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Philadelphia Union have nothing to fear but themselves

Heading into Decision Day, all of the Union’s goals are still firmly in front of them

Jack Verdeur

Despite Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing at the feet of Charlotte FC and new star Daniel Rios, who improved his goals per game ratio from .06 to .19 in a single swoop, the Union still sit in the same position as before the international break when they were the hottest team in the league.

Yes, they lost the opportunity to capture their second Supporters’ Shield in three seasons and host throughout the playoffs, but Charlotte may have done the Union a favor by knocking them off that pedestal. Only one team (Toronto 2017) has won the Shield and the Cup in the same season in the last ten years and only four teams have accomplished the double in the last twenty years. The Union will still be considered favorites to win, and let’s not forget the last time they played LAFC at Banc of California Stadium, they may have been the better side.

The Union performances over the past two games have certainly raised eyebrows, but should we be concerned that Toronto beat the Union 2-1 on two late defensive lapses and have since splashed the market and added multiple international stars? Or should we be worried that the league’s best offense had one shot on goal over the past 180 minutes?

No, because heading into Decision Day, all of the Union’s goals are firmly in front of them.

Sporting Kansas City set the goals against record in a 34-game season of 27 goals against in 2012. The Union had breathing room, but now with 26 goals against, they need a shutout to earn the record outright. In that season, Kansas City finished second overall, then lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Houston in a three-game series.

LAFC set the record for goals for and goal differential in 2019 with 85 goals for and a +48. The Union dropped to +42, which likely dashes their chances for that mark, but they currently have the second-best all-time GD, ahead of LA Galaxy’s +41 set in 1998. Both LAFC and the Galaxy lost in the conference finals in those seasons.

At 11-0-5, the Union are a win away from tying the record for home winning percentage (12-0-5, 85.3%) set by LACF (2019), NYRB (2018), Toronto FC (2017), and LA Galaxy (2011). In those seasons, the Galaxy and Toronto won the MLS Cup while the Red Bulls and LAFC lost in the conference final.

After each loss this season, the Union have responded with fury. After the Toronto FC loss in April, the Union rattled off five-straight ties during the most debated point of the season. Though they weren’t wins, the Union outplayed their opponent in every game, all of them playoff teams. Two of those draws came on the road, and one of them against LAFC, the only team that can host the MLS Cup ahead the Union.

The Union didn’t lose again until a 3-1 road loss to Cincinnati in August and responded by trouncing Chicago 4-1 at home. The Union lost 1-0 in Dallas a game later, then posted the best offensive output over a five-game stretch in league history, amassing 23 goals while only conceding 2.

This Sunday, Union fans should expect a positive response, but though unlikely, for argument’s sake, let’s just say the Union do lay an egg and lose the top seed in the East to CF Montréal. The Union beat Montréal 2-1 on the road in March and drew at home in April. Montréal has the league’s best road record at 10-4-2, and are the only team other than the Red Bulls who are better on the road than at home. So if an ECF with Montréal is the Union’s destiny, putting the league’s best home record against the best road record at Subaru Park still presents some favorable matchup. And if the Union have to travel, they’ll be going to a place where they’ve already won this season.

Regardless of the Decision Day result, the Union will still host the first two rounds. If they fail to secure three points, what about the potential matchups in the first two rounds? The Union are 1-0-1 against Columbus and Miami and 2-0 against Orlando. All could likely finish between 5th and 7th place. Columbus and Orlando meet in a head-to-head battle that will determine the final playoff spots in the East. Both teams are level on points, and Columbus leads the GD advantage +6 to -10.

The Union are 0-1-1 against FC Cincinnati, who present the most difficult matchup among potential opponents. In two games against the club’s little brother, the Union have had their most anomalous performances.

As far as potential second round matchups go, the Union are 2-0 against NYCFC and 1-0-1 against NYRB, who are the league’s second-best road team at 9-5-3. In both games against the Pigeons, the Union were the better side. Against the Red Bulls, the Union were slightly better through the first three halves, then demolished their rival in the second half at Red Bull Arena in early September.

I’m a firm believer that performances heading into the post-season trumps any other statistic. There’s no magic switch that turns on during the knockout rounds at the professional level if a team is poor down the stretch. The Union are 6-3-1 over the last ten games for a 65% win percentage. During the stretch of ties (Toronto loss to NYCFC win), the Union were 2-1-7 for a 55% win percentage.

In 2020, the Union were 8-1-1 in the final stretch, good for 90%, then lost in the first round. In 2021, the Union were 5-1-4 over the final ten games, good for a 70% win percentage, and reached the ECF. If the Union win Sunday, they’ll be 7-2-1 over the final ten games, finishing with a 75% winning percentage, which is better than last year but not as good as 2020. But certainly the play heading into the finale is more reminiscent of last year than in 2020.

What concerns us most then is the threat of Covid, which shouldn’t be an issue this season, and the Union’s layoff should they earn the top seed in the East. Is this enough?

Here’s two more reasons why it shouldn’t.

Andre Blake has been one of the best players this season and will be the best player in the league over the next month. Blake’s save percentage took a ding last Saturday, but his 79.4 still currently ranks 4th all-time among keepers with over 20 games played behind Matt Reis (81.4, 24 GP, 2009), Joe Cannon (80.2, 30 GP, 2004), and Tony Meola (79.6, 31 GP, 2000). Meola was the only goalkeeper to win MLS MVP that season. Blake’s goals against average is .79, still on pace for the third-best all-time among keepers with more than 20 GP. Kevin Hartman posted a .62 GAA over 20 games in 2010, and Michael Gspurning had a.73 GAA in, 21 games played in 2012.

The play of Gazdag, Carranza, and Uhre has been the greatest difference between this season’s Union and the title contenders of the previous two seasons. The Union have never had three 10-plus goal scorers in a single season. Last season, they had one 10-plus goal scorer (Przybylko). In 2020, albeit in fewer games, the Union had two players at 8 (Przybylko, Santos), which would likely translate to 10-plus over a full season but was also part of the offensive struggles against compact defenses. The Union had two (2018-Burke, Picault, 2013-McInerney, Casey) seasons with two 10-plus goal scorers.

Against Charlotte, Gazdag, Carranza, and Uhre combined for a .5 XG with 7 shots, and against Atlanta, the trio were held to a 0 XG with 1 shot. This is the longest stretch of the season where none of the front three scored a goal, but there’s a strong chance the drought will change this weekend. Gazdag, Carranza, and Uhre have combined for 45 goals, still better than 10 MLS teams and tied with 2 others, which makes up 66% of the Union’s scoring output. The last time none of the three scored was against Dallas in August. They responded with 16 goals over the next five games.

There’s no question Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the recently eliminated Charlotte FC was disappointing, but over the course of a full season, the Union’s play continues to rank among the best teams in the history of MLS. Two scoreless games will not break the season. The history of this team as well as the comparable histories of teams in their position have proven the ceiling still remains the MLS Cup. The 2022 Union are better than any other Union team assembled, stronger defensively and more dynamic offensively than any that came before. So there shouldn’t be anything to fear because only one team stands in the way of preventing the Philadelphia Union from raising the Cup—the Philadelphia Union.