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What it will take for the Union to make the playoffs

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The revolving door that was the Philadelphia Union offseason has left fans breathless, confused and optimistic. Was it enough to get them into the playoffs?

The 2016 season is upon us and the Great Roster Overhaul of this Union offseason has fans thinking playoffs. The hope is not completely unfounded. Despite trading their number one playmaker Cristian Maidana and likely moving the franchise scoring and assist leader Sebastien Le Toux to the bench (a loss of 21 total assists from last year), the Union have upgraded their attacking midfield and added depth to a level unseen in the Union's brief history.

Not as much was accomplished on the defensive side where the focus was on youth and the changes were less dramatic. The Union added three defenders in the first round of the SuperDraft and signed 26 year old center back Anderson Conceicao, who is making the Union the 11th club on his resume. They've also added Drexel graduate and PDL/USL center back Ken Tribbett to bolster the defensive depth and potentially start.

Were these moves enough to get the Union to the playoffs? Let's take a look at what a playoff season would look like for the Union. First, what does it take to make the playoffs in MLS? Here is a chart that highlights the probability of making the playoffs based on how many goals a team scored and conceded in a season. In order to make your chance of making the playoffs better than a coin flip a team needs to have a goal difference of at least -2 goals (the orange bar).

mls playoff picture

Last season the Union finished with a goal differential of -13. In the last three season thirteen different teams have entered the year have a -10 goal differential or worse in the prior season and just three have turned the team around enough to qualify for the playoffs. So the odds don't start out well.

Let's start with the offense where the Union scored a paltry 42 goals last year. While the Union did add significant depth to the attacking midfield, they did not add much force to the striker position. The attacking midfielders they did add have not been efficient scorers in the careers. Below is a table that looks at the 34 game goal scoring average run rate of the likely starting XI. For defenders and the bench I just assumed a reasonable placeholder. The bench players will likely end up scoring more than five goals, but they will come as starters and for now we're assuming the starters play all 34 games. For Union players with 25+ games in uniform I've used their Union average and for the rest I used the average of their last few seasons.

34 Game Average

Sapong

11

Ilshino

4

Barnetta

2

Alberg

7

Nogueira

4

Edu

3

Defense

1

Bench

5

Total

37

As you can see there is not a lot of punch in the lineup when looking at the player's historical averages. Only one team in 16 in the last four seasons has made the playoffs scoring less than 40 goals.

But there are expectations that Sapong will take the next step as striker and that the newcomers will benefit from playing in MLS, where competition is not quite as strong as their prior leagues. Let's project an optimistic view of goal scoring for the Union this season.

34 Game Average

2016 Aggressive Projection

Sapong

11

14

Ilshino

4

5

Barnetta

2

4

Alberg

7

9

Nogueira

4

5

Edu

3

4

Defense

1

2

Bench

5

7

Total

37

50

This is what it would take to get the Union to 50 goals scored. Teams that achieve 50 or more goals make the playoffs 88 percent of the time. Much better. The issue is these numbers feel unlikely for all of them to achieve at the same time. More than likely we are dealing with an offense that will score a similar number of goals to last season.

Which brings us to the defense. The defense allowed a disappointing 55 goals last season. There is no question the defense will need to improve to give the Union a chance at the playoffs. With Andre Blake the full time starter between the pipes I would like to think anything is possible, but this defense will have some growing pains together, especially since the projected backups have no MLS experience.

Assessing how a defense will fare is more difficult because defense is a team effort. Additional possession controlled by the improved midfield might take enough pressure off the defense until they create their own identity. However well the new defense fares, it's very likely they will need to carry the burden of improving over last year's bar.

Here's that same chart with the spot of last year's Union marked by their logo. They have a long way to go to get to a positive goal differential and a strong chance of making the playoffs.

playoff picture Union

If the Union manage to put up 45 goals this season, for example, then the defensive will have to shave around 10 goals from last year's number to get the team in the playoffs. Have the Union done enough make both of those things happen? It doesn't seem like it, but that's why they play the games and it's that hope that will keep us coming back.