This is a guest feature by Matt Acconciamessa, founder and editor of US Soccer Daily.
All we are saying…
…is give us a goal…
The chants and pleas of the PPL Park faithful sitting there above this sentence and far too often this young season.
The Union are stringing together great results here early in the season and put together the club’s first ever winning streak, but it would be a challenge to label it scintillating soccer.
Through 9 matches, the Philadelphia Union have managed to score just 6 goals. It’s a stark contrast to the 2010 side that put together attractive, attacking play in their inaugural campaign, and a statistical comparison of the two seasons (through 9 matches) reflect that.
Before delving into that, it bears mentioning that there was a lot of offseason change in Chester, with several key contributors leaving, a couple of recent signings assuming more prominent roles, and some entirely new faces joining the squad. Defensively, everything’s “coming up Milhouse“; Carlos Valdes and Faryd Mondragon are two early contenders for the All-Star team, if not the Newcomer of the Year award.
Offensively? Well, the analogy there would be if Homer laced ’em up.
Alejandro Moreno and Shea Salinas departed via the expansion draft, Fred through the re-entry draft, and Andrew Jacobson through trade. Thus far, Carlos Ruiz has been called upon to fill Moreno’s shoes as a target striker, while players like Justin Mapp, Keon Daniel, Amobi Okugo, Brian Carroll, and Kyle Nakazawa have taken on bigger roles in the midfield.
This new crop of players has struggled building chemistry and maintaining possession in the attacking half all season, leading to a noticeable drop off in several notable offensive categories. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
Statistical comparisons between 2010 & 2011 seasons through 9 games:
Shots per game (’10 to ’11)- 10.89 down to 7.56
Shots on goal per game- 5.67 down to 2.89
Corner kicks per game- 4.22 down to 2.11
Goals (goals per game)- 11 (1.22) down to 6 (0.67)
Goals from the run of play- 9 (81.8%) down to 3 (50%)
Across the board, the Union are failing to create as much in the final third as they did a year ago. Daniel and Mapp have had some promising moments out wide, but haven’t been able to consistently stretch the defense, leading to a lot of stalled attacks, back passes, and a lack of corner kicks won. The same can be said in the middle of the park, where there hasn’t been a ton of creative play going forward thanks in part to some conservative lineup selection.
Find more on the Union, a preview of this weekend’s Fire game and more, here.
While a fluid lineup may be a suspected cause for the lack of cohesion, the fact of the matter is that Piotr Nowak has used the same number of unique starters (17) through 9 matches this year as he did up to the same point last season. Of those 17 however, there have been 10 different strikers and midfielders utilized in 2011, compared to just 8 in 2010.
What else might be a contributing factor?
For one, the Fish is not fresh; Carlos Ruiz has not lived up to his salary. Alejandro Moreno’s statistical production would not be defined as “prolific,” he was a solid facilitator in the offensive end, holding up well and drawing plenty of fouls. He provided a good outlet for his backs and midfielders by showing for the ball and shielding well, something that Ruiz has not done sufficiently.
Rather than frequently checking back, protecting, and distributing as his predecessor did, El Pescadito has shown a tendency to hang on the shoulder of the last defender, looking to utilize what he perceives as speed to get behind the defense. But ultimately this had led to a lot of misguided vertical runs by someone who simply doesn’t have the legs anymore to outpace most MLS defenders. That is, of course, when Ruiz is actually moving off the ball which is a challenge in and of itself.
Ruiz actually has been more damning than even his own product, taking up the exact positions that Sebastian Le Toux likes to wander into. Not exclusively due to Ruiz, Le Toux, who has come down to Earth after his MVP-caliber 2010.
Here are the numbers through 9 games from 2010 and 2011 for last year’s darling Frenchman:
2010: 5 goals, 3 assists in 7 appearances. Involved in 72.7% of the Union’s goals.
2011: 1 goal, 1 assist in 9 appearances. Involved in 33.3% of the Union’s goals.
Other reasons for the big drop off? Certainly it’s possible that last year’s statistical explosion was an anomaly, but Le Toux also seemed to be nagged by an injury through the opening month and a half of the season (though he did not admit to it) . Only until his side went a man down against San Jose on the last day of April did Le Toux really look like his old self, displaying the work rate and persistence that made him an offensive menace and defensive pest last season.
Interestingly enough, the Union’s offensive production over the two time spans isn’t quite what you would expect given the respective red card situations :
2010: 18.5% of first 9 matches played while a man down. 3 goals scored with a man disadvantage.
2011: Just 6.0% of the first 9 matches played while a man down, while 4.6% has been played with a man advantage. While a man down, the Union scored 1 goal. With a man advantage, the Union failed to get a single shot on target.
Could lineup choices be to blame? More specifically, could the new and improved defense, one of the stingiest in the league, actually be a blessing and a curse? Through 9 matches last season, the Union were Swiss cheese, giving up 18 goals (2 per game). This year, the cream…cheese. just 6 buckets conceded. By “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” logic, it’s no wonder Piotr Nowak continued to trot out defensive-oriented starting lineups in March and April. Unlike last season, he can legitimately expect 1 goal to be enough to earn a positive result, which might have made him more content to play things more conservatively. Only until the last couple of weeks, which were preceded by some ugly offensive efforts by Philadelphia, has Nowak opted to take a more attack-minded approach with his selections.
Beyond that, though, the strong defense has also resulted in tighter matches:
2010: During 23.2% of the first 9 matches, the Union or their opponent held a lead of two goals or more. 3.22 combined goals per game.
2011: Just 5.8% of the first 9 matches (all of which occurred last week in a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas) involved a lead of two goals or more. 1.33 combined goals per game.
Closer games means a greater focus on defense, which leads to fewer goals scored, particularly those that might occur during a lapse in focus when a team holds a multi-goal lead.
Could the answer simply be that the Union have heavier legs than they did at this point last season? To date, they have played 10 competitive matches (9 league, 1 US Open Cup qualifier) in 57 days. Compare that to last season, when they played the same number of matches (with the same split of 9 league, 1 cup) over the span of 73 days. Those 16 days are nothing to scoff at for rest and recovery in the early stages of the season.
Something else worth mentioning is that the Union haven’t really benefitted from a more balanced schedule. In 2011, they have played 5 of their first 9 matches at home, compared to just 2 of 9 in 2010 while PPL Park was still under construction.
For now, Philly fans can at least take solace in the fact that the results have been pretty good. Though last year’s squad may have been more aesthetically pleasing, they only mustered 7 points from the first 27 available, while the 2011 team has doubled that, sitting just one point out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
If the opening minutes of their most recent match against Dallas are any indication, the drought might soon come to an end with a little bit of luck. In the meantime, Piotr Nowak and his staff will continue to tinker in hopes of rekindling some of that offensive pop from a year ago.
May 21 is being touted by some zealots as the day of the rapture. It also happens to be the date of the Union’s next match, against Chicago. If Philly is able to finally score more than one goal in a game for the first time all season, they just might convince a few of their fans that the end is indeed near.