A View from Afar / Analysis

Beyond the obvious stats: Barnetta, Sapong, and the Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

It’s easy to overlook the little things in soccer, because the sport doesn’t have a culture heavily focused on statistics.

In soccer, statisticians have long tracked goals, assists and bookings for outfield players. That’s it. To put this in perspective, imagine that only touchdowns and touchdown passes were tracked in American football, nobody tracked rebounds, steals, blocked shots or shooting percentage in basketball, and home runs, RBIs and runs scored were all that anyone noticed in baseball. Obviously, that doesn’t happen, because the vast array of deeper statistics tell a more complete story of what takes place on the field of play.

Only in recent years have deeper soccer statistics even come to be publicized, and you generally have to go actively looking for them because they’re hard to find. Even then, those secondary stats don’t always tell the full story.

This is part of why some people give short shrift to the massive importance of Tranquillo Barnetta and C.J. Sapong to Philadelphia Union.

Barnetta and the pass before the pass

It’s strangely easy to forget that Barnetta arrived as a mid-season signing last year, rather than coming in the off-season flood of Earnie Stewart acquisitions. Amazingly, I did it last week, and despite 50 reader comments on the post, not one of them highlighted this oversight till I did.

His first appearance with the Union last August seemed to herald disaster: A penalty surrendered in the first minute of his Union debut. In retrospect, it now looks like Barnetta was getting that out of his system right away, because he has been excellent for the Union since then.

You won’t see that in his basic 2016 stat line: two goals and two assists in 16 games. That doesn’t tell the full story, however.

Barnetta is tied for 10th in the league in key passes at 2.2 per game. A key pass is a pass that leads directly to a shot. That stat is probably depressed somewhat because Barnetta came off the bench for three games early in the year.

What even Opta Stats doesn’t track, however, is the pass before that key pass, and that is where Barnetta excels. How often have we seen him thread that dangerous pass that puts a runner in toward goal and then see that runner find the eventual goal-scorer?

Beyond that, how many times have we seen Barnetta make an absolutely perfect run toward the box that not only drives these opportunities but opens up space for another attacker to run into?

The stats just don’t track this.

This isn’t even accounting for the fact that Barnetta has slid into yet another new position — No. 8 center midfielder — to address Vincent Nogueira’s sudden departure, and his doing so has allowed Roland Alberg to start lighting up the scoring charts at the No. 10 central attacking midfield spot.

Further, there is no stat documenting defensive pressure — not in basketball, and not in soccer. And that leads us to Sapong.

Sapong and the art of aerial domination

The stats will tell you Sapong has five goals in 16 games, with none in his last six.

Of course, when you see his headed knockdown assist on Ilsinho’s goal last week, which MLS analyst Matt Doyle named his “Pass of the Week,” then you have to recognize there is more in play. The Union average 1.63 points per game when Sapong plays, 1.0 when he doesn’t.

As with Barnetta, Sapong has been crucial to the Union’s pressing efforts, as the top man in the press that has led to the Union ranking 4th in MLS in interceptions (20.4/game) and third in passes blocked (8.9).

Further, he has dominated in the air, ranking third in the league in aerial duels won (6.1/game), helping the Union rank 5th in the league in the rate of aerial duels won at 52 percent.

Additionally, Sapong ranks 8th in the league in fouls won at 2.6 per game, with many coming in positions that led to set pieces. Sapong’s physical domination puts opposing defenders in compromising positions due to bookings accumulated, as illustrated with last weekend’s ejection of D.C. United defender Kofi Opare.

That point about fouls leads us to a broader conclusion that, coming into this season, many people did not expect.

The key conclusion buried in the Union team stats

There is one very obvious team stat that would have stunned most people coming into the season. Yes, the Union lead MLS with 32 goals scored.

Their effectiveness in winning fouls is part of why. Union rank second in MLS in fouls earned with 13.1 per game. That has led directly to scoring opportunities.

