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De George: The good, the bad and the ugly of the Union’s first half

The Philadelphia Union are halfway through the 2024 season, and it has been … a lot.

Setting aside the obvious disappointment of the season’s first 16 games – the team that has collected the most points in MLS since the start of the 2018 season sits eighth in the East, still in playoff position but precariously so – how the Union have gotten here is perplexing. They have in three months summoned great resolve yet suffered equally confounding mental weakness. They’ve won games they had no business winning while also frittering away games of the type they haven’t lost in years.

It’s a cipher. And half of their runway for figuring it out is gone.

“We’ve been too extreme this year,” manager Jim Curtin said after last week’s 2-2 draw with Montreal. “We’ve played some really good soccer, and then we’ve given up some really silly goals. Part of that is continuity – players in, players out – but every team goes through that. We have to find a way to get a rhythm, get a break, create your own luck and get on a run, because we’re behind of where we want to be points wise.”

A look at what has befallen the Union so far this season, for better and for worse.

Good >> The Union’s away form.

The Union are 3-0-5 on the road. That’s one shy of the MLS record for the longest unbeaten streak to start a season, set by the 2013 Portland Timbers. In a league where road wins are notoriously scarce, the Union seem to have it down. It’s everything else that is eluding them.

Bad >> The Union’s home form.

From a loss to Club America in CONCACAF Champions League in the fall of 2021 – that is, nearly three years ago – through the end of March, the Union were 38-3-16 in all competitions at home. Since, they are 0-4-2.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around the enormity of the shift. The Union over nearly three full seasons collected points at a rate of 2.28 per game at home. This year, they have six points at home out of a possible 24, tied for the second-worst return in the league.

And now, they are faced with having to beat (an albeit Lionel Messi-less) Inter Miami next week to avoid tying a franchise record of seven straight winless home games, set in 2014.

Ugly >> Conceding first nine times.

The Union have had allowed the first goal in nine of 16 games. It’s a minor miracle that they’re only 1-3-5 in those games.

For comparison, they allowed the first goal 13 times last season and just eight times in that magical – and increasingly unreplicable – 2022 campaign.

The Union have the worst first-half goal differential in the league at minus-8 (six for, 14 against). Their plus-12 in the second half trails only Inter Miami’s plus-14 as the league’s second best.

Good >> Strong xG numbers.

The Union are second in MLS in expected goal differential (xGD) per 90 minutes. That is, if they performed as the underlying numbers expect, they should have the second-highest goal differential in the league at plus-7.7. (Their plus-4 GD is sixth in the East.)

The Union are slightly underperforming their xG – 27.9 xG against 27 goals scored – but way underperforming on goals allowed. The numbers indicate the Union should’ve given up 20.2 goals this year, as opposed to 23 allowed.

Conventional wisdom indicates that over a long season, as luck and bounces even out, teams eventually perform as the numbers say. That’s good news for the Union. But chronic under- or overperformance also says something. For instance, Inter Miami’s xG is 29.8. It has scored 42 times this year. That says it has players who can ruthlessly convert half chances. The Union, meanwhile, are second in MLS with 55 in big chances created (very good) and first in big chances missed at 35 (very bad), per Fotmob.

Bad >> 0 counteratttack goals.

There’s a good built into this: The Union lead MLS with 10 goals scored off set pieces. They’ve only allowed three on set pieces, among the best in MLS.

But that reveals a more glaring negative: The Union are one of five teams without a counterattack goal this season, per WhoScored.

That’s an identity issue. The Union under Ernst Tanner have been predicated on counterattacking. They want you to have the ball, they want to pressure you, turn you over and go quickly to goal. But that isn’t happening. Teams, particularly at Subaru Park, are sacrificing the ball to stay compact and not give counter chances. The Union are 15th in possession, way too high for their liking (and reflective of chasing games that they trail early). They are 20th in fouls committed, signifying both a lack of a aggression and game states. They were third and second in that category each of the last two years.

Ugly >> Goals conceded outside the box.

This might be the most disastrous one. The Union have allowed 10 goals from outside the box this season. They didn’t allow a single one for more than a year, including the whole 2022 season.

That number is the most in MLS. WhoScored keeps goals scored outside the box, a category which Sporting KC leads with eight. It doesn’t keep zones on goals conceded.

That doesn’t fall on Oliver Semmle, who has slightly overperformed his post-shot xG numbers. Andre Blake, hampered by injuries, significantly underperformed relative to xG in his five games.

Good >> Daniel Gazdag’s open play goals.

If there was a knock on Gazdag’s 36 goals over the last two seasons, it was that half came from the penalty spot, where he was 18-for-18. The Union’s 11 PKs last season were an MLS record for one person. Gazdag had three non-PK goals last year, just one before September.

This season, he has seven goals from open play. All of the Union’s big three are overperforming his xG. Even the occasionally maligned Mikael Uhre has five goals on an xG of 4.8. If the Union’s offensive struggles are because their attackers aren’t way overperforming, that’s a system flaw.

Bad >> The schedule.

The Union are in a hole. Eighth at this point isn’t a catastrophe, but the Union needed an early cushion.

They’ve yet to play first-place Miami, second-place Cincinnati or fourth-place New York Red Bulls. They still have two games left with Columbus, which sits seventh in the table, though fifth on PPG after the MLS Cup holder’s run to the CONCACAF Champions Cup final.

That’s eight games of the 18 remaining. The Union will be without Gazdag (Euros), Damion Lowe and Jose Martinez (Copa America) and likely Nathan Harriel and Jack McGlynn (Olympics) for most of the summer. They may not field a full team until after the Leagues Cup in late August.

Last year, the Union finished third in that competition at a heavy price, stumbling home in the MLS season at 3-2-6. They won’t survive a similar slump this year.

Ugly >> The closing of a window.

Alejandro Bedoya is likely to retire at the end of the season, though he’s been more pivotal this year than most expected. Julian Carranza’s contract is up and European clubs are circling. Jack Elliott and Olivier Mbaizo enter their final option years in 2025. Martinez is in the final 18 months of his deal, the Union’s last chance to entertain substantive offers from Europe.

The Union’s window to win with this group is closing fast. The front office, whiffing on each of the last four transfer windows, has done little to prop it open.

If you thought the first half of the season was tumultuous, there aren’t exactly calm seas ahead.

Contact Matthew De George at mdegeorge@delcotimes.com.


Source: Berkshire mont

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