Commentary / Union

The Overlap: 33 down, 1 to go

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

This season has felt long, hasn’t it? Including CCL games, the Union have played nearly forty times this year. Not since those deep U.S. Open Cup runs of years ago have the Union played so many, and considering last season was shortened, it’s been quite the marathon.

And as much as they have been sporting endeavors, these games have put the Union, and we who follow them, through an emotional ringer. There have been some real highs, especially in the early part of the CCL process. There have also been some long troughs, where the team didn’t inspire much of anything, let alone confidence they were going to win important games. And of course there was the disappointment of crashing out of the Champions’ League at the semifinal stage—close enough to dream, but beaten soundly.

Yet, here the Union sit, one season on from winning the Supporters’ Shield, having represented MLS into those CCL semifinals, in second place in the Eastern Conference with one regular season game remaining. Phrasing it this way is a cliché, but it is also true: Had fans been presented with this situation at the beginning of the season, every single one would have been happy to take it. And the reason for that is because, by any definition, 2021 has been a wildly successful Union season.

With one game remaining, the Union are two points shy of their all-time points record of 55. Beat NYC and they set a new one. They had 11 home wins. The defense is fourth-best in the league by goals allowed; Andre Blake is second in the league with 12 clean sheets, and first in the league in Goals Against Average at 0.92 (technically, he is tied with Zac MacMath, now at RSL, but has played many more games than Zac). They are all but guaranteed a home playoff game, and have an excellent chance to host multiple. Three new homegrown players played meaningful minutes this year, and became genuine contributors. Leon Flach surpassed everyone’s expectations. A lot of good things have happened.

None of this is to say there haven’t been disappointments. That long summer stretch was pretty bland all around. It’s taken almost an entire season for the big attacking signing to start producing consistently. Our DP nearly left, and probably will go in the offseason. The team scored too few goals—striker is the very obvious need in the squad. Sometimes the team plays in a way lacking style or technique. The coach isn’t perfect.

Philadelphia fans think of ourselves as being uniquely pessimistic and put-upon, wearing our teams’ failures as an ironic badge of honor. But it strikes me that fans everywhere are pretty much the same. The negative aspects of a team seem way more relevant, more permanent, more real than the positive stuff. Rather than see in the Union a team that has managed a very difficult thing—following up a Supporters’s-Shield-winning season with a deep CCL run, without faltering in the league—many instead focus on the flaws that prevent the team from reaching some imagined apotheosis.

After the Toronto game, for instance, the knives were out. The team were clearly incompetent, on some level, to have allowed such a result to happen. It was more confirmation, after their other recent screw-ups, that they aren’t good enough. And yet, one game later, here they are, sitting about as pretty as anyone could hope for.

So, how do we square these competing ideas—that the Union are doing pretty great, but the Union are also kind of crap sometimes? I believe it comes down to expectations.

A common understanding of the way to succeed in soccer generally, but specifically in MLS, is that a team should win its home games and draw its away games. What would that look like, if a team were actually able to do it? Assuming an even home and away split of games, that would mean 17 wins and 17 draws, or 68 points—2.00 points per game. Of course, no one expects their team to go undefeated, so don’t worry about the wins and draws, per se. Instead, just aim for 2.00 PPG.

That sounds awesome, and two is a nice round number. Unfortunately, it’s also wildly unrealistic. This season, only one team will eclipse 2.00 PPG—the New England Revolution, currently on 2.21 PPG, which is by far the best PPG in league history. (The previous best was 2.13, by the LA Galaxy of 1998.) Because here’s the thing: by my count, only eight teams, including the Revs this year, have gotten 2.00 PPG for a season. That’s eight out of 330 teams ever in the history of the league. That works out to 2.4%, or one team every three seasons or so. If your rubric for judging your own team is that they should be in the top 3% of all teams in league history, I’d argue your expectations are too high.

I can imagine the response: “We aren’t expecting the team to be that good, just better than it is right now!” To which I would say, sure, that’s reasonable. But how much better? Better than second place to an historically good side? What constitutes success? 1.9 PPG? 1.75? How do we gauge when the points dropped are acceptable and when they are not?

The truth is, there isn’t a useful target. The goalposts shift all the time. For some, “good enough” isn’t about wins at all, but rather something more ineffable, like playing “the right way.” What’s considered “good enough” depends on so many factors, many of them wholly subjective. And, for once, it may actually be harder for Philly fans to make the judgement call than fans of most other teams. Because the Union are one of those eight teams I mentioned above. Last season, they posted a PPG figure of 2.04. Everyone judges their team against the best version of itself from the past. In our case, the best version of our team is one of the best teams in MLS history. That’s a tough act to follow.

So, my advice for fellow woebegone Union fans is this. Try and hold on to what it is about the Union that brings you joy. Don’t accept mediocrity, but remember that true success is fleeting, and failure inevitable. Rise above the game-to-game roller coaster, if you are able, and take the long view. This is a good day in Unionland, and the future is bright.

