Commentary / Union

Philadelphia and the set piece

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union have won their second match in a row, and things have been looking good. The defense has been more reliable, the midfield more dynamic, and the offense more effective.

While Philadelphia have begun to tap their potential in players like Kai Wagner and David Accam, the one area where the Union have yet to translate raw opportunity into tangible advantage is their set piece game.

The Union’s style of play — working the ball in corner pockets for crosses and playing through balls and counters  — tends to generate an unusually high number of set pieces. With that abundance comes the opportunity to capitalize.

Take corners for example. In week one, Philadelphia won eight corners to Toronto’s one. In last weekend’s match, they had nearly double digit corners before Columbus was able to get a single one off. Each one of those corners represents a chance for the Union to hit the back of the net.

Opta Data suggests a goal conversion rate of about 3.5% for corners, which means serious opportunity. If the Union can take their opportunities at the average conversion rate, it can be a difference maker.

Additionally, free kicks are another area where the Union stand to benefit greatly alongside corners. In fact, the Union produce the third most shots per match from set pieces in the entire MLS. They have averaged five shots from set pieces per match this season, which represents more than a third of their total shot opportunities.

With all the emphasis that the Union place on counterattacking as a key strategic component, it is interesting to see that set pieces have generated 25 shots for Philadelphia this season, while counterattacks have only generated five. Both counterattacking and set piece play have their role in a successful football strategy, but the numbers emphasize how important it is to not undervalue set pieces.

However, despite the plethora of opportunities, the Union have found it difficult to capitalize on their set pieces relative to other teams like Portland and Colorado that have a similar number of opportunities. While the Timbers have scored three goals from their 23 set piece shots, the Union have yet to find the back of the net from their 25 set piece shots this season.

The purpose of laying out these numbers isn’t to say that the Union are bad at corners or free kicks – in fact, they are doing a great job of generating dangerous opportunities in the final third through set pieces. The real question is whether they can continue to hone in and find an approach that generates goals from those set pieces going forward. With players like Marco Fabian, Haris Medunjanin, and Brenden Aaronson all vying to take set pieces, there is no shortage of volunteers.

Philadelphia is sitting on a goldmine of opportunity in the form of set pieces, and while refining those chances shouldn’t be the No. 1 priority, it should merit serious consideration and deserves some measure of investment from the coaching staff and squad. If they can solve that equation, it can make the difference going forward this season.


  1. QuillosMyCat says:

    Was it just me, or was Aaronson swinging corners in better than any other Union player in a while. Harris seems particularly poor at taking corners this year.

    • LeToux was the worst ever, followed closely by Maidana. Seba bruised a lot of hips around the league…

    • SilverRey says:

      I like Aaronson’s delivery, and he rarely hits it into the first defender like so many others we’ve had.
      Now we just need someone on the other end to put them home.

  2. I’ve noticed they’ve been aiming at the big man on corners lately. wise move

  3. Can someone explain the short corner to me? Every time that ball isn’t lobbed into the near or far post, I consider it a wasted opportunity. The point of a corner is that it’s chaos and anything can happen. 3.5% of the time that chaos results in a goal. But short corners just completely disrupt that chaos and allow for some quick organization on defense. It lets them off the hook.

    • I feel like short corners give the right player a better angle on goal and can create even more confusion for a defense if they’re unexpected. I feel like I’ve seen Manchester City employ them to good effect. If you have David Silva or Kevin DeBruyne with the ball at the top corner of the 18, they pose as much if not more of a threat than skying a hooked ball in and hoping it finds a centerback’s head. Set pieces are the closest thing the sport has to an NFL play. There are really so many possibilities.

    • It also tends to pull two defenders out of the box, reducing traffic in the 18 for guys to make runs. If they only send one to cover short corner, 2 on 1 situation is created and offense can still whip in a good cross. I’m okay with mixing it in, but agree that a long corner struck well creates danger and the chance of a deflection or lucky bounce.

  4. I’m keen on any routine that isn’t the traditional lofted ball in. Like the scheme of going for it on 4th down, corners can and have been hacked successfully. Unlike others above, I perk up when I see corners taken short or otherwise. Remember that instant classic from a few years ago? A Red Bull player seemingly “handed off” the responsibility of the corner to Sacha but in reality touched the ball into play as Sacha innocently walked by. Then Sacha suddenly drove in 10-15 yards before hitting it low and hard across the face of goal.
    Glory be to the unorthodox. Let me find that nyrb highlight.

      • There are two interesting things about that clip. First, the initial player double taps the ball, which makes the play-in illegal in my mind since the same player may not touch the ball into play and be the first to touch it in play. (Nobody seems to have raised that issue on the field.)Second, the keeper was aware of the play and actually sent his defenders out to take away the offside area near the goal. NYRB still scored, but it was fascinating to watch. (Smart to confirm with the AR that the tap had been noted as well, which the AR confirmed by moving off of the touchline when the ball was played.) Knowing the rules can be a bit of a help, huh?

    • That strikes me as bush league stuff right there…. But so be it. If it’s fair its fair.

      • No more bush league than Cruyff or Messi passing their penalty kicks to teammates rushing in. No cheekier than hitting a free-kick under the wall. Fair play, credit to the creative.

  5. Here we are discussing the Union’s shortcomings on set pieces, which is a change of pace from ten years watching them ineffectively defending set pieces. I guess that is progress. I don’t think that the attack is going to improve on these plays by adding the 5’8″, 130# Monteiro to the mix. I don’t see him banging around in the box on these too successfully. (I hope that he proves me wrong.) There does not seem to be a uniform approach by the Union field players to how they are addressing their spacing, and frankly there seems to be no clear communication on where the ball is being targeted. I tend to think of four primary areas that the kick can be dropped: near post, far post, the spot or the base of the D. (Of course, there are other options, but generally, there should be some sort of agreement as to where the ball will be dropped by the corner.)I am not sure why there seems to be such a disconnect between where the corner is dropped and where the target players are when it lands. As with defending these kicks, it seems like some additional work is needed.

  6. How many goals has this team scored off corners in its entire history?

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