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Have we seen the last of the cross happy Union?

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The Union aren't sending crosses into the box as often this year. Is that a secret to their success?

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This past offseason the Philadelphia Union departed with a trio of offensive-minded players and replaced them with a trio of midfielders that would better hold possession in the midfield. They traded their creative wizard and assist leader Cristian Maidana and let forwards Fernando Aristeguieta and Conor Casey walk. In their place they signed solid attacking midfielders in Chris Pontius, Ilshino and Roland Alberg. Not surprisingly the new additions have failed to directly contribute offensively, tallying just two goals and one assist between them (all from Pontius) and they've collectively finished just two of their 28 shots for an unbecoming 7.1% shooting percentage. That's a pace to reach just 11 goals and five assists from the new trio, and obviously that won't get it done.

Despite the slow start from those new players, collectively the offense is on track to match last year's goal tally with eight goals in six games. One of the key reasons the Union have been able to maintain their offensive form is that the team has gone away from the tendency to rely on crosses. The credit goes to new improved midfield, which has been able to breakdown the opposing defenses in the center of the pitch (where attacking is most dangerous) and create more chances. So far this year the Union are averaging 13.3 shots per game, whereas last year's number was 11.2.

The Union have historically been addicted to crosses. Here's a look at back all the way to 2013:

Crosses per Game

Cross Completion %

2013

22.3

24%

2014

24.2

21%

2015

20.7

26%

2016

17.0

21%

The league average is about 19 crosser per match so the Union have typically been above average, except for this season. That 2014 figure led the league and last year they ranked sixth in crosses. The Union are down to 17 this season, 18% below last year's number. Just two games ago their average stood at 13.5, so it's inched up the last two matches. Here's a graphical view of the team's crosses alongside key passes (passes that lead to a shot attempt) and danger zone entries (passes that that lead to possession in the central section of the 18 yard box).

union attacking passes

The pink and brown dots represent key passes and danger zone entries respectively, and you can see the Union have been much more concentrated in the center of the pitch this season. They have 29 such passes this season, compared to just 19 through the same number of games last year. Examining the light blue dots representing crosses, you can see that the crosses have declined - most notably from the right side of the pitch where passing is down about 25% from that area.

Crosses aren't ideal but they can be effective

The brown dots on the image above show why crosses are not the ideal offensive weapon. A majority of the Union's key passes come from the center of the pitch - in fact across all of MLS last season, just 7% of crosses resulted in a shot and only 1.2% resulted in a goal. To put that latter number in context, that's about the same likelihood as a shooter scoring a goal from about five yards beyond the 18 yard box. It's basically a Hail Mary. A cross does however have an advantage over a long shot. The ball usually ends up in the center of the box, and the offense might continue on from there. Breaking down the center of a defense is always going be the preferred way if given the choice.

One team that used crosses very effectively last year was Columbus Crew SC. In 2015 they led the league with 26.2 crosses per game but they also turned 1.9% of them into a goal, well above the rest of the league. Here is a chart that shows how much better than the rest of the league the Crew were at crosses.

cross graph

The Union were slightly better than average at crosses last season, so it wasn't the worst strategy, but their high reliance on the crosses ultimately impacted the number of shots they took - and ultimately how many they converted. This year, despite the lack of a scoring threat beside CJ Sapong, they've been able to convert more possession in the final third into shots and convert those shots more consistently.

Credit the midfield with this shift in strategy. It should be noted that the Union attempted 20 and 28 crosses in their last two matches, both with Ilshino out of the starting lineup. Is it Ilshino's influence on the Union or are the opposing defenses packing in the center more effectively and forcing the Union out wide? It's a trend worth watching as the season progresses.

Note: Data for this post was collected from mlssoccer.com, americansocceranalysis.com and whoscored.com. Special thanks to @KevinMinkus for the attacking pass charts.