Analysis

Exploring Union II’s playoff prospects

Photo: Ben Ross

Philadelphia Union II have eight games left to play in MLS NEXT Pro’s inaugural season. It is time to explore their chances to make the playoffs.

Predicting MLS NEXT Pro is extraordinarily complex because of roster variability. We have no statistically valid device to compare degrees of variability league wide. So, we will describe it, and for Philadelphia Union II only.

In the 16 times they have taken the pitch Union II have never started precisely the same lineup twice, let alone consecutively. Followers of Union II’s predecessor, Bethlehem Steel FC, will not be surprised since constant roster variability continues unbroken back to that club’s foundation.

The first factor is how many first-team players will be made available to play, since as a general rule a first-teamer always starts. The second is the same point about the Academy U17s (and this year non-academy amateur Boubacar Diallo).

Causes of variability

Ever since the Union created a professional second team in 2016, that team’s core purpose has been to provide the first team whatever the first team needs.

As Tommy Wilson, the Union’s Academy director, recently said, it is the professional debuts that pay the bills. To create the debuts and then develop the debutantes, the gameday rosters must provide game minutes to specific individuals without regard to winning.

By no means does that suggest winning is not desired because it is. But Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc handles each match to achieve specific developmental goals set by the organization’s professional technical staff. It is within those limits that he, his staff, and his boys try to win their team’s games.

Union II draws its game day players from three sources, the first team, the second team, and the amateurs. Among those three only second team players are always available for selection. Availability from the other two is governed by their own game schedules. And for Union II itself there are different types of games.

Think of Union and Union II games as a pair of matches at the weekend.

The suggestion is not perfect because one team plays many mid-week matches and the other does not. And their schedules’ starting and ending dates are not the same. But intermix the answers to the following questions into the weekend match-pair construct you are imagining.

  • Do both teams play in the same city, or are they playing in different places, and is the different place close enough for a player to be available for a second match the next day (D.C. and metro NYC)?
  • Does the first team play before the second, after it, or simultaneously with it?
  • How much recovery time exists between the last game of one weekend’s pair, and the first game of the next?
  • How much recovery time exists before the next midweek match?

Maximum Union II first-team player availability occurs when the first team plays first, the Academy season is over, and there are five or more days till the next first-team match. In such a circumstance ten first teamers started Sunday, July 31 for Union II against Columbus. It was the most so far this season and is a record for Bethlehem Steel FC / Philadelphia Union II.

At the other extreme, on July 2 at Columbus the match was postponed and rescheduled. Unofficially, Union II would have had only 11 bodies available and two of the 11 would have been keepers. Four first-team Homegrowns were in Honduras in the Concacaf U20 championship tournament, the U17s were in Texas playing almost daily for MLS NEXT Cup, there were injuries on the first and second professional teams, there were post-graduation Academy departures, and the first team played the next day.

Historically the organization’s roster variation has not been as extreme.

A Union II forecast

Combining all the constraints, we generalize roster availabilities and guess the results for Union II’s remaining schedule.

Day/Date

Match

1st team availability

Predict

points

When

Location

Estimate

SU 8/7

@ Cincy 2

After

same

good

3

SU 8/14

Miami II

After

same

good

3

SU 8/21

Revs II

After

different but close

good

3

TH 8/24

@ NYC II

——

recovery time will govern

??

0

SA 8/27

@ Crew 2

Same

different

poor

0

SU 9/4

RNY

After

different but close

good

1

SU 9/11

OCB*

After

same

good

3

SU 9/18

@ Revs II

After

different

poor

0

             

*Matt Freese is suspended for the OCB match.

After the Major League Soccer secondary transfer window closes, we will know in full how much Ernst Tanner has increased the first team’s roster size. (Anton Sorenson could probably be made available to the Union via the MLS extreme hardship emergency roster rules if needed, even though unofficially he is on not-recallable loan to Union II.)

  • We know Tanner is negotiating to sign Marcos Zambrano as a Homegrown.
  • We are less certain of his plans for Frank Westfield, Bajung Darboe, and Boubacar Diallo.
  • Richard Odada has been signed. (He is a nearly 22-year-old Kenya national team defensive midfielder whose soon-to-expire contract was owned by Red Star Belgrade. but who has been on loan in the Serbian first division most recently. Odada needs a P-1 visa.) 

The discussion that follows assumes the additions of only Zambrano and Odada. If Mikael Uhre or Jose Riasco from Union II are indicators Odada may not arrive for a month or more.

Elaboration

We simply cannot guess how the organization will staff the August 24 Union II match at Belson Stadium against NYC FC II. And any injury among the quantitatively anorexic roster skews all projections no matter the how saturated by positional versatility.

Our “poor” first team availability estimate starts with Anton Sorenson, includes Cole Turner, and ends with Marcos Zambrano. For the matches given above whose first team availability is so categorized, Union II is on its own with bench help from Academy 2005s.

Our “good” estimates could mean an entire starting eleven. Repeat the recent Columbus match and replace Riasco with Zambrano.

The Rochester match on Sunday, September 4 is a candidate for such an all-out effort. It is in part because Rochester’s age and consistency of play should firmly challenge the first team’s reserves. But all-out efforts deny development minutes to players further back in the pipeline, so we foresee an all-first team starting eleven only once.

