Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Being appropriately concerned

Photo: Stephen Speer

Even after Saturday night’s loss, the Union still lead the Eastern Conference in just about every category, and are second to LAFC in the Supporters’ Shield standings only on goal difference. They more than doubled Toronto’s expected goals numbers, and can list a bunch of caveats for why that game woulda coulda shoulda turned out differently.

In short, the sky is definitely not falling.

That’s all well and good, but every loss is an opportunity to take stock and assess where the team’s shortcomings are. We need not overreact to this setback, but neither should we underreact and assume that everything is perfect. Soccer is a game of fine margins. Being the better team guarantees nothing in one game. With that in mind, what can we take from the TFC match to better understand what the team needs to do moving forward?

Reasons for optimism

First off, let’s look at those caveats I mentioned above, as this loss certainly had some mitigating circumstances.

Referee decisions

It is practically a hobby in MLS fandom to rag on the refs. I can’t say I know enough about the nuances of being a referee to say with any certainty whether MLS refs are better or worse than whatever constitutes an “average” performance by an official, but I am objective enough to know that it’s a hard job, and that refs get hung out to dry more than they probably deserve.

However, I also recognize that ref decisions can have an outsized impact on a game, and there were two calls in this game that had big effects. Firstly, of course, was the decision by the ref not to review the tackle by Jayden Nelson on Kai Wagner in minute 19. At speed, it was reasonable to issue only a yellow card, but it did not take a Zapruder-level of inspection of the replay to see that Nelson’s tackle was worthy of a red card. Perhaps one could make an argument against a red card, but when spikes strike a player just below the knee, you’d have to do a lot of convincing to make me believe Nelson should have stayed on the field. A simple test would be to say if we could have complained if a Union player were sent off for the same tackle, and I don’t think we’d have any grounds to do so. The fact that the referee did not review the play is a tough one to swallow. It’s difficult to know how losing a man so early would have affected the outcome of the match, but it certainly would have tilted things in the Union’s favor, and not getting that call clearly had some effect on the Union’s mentality in the game.

The second big moment came in the 42nd minute, when Kai Wagner’s goal was ruled out for offside. I can see the rationale for why this call was made, but it’s the kind of call that really could go either way. It would not have surprised me for the goal to have stood. Again, if the shoe were on the other foot, and the opposition had been the beneficiary of such a call, I don’t think Union fans could have complained too hard about it.

So, two big decisions that could have swung the game significantly, both of which went against the Union. As the cliché goes, these things tend to even out over the course of a season, but in single games, things like this make a big difference.

Toronto’s goals

Through the first seven games of the MLS season, the Union lead the league in Expected Goals Against (xGA), which is a measure of the quality of shots that a team gives up, at 4.9. That means that given the kinds of shots the Union have allowed, they would expect to have given up just under five goals. After the Toronto game, they have allowed four goals, which is pretty much right on.

Before the Toronto game, however, the Union’s xGA number was 4.5, and they had allowed only two goals, which means that the Union had been a bit lucky. Teams would normally have expected to score about two and a half more goals than they had against the Union. That isn’t to take away from the Union’s defensive prowess—they still give up fewer good chances than basically anybody—but they’d been lucky and good, rather than just good.

Against Toronto, the Union did what they always do, which was limit Toronto to low-probability shots—to the tune of only 0.4 xG—but Toronto scored twice. Both goals were the result of excellent/lucky finishes. Whether you attribute those shots going in to Jesús Jiménez and Alejandro Pozuelo being above-average finishers or getting a little bit lucky doesn’t really matter. In the end, Toronto scored two goals when they would normally expect to score one or none.

That’s in part down to the binary nature of statistics like Expected Goals. One cannot score 0.3 goals; it’s either 0.0 or 1.0. The Union can certainly look at what happened on the individual goals and try to improve—José Martínez won’t be pleased with the part he played in either, for instance—but Toronto didn’t “solve” the Union. Sometimes the ball goes in the net and you move on.

Reasons for concern

I say reasons, plural, but there’s really only one that I can see, and that’s summarized by Matthew Doyle in his weekly wrap-up column for

The nightmare for Philly fans is that they might’ve watched their team bring in a DP No. 10, and a pair of DP strikers over the past two transfer windows and it’s still not enough. They still might lack the kind of high-end firepower necessary to go out and win an MLS Cup.

Which is another way of saying that the Union attackers haven’t been finishing their chances, and maybe that will come back to bite them in high-leverage situations like the playoffs. That would certainly be concerning, except that it’s not really borne out by the stats.

