Analyzing the analyst

Photo by Earl Gardner

The Union hit their midseason stride this month as they often do: making waves in their quest to win the U.S. Open Cup (Author’s note: this article was written before the cup match against Orlando City) and finally playing reasonably well enough in the league to garner a subtle side-eye from otherwise outspokenly disinterested fans. One particularly well-known commentator, Matthew Doyle of mlssoccer.com, known there as The Armchair Analyst, had some interesting things to say about the Boys in Blue in his midseason review piece, from July 11th:

I love the way the Union play, and I love the ethos of the technical staff. Jim Curtin deserves a ton of credit for trusting the Homegrown central defensive combo of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, but it’s more than that. He puts out a team with a very good game plan on both sides of the ball pretty much every single weekend, and it’s usually pretty, and it’s often very effective.

Except in terms of putting the ball in the net. Because the Union have been abysmal in front of goal in 2018.

CJ Sapong and David Accam, both of whom were rewarded with large contracts this offseason, have been the two guiltiest parties. There is almost nothing to say beyond “the inability to finish the chances that are regularly created means that the Union are doomed to mediocrity.”

That’s what happened this past weekend as Philly mostly outplayed Atlanta, but then lost 2-0.

What they could’ve done better: In retrospect, they bet on the wrong attackers.

Philadelphia Union: C-

-Matthew Doyle

Jim Curtin deserves a ton of credit

Regular readers of The Philly Soccer Page, and particularly those readers who happen to stay around for this site’s comments, will understand Doyle’s opening statement is not without controversy. The seventh place Union have been marginally more successful this season than last (two away wins at the halfway point being the most notable statistical improvement, in an argument where the important statistics are wins and losses), but are still a team whose ceiling is fourth place in the conference.

(Perhaps the major caveat to that limit is the all-time quality of said Conference in 2018, with a minor typo):

The Union have certainly been more organized in many ways this year, their possession out of the back being the most obvious improvement and, when they actually do move the ball forward, their commitment to possession in midfield and the final third a close second. That said, they often come into matches looking prepared and ready to grab an early goal (currently 6-0-0 when getting that first tally), only to have the narrative flip on them when something goes awry or their opponents adjust. Then, seeming to lack a Plan B and finding difficulty in regrouping as a result, the team end up having their metaphorical wheels come off with disappointing results (see: home losses, 2-0 to Atlanta, 2-0 to Toronto FC, and 2-0 to Orlando City SC).

Possession is “pretty,” and though the Union have been “effective” for long stretches in matches and in impressive full match results (see: 4-1 to Vancouver and 0-0 away to New York Red Bulls), unfortunately Doyle’s statement is a bit sunny side up all things considered. This is not because Doyle is a Philly Fan Boy by any stretch. Instead, he is among the more optimistic commentators on the goings on in Chester, PA because of his focus on the team’s long term potential over its short-term results.

“Let Philly be the Ajax of MLS as far as I’m concerned” (This metaphor is, in summary, one equating to an organization that plays young players as often as possible with a uniform system from the top to the bottom… sound familiar?). “I think the fans will live with a couple years of non-Ajax-like results as long as they see the ethos they were promised.” (From 2/28/2018)

Analysis: Whether it’s Jim Curtin, Earnie Stewart, or someone else who deserves credit for this uniformity is a topic of debate among Union fans and commentators alike. The fact is the Union have started playing young talent, invested in obvious needs in the offseason, and are often prepared for matches. Someone in the front office deserves a measure of credit for that. Maybe it is Jim Curtin?

Abysmal in front of goal

Before the reader fires up his or her comment below, first remember how elite C.J. Sapong was in 2017. His goal total wasn’t just “Best season in Union history” good, which it was. Sapong scored more league goals than any American in any league in the world last year (as far as this author knows). Having never seen Sapong come anywhere near the top of these or any goal-scoring rankings, and thus knowing this total might be too good to be true over the long haul, Doyle’s advice was clear:

“So Step 1 for Philly if they want to return to the playoffs is to find some help for Sapong not just in terms of other guys who can put the ball in the net, but in terms of guys who can make that overarching goal easier.” (From 2/15/2018)

David Accam and Borek Dockal represent a commitment to that “overarching goal:” One was universally considered the trade of the offseason, the other a late but clear replacement for the irreplaceable Tranquillo Barnetta, a no. 10 with skill, guile, and heart.

