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‘Big 3’ hold Philadelphia Union’s playoff hope



Photo by Carl Gulbish

The collective play of the Union’s “Big 3” of Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza and Michael Uhre will determine how far the team goes in this playoff run. With the Union’s defense coming back to earth after their superhuman performance in 2022, the Union need their Big 3 to perform like the top trio remaining. And while the Union’s Big 3 may have underperformed relative to last year’s eye-popping offensive results, they can still be the difference as they form the most formidable trio remaining in the MLS playoffs.

In the memorable 2022 season, the Union offensive trio tallied 49 goals and 14 assists. This season they tallied 37 goals and that same 14 assists. Looking at their expected goals and expected assists, the two seasons were actually more balanced. The Big 3 xG+xA in 2022 was 50, while that same figure in 2023 was 45. Five goals is not that big of a difference, but the actual output was certainly a notable drop-off.

The data above means that the trio outperforms the quality of their chances consistently (actually creates more from their chances than average players), but they were significantly more efficient converting last season than this one. Some of that is just being less sharp. Some of that is being a little less lucky. However, that breaks down, the Union Big 3 are still a force.

Their 51 goals and assists ranks 2nd overall for any top 3 players on a team in the league, and is tied with LAFC for best of the remaining eight teams. LAFC’s trio of Denis Bouanga, Carlos Vela, and Kwadwo Opoku split that 35 goals and 16 assists. Here’s how the remaining playoff teams breakdown.

The Union will be facing Cincinnati FC on November 25th in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, and they bring their own Big 3 to the table. The Cincinnati trio produced roughly as much as the Union’s. Brandon Vazquez, Luciano Acosta and Alvaro Barreal are their top producers, netting 30 goals and linking 18 assists. The interesting wrinkle is that Barreal does it from a deeper position than usual. He plays wingback/fullback in a similar role to that of the Union’s Kai Wagner.   

The two defenses are solid and produced at similar levels, with the Union allowing 41 goals (45 xGA) and Cincinnati’s allowing 39 goals (38 xGA). The Union outperformed their xGA due to the wizardry of Andre Blake who gave up 3.4 less goals than expected throughout the season. 

The game projects to be very tight and defensive, and it may just take one moment from one of the “Big 6” players in this match to make the difference. Will it be Gazdag, Carranza or Uhre with the strike or assist? Will Acosta, Vazquez or Barreal be the difference? Or will it be a hero that isn’t counted on to find the net?

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