An Eastern Conference forecast

Union II must beat Cincinnati 2 in Cincinnati. They should beat Miami II at home. They must beat New England at home, a key match because it is a six-pointer against a team ahead of them in the table. Getting a point at NYC FC II in that key match is equally mandatory. Our chart suggests it is unlikely they take any points in Columbus. The key Rochester match at Subaru Park is a must win. They should defeat Orlando. But the chances of taking points from the six-pointer on the last day of the season at Gillette Stadium seem poor.

These results would add at least 13 points for a total of at least 36. That is at least 1.5 points-per-game with a goal differential reduced by a few as long as the two losses are not blowouts.

Deviations from the above would devastate Union II’s playoff chances. They must win against the good teams. Whether that is possible while achieving the required developmental goals remains to be seen.

Even if they accumulate all the points described above, it is not certain they will advance into the postseason. Currently, 1.5 points per game would not qualify in the either conference so they will need help.

Consider the remaining Eastern conference schedules, excluding Cincinnati’s.

Team

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

6th

7th

8th

CC 2

NY 2

@Cin2

@OCB

U II

Chi 2

@Mia2

Cin 2

NY 2

@CC2

OCB

@Chi2

U II

@Cin2

NE 2

@RNY

RNY

T II

@OCB

@Mia2

NE 2

@U II

@T II

NY 2

T II

OCB

@RNY

Cin 2

@Chi2

@Mia2

RNY

Mia 2

@OCB

NE 2

@Mia2

Chi 2

@U II

@RNY

OCB

@NY2

U II

Mia2

NE 2

@U II

RNY

T II

CC 2

@T II

@Chi2

U II

@Cin2

Mia 2

NE 2

@NY2

@CC2

RNY

OCB

@NE2

Chi 2

@STL

@NE2

NY 2

T II

@CC2

@Cin2

Mia 2

OCB

@T II

@NY2

RNY

CC 2

Cin 2

@NE2

@U II

T II

For Union II to advance Toronto, New England, and Miami must finish poorly, ideally committing fratricide amongst themselves.

Union II would be most helped if Columbus, New York, and Rochester win out, except against them.

The Union would be further helped if Chicago wins against all three of its remaining Northeast division opponents. In addition to those matches, Chicago plays St Louis, New York, and Columbus, as well as Cincinnati. So they would have to break current form to catch Philadelphia, but it could be as close as one point.

Like Union II and Toronto, Orlando has a game in hand on the rest of the conference. For the Union to advance, Orlando needs to sweep Toronto, beat New England in Massachusetts, and lose to New York, Rochester, Columbus, and Union II itself.

Union II’s dominoes must fall only in certain ways for it to achieve playoff eligibility.

7 Comments

  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I’m not betting on them making the playoffs, but I don’t think it is a major concern given the games where the team has been extremely short handed.
    .
    That being said, don’t completely count the kids out from being in Atlanta on 9/17 and then Foxboro on 9/18. After all, they played 60 minutes for Union II in the win against NYCFC II on April 30 and then hopped on a plane all the way to Nashville for the first team game the next day. If a playoff berth is on the line, they might just make that extra effort.
    .
    And I would give them 2 points against RNY on 9/4. Matt Freese looked damn good in the PK shootout against the Fire II in June.

  2. In re: PK shootouts, Caique from Rochester has looked very good as well.
    .
    In re: Atlanta to Foxboro, the Foxboro game will start mid-afternoon since it is a “Decision Day”. Atlanta to Boston should have plenty of flights, but it is less than a 24 hour window and they have to get themselves ready to play.

    • The window is longer than I thought. It is a 3:30 tap in Atlanta. So a postgame high carb meal and a full night’s sleep prior to an early morning get away to the airport would be crisply brisk but would be possible.

      There is a Delta nonstop that leave at 8:35 AM and arrives at 11:15 AM.
      .
      If only carry on luggage were used and duplicate clean uniforms traveledwith each teamwork avoid having to collect luggage in foxboro, and a taxi or taxis were waiting arriving an hour before tap might work., especially since Boston traffic would be early afternoon on Sunday
      .
      There can be no Patriots game. There could be a Red Sox game. And or a Celticsand Bruins preseason one to slow traffic. A helicopter from the airport might be a useful alternative.
      .
      Excellent thinking, Andy. It could work.
      .
      It would be a mental challenge to Sullivan, Craig, bueno, Donovan, etc always. To be ready for a match in those circumstances. Good developmental experience.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I was actually thinking they would fly out Saturday night after the Atlanta game (like they flew from Philly to Nashville after 60 minutes of the game at the end of April). I haven’t checked direct flights or anything, but it could also be useful that Providence is significantly closer to Foxboro than Boston is.
        .
        Even if they flew into Boston, Red Sox/Bruins/Patriots would have no significant effect on their travel as none of them play near the airport or on the route from the airport to Foxboro.

  3. As someone relatively new to this site, wanted to give thanks for taking the time to produce such a well done article. I also love that there are many more comments from the fanbase as the other site I frequent not only doesnt have this level of analysis but there are minimal fan comments.

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    In unrelated news, the new away Leeds kits are available at the Leeds store. They nicely match a navy Union hat and we have 3 Aaronson’s ordered…

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