Are the Union bad at corner kicks?

Author’s note: this article is a supplement to a thesis on set pieces from earlier this season, born out of a perceived frustration Union fans are vocalizing on social media.

Here’s an exercise.

Scroll through your personal highlight reel of all-time Union goals. Kleberson is in there right? Barnetta and Ruiz too, one imagines. Since it’s fresh, Marco Fabian’s rocket from the weekend might have made its way.

Are any of your favorite goals from a corner kick? The answer is probably no (and the aforementioned Fabian Falcon Heavy, copyright 2019, was not a corner and doesn’t count). Can you remember the Union ever scoring from a corner?

The answer to the latter question is of course yes, but the team certainly don’t have one of these on their reel.

Now think about goals the Union have conceded from corners over the years (as defensive struggles from set pieces has been a common Union theme over the years). Narrow that reel down to goals scored against the Boys in Blue just this season and two might come to mind.

A lost man in Vancouver and an opening goal against the run of play, or a mental lapse in New England and an unmarked runner to the near post. Both goals put a traveling Union in a tough spot, though the team battled back for a point in each instance.

If the team doesn’t score on corners and they also give up goals on corners, a question bubbles to the surface.

Are the Union bad at corner kicks?

The data… or lack thereof

The 2019 Philadelphia Union earn a lot of corner kicks (listed as “CK” in this chart), 122 overall and 5.3 per game.

The Union haven’t scored a single goal from corners this season (and Fabian’s tally is the first set-piece goal for the side all year). The only advantage they’ve gained in 23 matches thus far is a penalty earned by Jack Elliott against Montreal, converted by Jamiro Monteiro. So, a 0% conversion rate from the play itself, which sounds low. However, not having watched every other MLS side in 2019 and without a large data set available from which to compare these outcomes, how can one tell?

Perhaps the most comprehensive place for Major League Soccer fans curious about corner kick conversion rates is this deep-dive, from Though the numbers are a bit dated, here is the key point:

  • 12,164 corner kicks were sampled, 274 of which ended up as a goal, a conversion rate of 1.9% (this rate is on the lower end of the distribution with respect to similar studies from other leagues and competitions: 2.2% here, 2.2-2.7% here, 2% here, 2.5% here).

Applied to Philadelphia’s sample in 2019, the team should have more than two extra goals in their proverbial Onion Bag and a total of nearly four by the end of the season.

A few more data points are needed (ie: for the team to take more corners) before the numbers become fully reliable, but based on this set, maybe the team is in fact bad at scoring goals off of corner kicks.

The Union score a lot, do they need more goals?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

The Union are in first place in their conference and have scored more goals than any team in MLS not named LAFC. However, their lofty place in the standings is only nine points clear from being out of the playoffs altogether. Goals are good, but wins matter more. Thus, the Union have to keep their current points per game pace going and will need to find quite a few more goals in order to do so.

One place to look might be a proverbial “swing for the fences.”

Fans have been screaming for some Union players to take shots from outside the box, given the team’s occasional penchant for the extra, extra, extra pass. Even the captain of the side has taken note.

“I know I’ve got a good shot, but I’m always a pass-first guy… I should be definitely shooting more.” – Alejandro Bedoya

It turns out that might be a good idea. In fact, 3.5% of shots from outside the box end up in the net (from the same study), much higher than the average corner kick or the average minute of any match (the chance of a goal being 1.4% in any 60 seconds, or 1.6% for the high-scoring Boys in Blue).

If you think Fabian is the only Union player who can hit 30-yard bangers? Well…

Another place might be on the counter attack.

The Union’s win north of the border was capped by such a goal, an end to end beauty. Their losses to Portland this season and to Montreal in 2018 were because of the same strategy. From the same study, the odds of scoring a counter attacking goal off of an opponent’s corner (2.0% for short corners and 2.6% for long corners) are roughly the same as those of the team taking the corner scoring.

When the ball goes out behind the Union’s goal, the Boys need to bunker and spring. Sergio Santos knows the drill.


The two goals the Union have conceded from corners in 2019 may be disappointing in their own regard. Given the team have allowed 115 corners thus far, that conversion rate falls neatly in line with league-wide expectations. The team could be better, but are not below average.

The Union still have some work to do to figure out how to make their bevy of corner kick opportunities pay off as they are, indeed, with room for improvement.

In terms of strategy, they’re currently mixing short and long corners in their repertoire. Perhaps that ought to change. In the same data set as above, long corners were “more likely to get a shot off, but the shots are poorer. Short corners increase[d] the odds of not only getting the shot on target but also of scoring.”

The answer: No more smacking long balls and seeing what happens, it’s only short corners, good movement, quality finishing from here on out. The Fabian goal is the obvious example, but that simple change might in itself lead to more goals over the course of the season. The secondary byproduct of keeping possession in these situations is that it ought to also protect against counter attacks.

“When taking a long corner, the odds of your opponent scoring in the next 90 seconds go up by about 30%. When taking a short corner? No change.”

That’s what the data says. If only it were that simple.


  1. Minor quibble. “and Fabian’s tally is the first set-piece goal for the side all year” Not sure that this is true. Didn’t Harris score on a beauty of a free kick a few weeks ago? Was up for goal of the week.

    No problem with the premise of your article though

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      That is 100% correct, of course. Wagner mentioned in the postgame Saturday that the Fabian goal was the team’s first of the season from a set piece and I just filed that in my brain, forgetting completely about the Haris goal.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Re-read the article’s last sentence. That is an amazing difference.
    If you have a lead you should always make your own corner kick a short one.

    • The stat on corner counter-attacks blew my mind.
      That was not on my radar that you have the same chance to score on a corner counter as you do on a corner.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        It’s always seemed to me that the Union were more likely to give up a goal on their own corner kick than they were to score.

    • The Truth says:

      +1 almost unbelievable stat.

      • Just for reference from the article these stats were taken from…odds of giving up a goal on the counter after a short corner is 2.2% and a long corner is 2.8%. So while yes a long corner is approximately 30% greater it is still in the same range as chances that the team taking the corner scores which in the article ranges from 1.9% by the author to 2.9% from a study by the Washington Post. It ranges depending how you define “off a corner”…does it have to be direct from the kick? A flick on from the near post? A play like Fabian’s goal?
        In essence, the team taking the corner has approximately the same chance scoring from a corner as it does getting scored against on the counter.

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