Merely drawing focus from defenses away from the ever-fouled Sapong would have been valuable, and was certainly part of the plan. What was most profound among Doyle’s comments was an account for a potential extreme regression for the striker (instead of Sapong simply establishing his new baseline). “In statistics, regression toward (or to) the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement – and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.”

Or, because Sapong had averaged around five goals per year over his career before 2017 (and because his trajectory without his 16 tally 2017 pegged him closer to seven goals in any subsequent year), this theory suggested he was more likely to score something close to seven goals in 2018 than he was to score anywhere near 16. So far, that account is spot on and probably even generous: not only is Sapong slumping against his 2017 pace, he’s on pace for four goals in 2018 and is less successful in his chances (G-xG) than any other player in the league.

Sapong is the league’s worst in 2018 in G-xG.

The double whammy? Accam’s G-xG in 2017 was +4.37, meaning he was wildly more successful in scoring than he should have been. With Accam and Sapong together, the Union hitched their proverbial offensive wagon to two players who (loosely cobbling together two different measurements) were statistically primed to score 13 fewer goals in 2018 than they did the year before.

American Soccer Analysis’s Expected Goals metric (the full database is here).

Analysis: The Union are, in fact, abysmal in front of goal, but this isn’t just a C.J. Sapong problem. The Boys in Blue are the third worst team in all of Major League Soccer when it comes to scoring goals when they ought to, with Sapong leading the way but the otherwise stalwart Fafa Picault (-1.93) and the aforementioned David Accam (-1.79) not far behind. Doyle is right, and minus a subtle tweak to his direction to the Union’s front office, his analysis is likely in line with that of the average Union fan.

The Union are 3rd from the bottom in GD-xGD.

Give the optimist his due

“Philly fans just have to trust the process. Do you think they’ll find that kind of patience though?” (From 12/22/2017)

Give the first part of Doyle’s analysis its own merit (that Jim Curtin deserves some credit for organizing his side), but then add this second piece of data into that evaluation (that the players he’s entrusted, or that he’s been limited to entrust, to execute his vision haven’t lived up to the demands of their relative salaries). Both are true, and depending on your seat as an observer or as a fan, likely carry different weight.

Then, imagine a Union side with eight more goals.

The seventh place Union are a fourth place side with that margin, but that margin exists only statistically. In real life, a C- is probably the right grade for the team right now. That grade can be made with Jim Curtin’s (or some combination of Jim Curtin and this front office group’s) efforts lifting the team up a bit and those of the attacking group bringing it down. Perhaps the deviation from that C- is only a C and a D+, but Doyle’s succinct summary is spot on.



  1. I can’t wait till we get a new striker.

  2. pragmatist says:

    I like Doyle, and he is echoing what the truth of this team: they are pretty good, they are simply incapable of putting the ball in the net.
    With Dockal finding his groove, Burke getting minutes, Rosenberry playing at 2016 levels, Gaddis learning that he’s allowed to play offense, this is a decent team. They are unfortunate to be an equivalent to the Utah Jazz: a decent team in a conference of powerhouses. Or more like Everton: a decent mid-table team that has no chance at the points total. It’s now that we need to be thankful for playoffs…
    It’s just frustrating when you see a game like last night the felt like a layup drill at times, but they couldn’t make their layups. You. Have. To. Put. The. Ball. In. The. Net.
    I love CJ. I thought the Accam trade was fantastic. But go find someone in the window before this season gets too far away from us. Turn Chris Albright into Carmen Sandiego, just find someone.

    • But I already follow Everton, I don’t need two eternally mid-table clubs.

      A bit tongue in cheek but seriously, why would I want to watch a designed-to-be-mediocre club in a designed-to-be-mediocre league when I can watch any number of other leagues that are 100x more entertaining?

      Besides, Everton is at least trying to become a top club. I can’t say the same for the U.

      • pragmatist says:

        Everton can’t be a top club. They won’t spend anywhere near as much as the others. They are destined to finish each season between 7 and 14. And I say that out of love for Everton. I would love to see them higher. I’ve always respected that club. But they don’t have the money.
        sounds familiar…
        That’s why I say we should be thankful for playoffs. At least the Union can catch fire for a few weeks and make a run. Everton and the other eternal mid-table teams don’t have that opportunity.
        I’m a Spurs fan. How do you think I feel? I’m Charlie Brown and ALL OF MY TEAMS are Lucy holding the football…

      • If you don’t need 2 midtable teams to follow why give up on the local one?