Philadelphia ranks third in the number of set pieces taken, at 4.0 per game, and second in the number of set pieces scored, at 0.4 per game. Additionally, the Union have won more penalties than all but two teams in MLS.

On the flip side, the Union are surrendering just 10.6 fouls per game — 3rd fewest in the league.

That means that the Union win 2.5 more fouls per game than they surrender. That differential is by far the best in the league.

Similarly, only three teams have been booked fewer times than the Union’s 1.6 cards per game.

Meanwhile, the Union’s 1.2 offsides per game is the 3rd fewest in MLS, and they have this intriguing statistic regarding shot selection: They rank just 12th in MLS in total shots taken, but third in the league in shots taken inside the six-yard mark and 4th for shots inside the penalty area. Essentially, they are often taking higher percentage shots.

When you consider the club’s overall 2016 improvement on set piece efficiency, thanks in part to Barnetta’s free kicks and assistant coach B.J. Callahan’s innovations, something else becomes clear.

The Union aren’t a good team this year merely because they added solid players who buy into the system.

Rather, Jim Curtin and his staff have produced something else not everyone would have predicted before the season: A disciplined and well-coached team.


  1. pragmatist says:

    There is a point of this that needs some elaboration: “Their effectiveness in winning fouls is part of why. Union rank second in MLS in fouls earned with 13.1 per game. That has led directly to scoring opportunities.”
    They have earned those fouls without diving. They have earned them through hard work, hustle, and beating defenders to a spot on the field. CJ gets mauled every game. Ilsinho had shoulders dropped into his chest on every play last weekend.
    Our guys are putting themselves in position to be fouled, without having to embellish.
    This is not a difficult concept. And it is something that will not alienate those new to the game. And for those of us that LOATHE diving, it is a refreshing way to watch the game played.

    • Jim Presti says:

      If you get the ball in dangerous positions [see: Barnetta, Ilsinho, & Alberg], defenders are forced to either 1. foul you or 2. force you to cycle the ball elsewhere or 3. give up a high-percentage shots. Hence, players like Sapong and Pontius are constantly fouled – they are typically on the receiving end of a line breaking pass from Barnetta, Ilsinho, or Alberg.
      It sucks that these guys often take a beating [see: Pontius’ stitches], but it forces the opponent to make difficult decisions allowing the Union to dictate a match throughout multiple game-states.

      • pragmatist says:

        I completely agree. It exposes you to some nicks and knocks through the year, but it’s the sign of intelligent effort.
        But my greater point is that “fouls per game” is probably the single most ridiculous stat in Seria A. When guys fall down on goal kicks 80 yards away, and the ref grants them the foul, that really shouldn’t count.
        With our guys, when the foul is called, you know they were actually fouled.
        I watched the DC game again last night, and our guys were constantly getting hit. It was never anything that seemed to threaten injury, but it was definite and constant contact. And it was because CJ, Pontius, Alberg, and Ilsinho made plays that forced the fouls. That is incredibly frustrating for a defense.

      • Jim Presti says:

        The other thing to point out is that the Union are not just winning more fouls but winning them in advantageous positions. Plus having a team culture where staying on your feet and trying to continue play regardless of the foul is beneficial. The league takes notice and so do the refs – making it an easier call for them.

      • Good point in mentioning Pontius. I didn’t bring him up in the column because my focus was on the other two, but Pontius draws quite a few fouls and, as Adam Cann noted recently, is very good in the air.

    • It’s nice to not think of our team as a bunch of divers. The only guy I’ve heard a complaint about is actually barnetta (I vehemently disagreed with this orlando fan). But you’re right, its telling in our games now. We got the calls we deserved saturday, those fouls were in excellent spots, and we could still have reasonably claimed one more PK.

