back line that, according to NBC, has set a record for most games played with the same unit. Chemistry helps. When Kansas City repeatedly exploited the defensive gaps left by the Union’s starting wingers (particularly Fabinho) doing their best impressions of a revolving door, the Union defenders rushed to fill them and pressure the shots that came.

Amobi Okugo played a stellar game defensively. Ray Gaddis had to clean up Fabinho’s defensive messes and did a fairly good job of it (15 defensive touches*). Jeff Parke didn’t put in his best shift, but he was generally solid. Sheanon Williams showed once again why he is one of the league’s most underrated players, turning in a solid defensive performance and nearly creating a second Union goal with a perfect cross that Michael Farfan put on goal.

And of course, there was MacMath coming up huge with perhaps his most impressive day in a Philadelphia uniform. Good goalkeepers win games for their team. MacMath just won one.

Soccer is a game of opportunities. Either you miss them or you hit them. Kansas City missed them, and Philadelphia nailed them.

Breaking down the playoff race

The Union are suddenly back in the driver’s seat for the fifth playoff spot. Here are the standings for the four teams competing for that spot.

TeamPointsRemaining gamesTiebreaker 1: Total winsTiebreaker 2: Goals forTiebreaker 3: Goal diff.
New England41411428

New England may be the best team of the four, and Columbus might be the hottest (winners of 4 of their last 5 matches), but Philadelphia has the most favorable schedule. Of their final four games, two are at home, and two are against the conference’s worst teams in Toronto and D.C. United.

New England and Chicago each play three of their final four games on the road. (Chicago also has two games against Toronto and D.C., however.) Columbus has only three games left.

PhiladelphiaNew EnglandChicagoColumbusHouston
Toronto@ New York@ DCKansas CityMontreal
@ DC@ Montreal@ Dallas@ New EnglandKansas City
@ MontrealColumbusTorontoNew EnglandNew York
Kansas City@ Columbus@ New York@ DC

(Montreal and Houston sit in 3rd and 4th place with 46 and 44 points respectively. Montreal has 5 games left, and Houston plays 3 of its final 4 at home. Barring total collapses – which are possible, but not probable — both should make the postseason.)

If the Union can beat Toronto and United and take one point from their final two games against Montreal and Kansas City, they should make the playoffs.

Random Union observations
  • Michael Farfan played his best game in a long time. Opta Stats (via ranked his performance the Union’s second best, behind only MacMath. He nearly scored twice.
  • The performances of Cruz and Fabinho ranked as the Union’s worst. Cruz had one terrific moment. The rest of the game, both were invisible.
  • Ray Gaddis is one of the league’s most aggressive (or targeted*) one-on-one defenders. He ranks third among MLS defenders in total tackles (81). He ranks first among defenders in most times dribbled past (34).
  • Sebastien Le Toux had more defensive touches (8) in 32 minutes (plus stoppage time) than Fabinho (4) did in 90 and Danny Cruz (7) did in 58. That’s what Le Toux does for a team when he’s not creating goals: He hustles and plays defense.
  • Saturday’s home game against Toronto is a must-win for the Union. It’s also a trap game. The Union have underestimated Toronto before. The Reds are coming in on a high after smoking D.C. 4-1. If the Union crap the bed this weekend, the win over Kansas City means nothing.

* defensive touch = tackles, blocked shots, interceptions, clearances, recoveries


  1. So what was the statement exactly?

  2. That was a win, but certainly not a convincing one. Give me a dominant performance at home and I’ll be happy.

    By the way, Gaddis is either the most aggressive or the most targeted.

  3. I don’t consider “1 out of every 10 games this strategy will actually work” wins as statement games.
    Unless that statement is, welcome your 2014-2016 RW Danny Cruz to the team!

  4. Of course it wasn’t a convincing one, but c’mon, you’re playing against a superior team, on the road, in the middle of an epic scoring slump because your two star forwards are suddenly on life support. This is exactly the kind of victory — or draw — Hackworth was hoping for. You gotta give the team at least a little credit for it. Especially coming off a really disappointing home loss, over which they had two weeks to stew. This team is nothing if not resilient. And Zac & the Back were outstanding.

    Very alarming to me is the fact that KC dominated the midfield despite playing with only 3 middies to our 5. But it’s not like that somehow negates the value of the victory.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    I’m confused. A lot of these commenters gave the U no shot against KC. They pull off an ugly win against one of the best teams in MLS… in a place that not only they have never won, but most of other teams don’t either.
    Yet almost everyone is complaining about how ugly or lucky we were. Be happy and excited people. If the U would have shit the bed against KC these last few games would have meant nothing. We have meaningful soccer in October. It’s a welcome change from last years debacle.
    Hack isn’t off the hook and they need a good performance Saturday to validate the win at KC but the mood here seems to be in the toilet.

  6. I think the goal differential during minutes 61-75 is tactical. I could be wrong, but it seems like in games that we are trailing, this is a period of time when we start to push numbers forward and get countered on. In games that we’re up, we tend to sit back in this period and try to absorb way to much of the opposition. The reason why we’ve been good in the final minutes is because opposition teams commit the same error in bunkering down defensively while we pour in a million crosses. I don’t know for sure, but this is one of the best questions that should be posed to the coaching staff. Whatever the reason, it is probably very important for the team to understand that statistic.

    • Also, Danny Cruz always comes out right around the 60th. That couldn’t have anything to do with the goal differential. Could it?

      • That’s actually very interesting. The colorful stat guys I believe show Cruz as one of the highest +/- ratings.

  7. Why can’t people understand that while I am thrilled we won and never expected it… I also can see how badly we played, with a few exceptions?

  8. We can’t forget that Toronto has nothing to lose. Chris Albright was on Preston and Steve’s morning show the other day and brought a good point: the Toronto players are going to be trying to prove themselves to their coaching staff. I think we can expect ball hogging, risky play, etc. Remember, these guys are fighting for their spots on the 2014 roster. If the U-boys can simply play as a team, with actual postseason hopes, I think we’ll grab 3 pts from the guys trying to play “look at me” soccer.

    Just my 2c.

  9. Everyone has to lighten up a bit. They’re not world beaters, and the coach makes mind boggling decisions, but they won in a really tough place playing really ugly and now hopefully give us a great (albeit ugly) run for the next few weeks. Like the article stated, forget about kleberson and Torres. Dan, when this season is over you have to find a way to interview Kleberson. He clearly won’t be on the team and we deserve to know what truly went down. Please, please, please!

    • I’d love to. Unfortunately, my Portuguese can get me basic things, but it can’t get me through an interview. Either way, I think it’s pretty straightforward. Kleberson got a pay day. The Union got Freddy Adu off their books. I really think it’s as straightforward as that.

      Sure, Hackworth probably hoped he could get something out of Kleberson, and certainly, Kleberson looked good enough in flashes that I definitely wanted to see more. But he was also soft, and it’s not clear he played any D, and I think that’s what killed him. If he was making $150k instead of $500k, Hack probably would have given him more time because of the possibility he’d be back next year. But Kleberson isn’t coming back. No chance.

      • Got ya. Agreed he was “soft”, even brittle, I wonder he if took a beating in practice and the coaches were like “no way”. Some say MLS is tougher, others say not true. Thanks!

    • Hey I was totally prepared to just write this game off as a sloppily played game gritted out with a positive result and leave it be. Then people started throwing around terms like “Lethal counter attack.” and “decently executed a classic catennacio” and I was like ….OH HELL NO.

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