  3. This was a pretty enlightening piece and finally put some numbers to what I felt like I knew but couldn’t explain, particularly with CJ and our general scoring drought. A regression to the mean for CJ was probably inevitable, but Accam is a little more surprising. As for Fafa, anyone who has watched him enough knows he’s fast and can make a lot of things happen in the offensive 3rd but his finishing is always lacking. They are probably our top 3 in terms of players we most rely on to score goals, so it’s not all that mysterious anymore.

  4. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year+ criticizing nearly every aspect of this team, but it’s worth noting that any reasonable person should have expected something more from CJ and Accam when it comes to goal scoring. To have both of those players evaporate is a difficult thing.

    Where the real test of intent and ambition comes is how that calamitous turn of events is managed. Do we just say forget about it and bomb out this year or do we try to remedy the situation with a very good forward in the summer transfer. I suspect this team will opt for the former and pray for a turnaround.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    With respect to Doyle who I read and follow on Twitter, his POV is at times objective, but be assured his primary responsibility is to champion MLS.
    Without this context, It’s easy to get The Bends when surfacing.
    What is more reassuring was a commitment by Andre to play to feet yesterday. Without this, Union are also ran in a rapidly developing league and world.
    Next stop dropping Haris between the CB all the time and let MM and AT attack space and play vertical more often. Haris doesn’t need to be a regista at his own 20.

    • To be fair to Doyle, it is also much easier to be optimistic at a distance. If you have been emotionally invested in this organization over the years with all the things that have happened it is much more difficult to see the sun.

    • It took me far too long to recognize MM as Mark McKenzie and AT as Auston Trusty. I did like the combo name of McTrusty in the broadcast last night.

  6. For me the problem with Curtin stems from one thing. We, the supporters are paying for his education. We have paid for his education. Whether it be one tenth of a cent or a whole dollar over his tenure. Whether you bought tickets or merch, or even just your time and effort spent, you paid for his education as a manager. Now other teams around the league get MLS experienced managers. They get international experienced managers. They get national team experienced managers. And if your an expansion team in L.A. you get a manager that has all three and a team that might make a run at the cup. We get to pay for learning. Doesn’t feel right does it? What year is it and the coach finally will make a sub around the 60th minute? During his first year I defended Curtin in that I had no idea what kind of manager he was. Little did I know we would get to watch every baby step he takes agonizing over moves or tactics that should have been made weeks or months in the past. Not fun. We’re here now. What else can we do but watch and wait? We know that well.

    • Many other teams/supporters have done the same.
      – NYCFC was Vieira’s first major coaching experience.
      – Marsh only had one year as a professional coach with the Impact before being hired by the Cows
      – Paunović had only been a youth coach before Chicago
      – Ben Olsen had only a few months before being promoted to head coach of DC
      – The Revs are Friedel’s first head coaching gig
      – Vermes did not have a packed resume before SKC
      – TFC is Vanney’s first head coaching gig
      – Same goes for Robinson at Vancouver
      And that is only considering coaches from this current MLS season (the first two having moved on).

      • There is some merit to this. Though to varying degrees, some comparisons aren’t close for me. Curtin is not Vieira, nor Friedel (though I wouldn’t have given him the job anyway). Vieira and Vanney, even to some extent Marsch and Vermes had more to work with. Paunovic was an international. Out of all of those how many would you genuinely take Curtin over? Robinson?

      • I get what your saying comparison wise when it comes to success but the point of my comment was simply that many other teams have hired inexperienced coaches hoping they would grow on the job. It is not just a Union/cheap/etc thing. In every case, the supporters are, in a way, paying for the coaches “education”. Actually, in a way, I’d be more angry about something like Vieira’s situation where so clearly a coach comes in simply to cut his teeth before moving to greener pastures as soon as possible.
        It could also be argued that the coaches listed, especially those that have been successful, joined organizations that have not had the same level of disorganization as the Union. But that goes down a whole other avenue.
        And I’d take Curtin over Olsen, Robinson, and Friedel at this point in time. It is also close with Vanney for me, who is blessed with the one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league (ton of injuries aside).

      • good rapport. i respect the exchanges.
        arguably shorter leashes in those organizations than here. the coach Earnie inherited instilled enough confidence that he’s still here after him. in the petri dish that is the Union, Curtin has thrived— a product of disorganization, moving parts, missing parts, and philosophy. the environment is perfect and singular

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