Fans' View

Fan’s View: Set piece anxiety

Photo: Peter Andrews

It’s well established by now that part of being a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan is the familiar feeling that no matter how well things seem to be going, there’s always trouble lurking just ahead. Cynical maybe, but following the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, 76ers, and Union definitely built my immunity to the inevitable let-down moment. The only offset is that there’s truly something communal about it; we commiserate together and bond over the collective gut punch we experience just a bit too frequently.

Then there are set pieces. Whether playing, coaching, or watching soccer, they’re stressful to defend. There’s the added focus on them from open play coming to a pause, that they’re almost always in dangerous areas of the field, the physicality of each one, and the feeling that no matter how the flow of the game is going, that anything can happen in that moment. With the Union, for every glorious Kleberson or Medjunanin curler to win a game, it feels like there are 3 or 4 breakdowns where we concede off of free kicks or corners. Pause for a second and envision the Union up a goal in the 90th minute via a free kick awarded about 22 yards from goal. How’s your stomach feeling now?

Merge the cynical, something-bad-is-about-to-happen Philadelphia sports fan mindset with the Union’s proclivity to give up set-piece goals over the years, and it’s a perfect recipe for in-game anxiety. I decided to do a little research, and per, the Union has given up 18 goals this season, with a breakdown of 11 from open play (61%), 4 from set pieces (22%), and 3 from penalty kicks (17%). With the late breakdowns against NYCFC fresh in my mind, set pieces are on my mind and I expected worse, to be honest.

I then took a look at the team characteristics section on the same team page, and here is a snapshot of some of our main weaknesses:

  • Avoiding fouling in dangerous areas
  • Defending against long shots (David Villa flashback?)
  • Protecting the lead (where we earn the “very weak” rating)

So we excel in giving up free kicks in dangerous areas, struggle against long shots on goal so no lead is truly safe. This fan thing is stressful, yet I still can’t look away. Strangely, also has us as strong in aerial duels (I mostly buy this one with Sapong, Pontius, Onyewu in our current lineup) and strong in defending set pieces (pretty sure their website’s been hacked).

So the statistics and analysis don’t quite tell a definitive story here, but my gut tells me there isn’t enough beer, meditation, or hot yoga in the world to keep me from nervously riding out the next 90th-minute free kick we concede.


  1. hobosocks says:

    An addendum more than a disagreement: Also on Whoscored, the U are right about in the middle of the league in terms of giving up set piece goals (highest team gave up 6, lowest 2). And of course two of them came from a single brief span in a game in which all three substitutions stemmed from injury, resulting in a lineup defending the set pieces that almost certainly hadn’t practiced doing so together in any meaningful way.
    I know that the narrative of the week is the Union’s supposed struggles defending corners and free kicks, but I just don’t buy it. The team has a lot of defensive troubles this year, but set piece defense hasn’t been all that bad.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Part of this is that set pieces aren’t that dangerous, at least compared to how they are perceived ( The Union give up goals on corners as often as other teams, as hobosocks pointed out, but perhaps the reason they are so nerve-wracking is more about how precarious the Union’s lead always seems to be. It’s less about the event itself as it is what seems to be an outcome that is already predetermined, given the team’s history, and a set piece is a chance to dwell on that emotion more than other moments during the match.

    • I agree that statistically, it’s not bad this year. The most recent results just took me back to a darker place when we really did struggle with those.

      • hobosocks says:

        Definitely. I’m pretty sure we were the worst team in the league in giving up set piece goals last year, so the anxiety is understandable.
        My concern is how much of it is due to Marquez. He has struggled with losing his mark, and maybe it isn’t a coincidence that things have measurably improved with him not in the starting lineup.

  2. John Harris says:

    Player issue? Coaching issue? Or both? Thoughts?

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