Just don’t ask me how I’m feeling if they lose their next two games.

19 Comments

  1. I think the most frustrating thing (and I’ve commented on it before) is that the Union have had the lead in all of the last 6 road games and have a grand total of 6 points. That’s 5 blown leads which just doesn’t feel right. It also means that if they score an early goal Sunday, we probably shouldn’t get all that excited.

  2. My personal favorite part of the season is we managed to hang on to second while being able to integrate the HGs more and more over the year. Going into the year we knew this next generation of home growns where a year behind where Brenden and McKenzie started -because these HGs were a year younger. Some spent most of the season as 17 year olds!

    The fact that we have seen them slowly integrate, to at this point contributing and playing well with the A team is huge for us next year. Even someone who did not seem to inline to get minutes in Harriel has gotten minutes with the A team.

  3. John O'Donnell says:

    With a week to go, more teams in the top ten in spending on team payroll in MLS are eliminated from the playoffs than teams in the bottom ten. Two teams from the top and bottom have clinched a spot with the Union being one of those teams.
    .
    New England is number 15 in spending has won the East and set a record for points.
    .
    The three teams with a chance to win the West are 9, 12 & 23 in spending and you can argue none follow the same model in building a team.
    .
    Easily the most competitive league top to bottom in the world. The myth of spending the most in this league gives you a huge advantage is being proven wrong with the top two and three of the top five already eliminated and no teams having clinched a spot. Meanwhile of the bottom five teams two have been eliminated, while two have clinched and Vancouver last in spending is still in it.

    • Great info there John and outlines the over achieving of this season. One thing to think of too is that two of our high earners (Ilsinho and Finlay) have been complete busts this year.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        Ilsinho has definitely been an issue this season. He’s played almost not at all, and been ineffective in the short periods he’s been healthy. But Findlay hasn’t been a bust, per se, he’s just behind two of the best CBs in the league.

      • John O'Donnell says:

        I agree Ilsinho hasn’t really made a difference but if he gets healthy for the playoffs….well.
        .
        Findlay reminds me of the college freshman playing in a system with good seniors in front of him. He’s more of insurance for the future. Don’t forget we can trade players in the league and we have.

  4. Larry Guengerich says:

    Really interesting info. Thanks for sharing this. I wondered about it, but never looked into it completely

    Thanks

  5. Jeremy Lane – in so far as the fact they brought him in to replace McKenzie at a salary higher than Elliot and he has played less than 10 games (and hasn’t looked really good) is where that comment comes from. I am pretty sure their intent was to start him.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yes, that Elliott is the lowest paid CB is a crime. I guess my feeling is that Findlay hasn’t played enough to really be judged. But as far as price tag goes, yes, you’re right. It’s not reasonable to have someone on the bench making that much.

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff. Jeremy. Pretty irrefutable.
    .
    My issue as ever is the long stretches where the team just didn’t play well. But that’s the stylistics I’ve personally had to surrender. Probably multiple reasons for it… as Jim has shown me with a different roster the team can indeed control possession.
    .
    This is the Ernst Tanner, Union. He doesn’t give a shit about the ball. Big surrender.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      You’re the reason I included the part about style of play! And it’s totally relevant. I have to say, personally, I care more about style when the team isn’t contesting to win things. I find I care less about it the closer they get. Winning allows me to look past it.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Right on. Fair there. I struggle with that a bit.
        .
        I’m glad your contributing to the place regularly again.

  7. The big disappointment for me lies in the transition offense and the play of the forwards.

    I want all up front gone-as I don’t think they fit the system-and someone up top of the midfield who can be more consistent in springing the attack from the turnovers they work hard to generate.

  8. Lots of great info. I was thinking about the season as I drove home from the game. I guess seeing The Bush win the Halloween costume parade had me using the Jeckel and Hide analogy for the season. Lots of good and bad mixed into the season. I don’t think they are a bad team. The striker needs attention. Does anyone think Miro will be here next year? He truly had a very up and down season. I think the kids looked good. The whole team seemed to feed off the energy!! Home playoff game hopefully?

  9. soccerdad720 says:

    WOW…this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read here, Jeremy. Great perspective, fabulous research.

    (Your next one will probably suck, though).

    VERY serious about the first sentiment! Thanks.

  10. You guys are still high on illsinho? If he is healthly for yankee stadium he can play since its perfect for his skillset, but I dont expect to see him again unless its as a coach. Hes an old man who plays video games and makes podcasts lol (prove me wrong!)

  11. Great article!

    A+ season for me regardless of how it turns out in the playoffs. The CCL was amazing to experience as a fan. To see CA visit Chester is perhaps a once in a generation type of event, it will long live in memory.

    As for MLS Cup, I think we are punching well above our weight and our style of play suits our roster construction (except the forwards). If we aren’t going to be a big spending team, let’s focus on areas where we can win against any team in the league (press, fitness, set pieces, defensive mindset, youth).

    This model will continue to bear fruit year after year, and stability is great for team support as well as growing the game locally.

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