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The Philadelphia Union take the best quality shots in MLS

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The Union aren't good at possession or even shooting - so how do they lead the league in goals?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

How do the Philadelphia Union lead the league in goals scored with 34 without a top-class shooter? They collectively take the best quality shots in the league. The Union rank 13th in the league with 49% possession but have been efficient converting that possession into the 7th most shots in the league. But what sets them apart is getting the best quality shots. Believe it or not, their aren't particularly good at finishing those shots either. Let's dig in.

An expected goals model predicts the likelihood that an average shooter will score a goal given certain characteristics of the shot, like the angle to the goal, the distance from the goal, whether or not the shot was from a header, etc. An average shot will have an expected goal score of 0.1 because roughly 10% of shots go in the net in MLS. American Soccer Analysis has developed such a model, which is a series of regression models built on historical shot data.

When using that model and comparing teams around the league, the team with the best expected goals score is the Philadelphia Union, a good bit ahead of second place LA Galaxy. The Union's expected goal score of 14.1% (xFR% below) indicates that an average shooter would have a better finishing rate on the Union than any other team, and because the average player is always an average player the only difference can be the quality of the shots. Here's how the league runs down as of July 13th (not including own goals).

Rank Team Shots xG G xFR%
1 Philadelphia 247 34.72 30 14.1%
2 LA 190 23.92 29 12.6%
3 Portland 242 29.93 28 12.4%
4 Columbus 193 23.78 16 12.3%
5 Orlando 197 23.01 26 11.7%
6 Salt Lake 209 23.33 27 11.2%
7 NYRB 250 27.8 28 11.1%
8 New England 289 31.99 29 11.1%
9 DC 234 25.5 17 10.9%
10 Vancouver 254 27.57 28 10.9%
11 San Jose 203 21.97 19 10.8%
12 NYCFC 289 30.65 31 10.6%
13 Montreal 211 21.3 28 10.1%
14 Dallas 260 26.22 30 10.1%
15 Toronto 229 22.96 19 10.0%
16 Kansas City 288 28.6 24 9.9%
17 Houston 226 22.24 22 9.8%
18 Seattle 229 22.51 14 9.8%
19 Chicago 184 16.59 15 9.0%
20 Colorado 245 21.03 21 8.6%

Note: Pretty fascinating that the Rapids take the most difficult shots in the league.

Notice one other thing about the Union. If all of the Union shooters were average, then the expected goals model (xG) would have the Union scoring 34.72 goals through July 13th. The problem is the Union scored just 30 goals and therefore have been below average shooters.

Here's a look player by player at the top and bottom finishers on the Union (minimum 5 shots attempted)

First Last Shots G xG xG-G xFR%
Chris Pontius 32 6 4.79 1.21 15%
Roland Alberg 30 6 4.84 1.16 16%
Vincent Nogueira 14 2 0.95 1.05 7%
Brian Carroll 8 1 0.63 0.37 8%
Richie Marquez 7 1 0.73 0.27 10%
Fabinho 6 0 0.24 -0.24 4%
Keegan Rosenberry 11 1 1.44 -0.44 13%
Ilsinho 17 2 2.48 -0.48 15%
Fabian Herbers 14 1 1.52 -0.52 11%
Ken Tribbett 9 1 1.54 -0.54 17%
Leo Fernandes 9 0 0.8 -0.8 9%
Tranquillo Barnetta 28 2 2.91 -0.91 10%
Sebastien Le Toux 15 2 3.89 -1.89 26%
C.J. Sapong 41 5 7.72 -2.72 19%

Chris Pontius and Roland Alberg lead the team in shot effeciency, having combined for 2.4 more goals than should be expected. At the bottom of the list are Sebastien Le Toux and CJ Sapong who have scored 4.6 fewer goals than an average shooter would have. This is despite the fact that Le Toux and Sapong lead the team in highest quality shots taken. The fact that Herbers has also been under performing underscores even more clearly that striker is a big need during the transfer window.

The secret to the Union's offensive success this season has been getting a good volume of high quality shots. If they can keep that up and start shooting like average players, the offense could be stronger than it already is.