      • Jim Presti says:

        At times throughout his career, Le Toux has gone down pretty easily. Maybe not an outright dive, but maybe he has the awareness to know what contact and where will draw a foul. Gamemanship

    • These are great points. I’d also say earning fouls is about being able to maintain possession, first at midfield and then in the offensive third. Our whole team is passing and moving more wisely, helping us hold possession for extended periods. This tires the defense, makes it more likely that they’ll get pulled out of position, and forces the defense to foul or give up a scoring opportunity. I’ve been stunned by this transition by the Union, and it’s one of the things that’s making them so much more fun to watch this season.

    • Matthewzolomarks says:

      I thought exactly the same thing when I read that. Adding that Marquez seems to put himself in position to be fouled a ton.

  2. Good stuff! The team stats section really tells a great story of discipline and execution within a system of play (forcing turnovers, the foul differential, high percentage shots, etc.)

    I especially appreciate your final statement,as someone who argued in support of keeping Curtin around last year. He clearly has stepped up to the challenge, and the team’s performance reflects that.

  3. Great, great piece Dan, and spot on, every bit. The “pass before the pass” is exactly what Barnetta excels at. My favorite one is from the second Ilsinho-to-Pontius goal in the Open Cup game against NYRB. Ilsinho’s ball was wonderful, as was Pontius’ finish, but as soon as happened, my 15-year-old son and I screamed, “OMG! Did you see that defensive play and run and pass from Barnetta to open Ilsinho up?” Just brilliant. And the fact that he’s able to adjust to the #8 role so quickly and capably speaks to both his soccer intelligence and his leadership.

    Sapong, too, Just. Makes. Trouble. His presence there, and his passing ability, make everyone better. I read folks on this blog calling for an upgrade, and I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I think the problem is that we need a backup who plays a similar-type game so we don’t run him into the ground any further. (I kinda wish we had kept Conor Casey for one more season…)

    • pragmatist says:

      You’re correct – a backup with a similar skill set. Not a replacement, just a guy to give CJ a breather.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Sapong and Adi are the best Target Forwards in MLS. Kei is 3rd on my list. Those calling for a replacement are delusional. If he’s doing all the dirty work to put his teammates in high-percentage positions to score, he’s doing his job – by design from the coaching staff for sure.
      People calling for a new, “better” signing clearly do not have an understanding of how hard it is to get a player to by into a specific system – especially a forward who is being asked to lead the defense with high-pressure for 90 + minutes a match. They do not understand Curtin’s system or Sapong’s game or how this team functions on the field.
      If anything, the Union need a younger CDM with a better passing range than Carroll. Carroll has been exceptional this season, but the Union does not have a replacement. Creavalle does not read the game like Carroll does. Maybe Edu is that replacement. Maybe not.

      • I’ll give a quick shout to movsisyan at RSL in terms of target forwards too. It’s been interesting watching their games since they have similar personnel to us. Yura and CJ for one, burrito and ilsinho are both “wingers” that love the dribble and creeping inside, even the back lines are both relying on youth and an aging CDM to screen them. The biggest difference is that morales pulls strings more than he runs anymore, whereas barnetta loves a good run.

      • Jim Presti says:

        +1 YM is also a talented target forward, but I would want to see an entire season’s worth of play before really evaluating him. Yura creates more opportunities for himself, but does not pressure the opposition as much as maybe CJ does.

    • Me too, re: Casey.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Disagree wrt Casey. Insufficient mobility. Wish it weren’t so, but it is.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    If you hit a golf ball in the fairway, chances are you’ll hit the green. If you hit the green chances are you’ll make a 2 putt par.
    If you play the game the right way chances are the outcomes are better.
    Those are the stats I need.

  5. Zizouisgod says:

    This is the guy behind the guy behind the guy.

  6. Those stats go against the MLS refs are against us narrative. Lot of people may be let down if you take away the go to crutch when the result doesnt go our way.

    • pragmatist says:

      The argument shouldn’t be “They are against us.” It should be, “They are wildly inconsistent, and treat every team equally poorly.”
      CJ could get mauled one minute and get no foul. 3 minutes later there could be zero contact and the foul gets called. And that happens for every team, all over the league.
      The inconsistency is the major issue with the officiating.

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