Expected Goal statistics vary somewhat depending on the source, but using, the Union have scored 11 goals, with an Expected Goals number of 12.7 for the season. So it is true that the Union are underperforming their xG a little bit, as a team. However, digging a little deeper, it’s not the fault of the Dániel Gazdag–Julián Carranza–Mikael Uhre trio. Looking at their stats individually, we see Gazdag has 4.5 xG to four actual goals and 0.7 Expected Assists (xA) to zero actual assists; Carranza has 1.6 xG/0.5 xA with two actual goals and two actual assists; and Uhre has 0.9 xG/1.0 xA with zero actual goals and one actual assist.

There’s a little bit of variation in there, but that’s the kind of noise you get with smaller sample sizes, which is what we have right now. A lot of this has to do with our perception of things. Uhre has put a good number of shots on frame, but hasn’t scored yet. The truth is, though, that those have been low-probability chances, and the fact that he is consistently getting the shots on goal should be very encouraging. If, after another seven or eight games, he has yet to score while continuing to get into good positions, there might be reason for concern—that’s kind of where NYRB fans are with Patryk Klimala, who hasn’t scored much, even though the underlying numbers say he should have.

The biggest issue with the new attackers for the Union is getting them more opportunities. They combined beautifully for the Union’s goal against Toronto. It’s not that they don’t do enough with the chances they get, it’s that they need more chances. And if there is a problem in Union land it’s that the rest of the team, specifically Ale Bedoya and Leon Flach, didn’t provide enough attacking support in the last two games to get the ball to the attackers in good spots. Before he missed a game due to a small injury, Bedoya had been excellent at getting into attacking positions, but since returning he hasn’t gotten up to speed. Flach is primarily a defensive player, but needs to do more with his forward passing.

Win some, lose some, move on

The story of the game is well summarized by the image above. The Union scored their biggest chance, gave up two goals in somewhat unlucky circumstances, and couldn’t quite finish the better chances they had after the hour mark. There is a universe where this game plays out very differently. Play this game back again ten times with the same chances, and the Union likely win more than half, and lose perhaps twice.

There are things the Union can improve, there’s no doubt. But soccer is a low-scoring game where moments change things. This game got away from them, but there’s nothing to suggest the Union won’t put this result behind them and continue their quest for a second Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.


  1. Vince Devine says:

    McGlynn should get a few starts in Flach’s place. He offers a lot more passing ability without much of a drop in defensive ability. Also, Sullivan should be giving Bedoya a rest around the 60th minute (or earlier) if the offense isn’t clicking. the ball skills of the academy grads is superior to that of the starters.

  2. Deez Nuggs says:

    I am not a numbers guy…. except when they make me feel better. Thanks Jeremy! I feel better.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    There really was only one call to make on the goal that was called back. The only reason for the call not to be overturned is for the VAR to realize he had made a mistake earlier against the Union and deciding on a makeup call.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      That’s very even-keeled of you. I’m not convinced Carranza was blocking the keeper’s view; seemed just as likely a Toronto player was the one I the way. I suppose the keeper had to deal with whether or not Carranza would touch it, though.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I think the fact that he had to contort to get out of the way of the ball as it was curving meant he was at least partially blocking the keeper’s view, although I also think that if Carranza had been beamed up to the Enterprise just before the shot was taken, the ball would have gone in.

      • Deez Nuggs says:

        I actually think the standard of clear and obvious should apply here. I think it is perfectly reasonable that Carranza was blocking the view, given the way he moves out of the way. BUT… we all know how the shot was swerving, and I certainly did not see any angle that convinced me for SURE that the keeper didn’t see the shot because of him. As noted, there were Toronto players in the way. For me, I’m okay with the call, but I don’t know VAR should have overruled the call on the field in this case.

  4. Great article, mate!

    I thought that was surely a red in the 19th minute.

    Disappointed by the loss but the side is still on top and the lads will bounce back. They have grit and talent. At times it seems that they need to find better chemistry in the attack, but the back four are solid and I like the tactics.

    Looking forward to attending my first match soon.

    Cheers! Andrew

  5. As indicated in the article, Bedoya and Flach are the weak points in the starting 11, but they practice hard and are Curtin’s guys, so they’ll stay on the field. Sigh.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I think they are more than just “Curtin’s guys.” They provide some very valuable attributes, and pretending they don’t won’t get us anywhere. The defensive record isn’t just down to the back six, for instance.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        One loss…. Abandon ship?
        They are Curtin guys and an important part at that.

  6. I think Uhre just needs a little more time. He’ll get there. He has a great read of the game, making runs and getting into dangerous places where he can score. Those shots will turn into goals soon enough.

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