Over the last few weeks I've had the "pleasure" of writing scouting reports on two teams — FC Dallas and Colorado — that were doing well in the standings at the time but who had really poor fundamentals. The Sounders comfortably handled both of those teams and I'm pretty confident both are going to slide down the standings.
This week we're changing it up. The Philadelphia Union are in the 8th spot in the East with less than a point per game, and head coach John Hackworth's seat is starting to get mighty hot. The prevailing wisdom is that after trouncing 'good' teams like Colorado and Dallas, the Sounders are going to eat alive a 'bad' team like Philadelphia. But I don't believe this is a bad team. I don't even believe that it's badly coached.
In all of the components that we find are good signals for positive results long term — recoveries, duels won, passing in the offensive third — the Union are in the top half of the league. They're tremendously good in actions that lead to high accuracy shots — they're first in the league in both breakaway chances and through balls per game. But confoundingly. . maddeningly, if you're a Union fan. . they are terrible at getting shots on goal.
They have, somewhat perversely, the exact same number of shots as Seattle: 114 (though the Union have played one more game). That's tied for second in the league behind Houston. But what's the rate that they put shots on target?
|2||Real Salt Lake||41.3%|
I've done work in the past indicating the accuracy rate of shots is not consistent for players or teams, but there's always a possibility they just take consistently bad shots, though the high rates of breakaways and through balls makes that unlikely. We can check that with Expected Goals, which takes into account shot location. According to my model they have the third most expected goals in the league (behind Seattle and Chicago). According to Michael Caley's model they are also third (behind Seattle and Montreal).
So the possibilities are that the Union are uncommonly bad at shooting or that they are just having a bad run of luck getting shots on goal. Given how these things usually go, I'm pretty confident it's the latter and that they're going to start putting shots on frame commensurate with their total number of shots and that they'll be fine. But ideally they'll wait one more week to do it. And if they keep waiting to do it, Hackworth might lose his job because of variance.
|Maurice Edu||Doing a good Michael Bradley impression as a two-way holding midfielder. Promised to get forward more to help the offense.|
|Vincent Nogueira||Skilled playmaker lured to MLS after some very good years at Sochaux. Key to any offense they create.|
|Sheanon Williams||The reason most of the Union attack goes down the right. Not as fast as Yedlin, but a good passer.|
The foundation of the team is the midfield group of Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Brian Carroll. Edu and Nogueira are two of the top additions to the league this season — Edu rather notably with the extended drama over whether the league was willing to pay him what Philadelphia wanted to pay him, and Nogueira much more quietly as the new central attacking playmaker. Carroll has just always been a very good MLS midfielder. In Hackworth's system, Edu and Carroll play behind Nogueira in a 4-2-3-1 and together they effectively control the central midfield.
The weaknesses of the team start to show up as you drift out of the core. The Union dealt occasional national team flirter Jack McInerney for one-time #1 overall pick Andrew Wenger, who wasn't producing much of anything for Montreal. Now Wenger plays as the lone forward and so far he's shown neither the hold up ability nor the ability to create his own shot that would suggest he could flourish there. On the wings against Montreal they played Fabinho (generally a fullback) and Danny Cruz, both of whom are serviceable but not game-changing. Cristian Maidana and ex-Sounder Sebastien Le Toux are also options, but they haven't looked any more incisive this year (which is presumably why they were dropped to the bench).
In defense, the pair of Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler are young, but effective. Sheanon Williams at right back is one of the better fullbacks in the league, to the point that there's perpetual outrage in the City of Brotherly Love that DeAndre Yedlin is getting NT looks and Williams isn't. His runs forward allow the right wing to cut in and fill out the attacking numbers behind Wenger. But with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins terrorizing central defenses over the last month, he's likely to be much less aggressive about going forward, as will Carroll and Edu in midfield.
The other twist that's notable about the Union this season is their upfield pressure. They're using a much higher Line of Confrontation (as they kids these days are calling it) and are consistently badgering opposing defenses to force quick passes. This creates an interesting conundrum for Hackworth. Because that tactic has been successful against the Sounders this season. . the defenders and midfielders have shown a worrying tendency to make bad choices on the ball under pressure. But if he chooses to do that and he drops the defensive midfield off to cover for the defense, he'll leave massive gaps in the central midfield for Osvaldo Alonso to pick out passes and Dempsey to drop into to pick up the ball. If he chooses to compress the space by pushing the defensive line up he'll be running the risk of through balls and balls over the top putting two very good finishers one on one with one of the least confident starting goalkeepers in the league.
I think the Union are underrated, but not so much that they should be any kind of favorites here. They might be. . say.. the 7th best team in the league instead of the 14th. But on the road against a team that's clearly one of the top 2 or 3 and coming off of a very bad first quarter of the season with a coach who has to know his feet are to the fire, they're almost certainly going to be incredibly cautious. That means playing for a point and hoping they aren't picked apart like the corpses of the last four defenses the Sounders have faced.