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What Happened To The Union Offense? (with Cliff Notes)

The Union offense has taken a step back this season. Here's a detailed breakdown of what's gone wrong.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Union spent their offseason shoring up the forward position. They re-signed Conor Casey, traded their first round pick for C.J. Sapong, used their first draft pick on Dzenan Catic and signed a Designated Player in Fernando Aristeguieta. Combining those acquisitions with an unchanged and experienced midfield, it was reasonable to think the Union offense would take a step forward. Fast forward to now, the Union haven't just failed to improve, they are 18% off their pace from last year. Huh? What's all this? Well, the Cliff Notes answer is very simple, but if you dig a little deeper a few interesting things crop up.

The Cliff Notes answer

Okay, the basic answer is penalty kicks, or a complete lack thereof. Last year the Union were seven for seven on penalty kicks and this year they are zero for one. Those seven goals, adjusted for playing just 27 games, make up about 70% of the difference between this year and last year. Last year, the Union earned three penalty kicks from handballs, one from a foul on a corner kick (Edu was fouled) and three fouls in the box during the run of play (Hoppenot, Pfeffer, Ribeiro). They made all seven attempts.

It's worth noting that just three of the seven were during Curtin's tenure, meaning that Curtin's team has earned just four penalty kicks in the 45 games he's managed. League wide, teams earn a penalty kick on average every five games. Curtin averages a penalty kick every 11 games. Whether or not it's just bad luck or his teams are not as aggressive in the box is up for debate. It's certainly something to watch.

The rest of the problem

Outside of penalty kicks the Union offense is pretty much the same as last year, which still might seem disappointing. Further breaking down the differences between this year and last year do tell an interesting story for those who want more than the Cliff Notes.

Scoring can be broken down into three simple buckets:

1. How many shots a team takes

2. The quality of the shots a team takes

3. The percentage of shots a team finishes

Starting with the total shots, the Union are down substantially from last year. Excluding penalty kicks the Union averaged 13.5 shots per game last season and are shooting just 11.7 times per game this year, a drop of 13%. This is partially due to having 3% less possession than last year, but mostly it's due to just being less effective with the ball offensively, because...

The quality of the shots are actually the same as last year. Using the expected goals model from American Soccer Analysis, the Union were expected to score on 10.8% of their non-penalty shots in 2014. That number is exactly the same this year. That means that the quality of the shots on average is identical. So the Union aren't sacrificing shots to get better ones. They're getting the same shots, just less of them.

Lastly, looking at finishing rates, or the percentage of time the Union score when they take a shot, the Union are improved. With all of the investment in forwards, I would hope so. The Union finished 9.4% of their non-penalty kick shots last year and this year that number has climbed to 10.0%. These numbers are still below the average expected scoring rate of 10.8%, so the team shoots less than average. Definitely something that needs to be improved.

Now let's dig into the source of the shots being taken to determine where things might be going awry. Note: the following statistics are only through the Chicago game, which means that all of these numbers are slightly overstated as the last two games have produced just one goal.

Crosses? We don't need no stinking crosses!!

The Union love to send crosses into the box. Last year they led the league with 24.2 crosses per game. This year they are tied for 4th with 21.9. The trouble is they stink at them. Across MLS the last two seasons 11.8% of crosses resulted in an attempted shot and 13% of those shots went in. The net result is that 1.5% of crosses result in a goal. Last year, when the Union were crossing machines, they were actually slightly above average at them.

union crosses

The chart above, however, reveals that the Union have taken a step back this year, scoring goals on just 1.2% of their cross attempts. If the Union are going to rank in the top five in the league at something, I would hope it would be something they excel in. Instead they are more than 20% worse than the average team.

Here is a table of the Union players' cross efficiency (minimum 10 crosses attempted through game 25):

Crosses Shots / Cross Goals / Shot Goals / Cross xG / Cross
Maidana 207 17% 6% 1.0% 1.7%
Fabinho 53 13% 14% 1.9% 1.6%
Le Toux 83 11% 22% 2.4% 1.5%
Williams 58 10% 17% 1.7% 1.5%
Ayuk Mbu 29 14% 0% 0.0% 1.3%
Gaddis 40 10% 0% 0.0% 1.1%
Pfeffer 14 7% 0% 0.0% 0.6%
Sapong 12 8% 100% 8.3% 0.5%
Nogueira 12 0% 0% 0.0% 0.0%
Wenger 42 0% 0% 0.0% 0.0%

Cristian Maidana attempts about a third of all of the Union's crosses and he actually leads the team in creating shots from his crosses with a 17% conversion rate. Unfortunately just 6% of those shots were finished for some reason and overall his crosses are very inefficient. However, looking at expected goals from his shots would in theory take out the noise from a relatively small sample size, and by this math Maidana is the best on the team.

The Union might be a bit unlucky but they are clearly not an efficient or obviously above average crossing team. So why do they rank so high in the league in attempting them? They might want to consider passing on a few of these crosses and working the ball back to the middle.

When the ball lies still

When it comes to corner kicks and set pieces the Union aren't good but they're not terrible either. In 2015 the Union generate shots from corners and set pieces at a lower rate than the MLS average, but they almost make up for it with better shooting.

union corners

The Union were actually above average at scoring from corner kicks in 2014, but their rate of getting shots from corners has fallen off dramatically in 2015. A forward's job is to get on the end of corners and they just aren't getting it done in 2015.

Union set pieces

Set pieces are another opportunity for the Union as they again have consistently performed below the league average, due entirely to getting fewer shots than the rest of the league. Is this another example of a team that just isn't threatening enough in the final third and therefore teams are less prone to fouling them? Is this the same issue that is plaguing the Union when it comes to penalty kicks?

Run Union Run!

While hardly statistics that cry "Eureka! We struck gold!" the Union are simply best during the run of play and not crossing the ball. They are hardly barnburners but at least the statistics aren't depressing.

union run of play

In the run of play the Union have been better than or at league average. Keep in mind the Union actually possess the ball about 6% less than the average team, which is a disadvantage in this statistic. Average isn't great but it makes the playoffs in MLS. All of this points to the Union needing to push the ball back to the middle to try to break down the defense through the middle. In the more crowded space they would be more likely to draw fouls and penalty kicks and they are most efficient when they are able to play this way.

Given Maidana will be out for one or more games and Barnetta will likely be manning the #10 role, it will be interesting if the ball is played more centrally. Even as a central midfielder Maidana favors drifting wide and playmaking from the sidelines. This no doubt influences not only his exorbitant cross level but also the cross level of the entire team. Perhaps someone like Barnetta who is not prone to crossing (just eight attempted so far this season) will naturally bring the ball more centrally where the Union have been most efficient.

The Cliff Notes Summary

The Union struggle to score when playing from wide positions, whether they are attempting crosses or corners. The offense is most efficient in the run of play when the play does not result in a cross, which is presumably on the counterattack. The name of the game for a Union opponent is to slow their attack, bunch the middle and force the Union out wide. Meanwhile the Union need to stop settling for those crosses and work the ball back to the middle. Perhaps that pressure will draw more fouls and better play to their strengths.

But this entire post focused on the Union getting back to last year's level or just meeting the league average. The desire is obviously to be more. They're clearly miles away from that conversation.

Data for this post from American Soccer Analysis and Whoscored