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Union Tactical Analysis: Stop taking the bait, Jim!



Photo by Carl Gulbish

Theories abound about what’s happened to the hapless 2024 version of the Philadelphia Union; too much reliance on youth, lack of depth, tactical inflexibility, playing practice heroes that aren’t good enough in a game, the league has improved while the Union have not, the clear regression of key players, Blake’s not there to save them…and on and on.

But I’m going to continue to pound a less heard supporter’s drum – the Union have abandoned the tactical approach that made them one of the league’s brightest sides. Other teams know what they do best, they are taking it away, and Jim Curtin is letting them.

One statistic reveals the tactical shift clearly (highlighted last season) and that is how direct the Union pass the ball. To get specific, a team’s passing directness can be measured by measuring the total distance completed passes travel toward the opponent goal as a percent of the total distance traveled of the completed passes. A directness of 40% would mean that for every 10 yards a team moves the ball, they progress the ball on average 4 yards toward the opponent goal. The higher the number the more direct they play, the lower the number, the more of a possession based side-to-side approach is occurring. 

The magic number for the Union appears to be 39%. When this directness measure is greater than 39% for a game, their record is miles better than when it is below 39%. This is pretty remarkable.


Clearly the Union are much better when playing direct. This gap widens when just looking at 2023 and 2024 campaigns. The Union still average 1.8 points per match when beating the 39% direct threshold, but they are now worse when they do not.


The change in philosophy is evident when looking at how often the Union manage to get above the 39%. During the epic 2022 campaign, they averaged 43% directness per game and achieved the 39% level 85% of the time.

Last season they only achieved the threshold 62% of the time and their overall directness dropped to 40%. 

This season they’ve reached the threshold just 47% of the time. Specifically, over the last 11 matches they’ve done it once, and directness has dropped to 36%. Not surprisingly, they have just 7 points in those 11 matches. 

So what’s going on? Teams know this same script, and to address it are allowing the Union to play in front of them, close off long ball angles and make them work their way up the pitch. And Curtin and the players are letting them. This creates two problems for the Union. First, the Union aren’t particularly good at breaking down opponent defenses with full numbers in the box. Not many teams are. And playing possession soccer forces the Union’s defense to hold a higher line, and the shape breaks down as players open up passing angles to move the ball forward.

The data shows this possession approach does indeed impact their ability to defend. Since the 2022 season, when the Union are above 39% directness they allow 0.9 goals per game. In the other games they allow 1.5 goals per game. 0.6 GOALS PER GAME impacted by how they pass the ball. Incredible. There is notably a game state effect likely in play there as well. When an opponent is winning they are more likely to sit deeper and take away long balls. The Union will also naturally push forward trying to get the equalizer. A game state based analysis might be something the Union want to take a look at, but this trend is larger than that.

While the defensive numbers are worse this season overall, this passing split still exists. In the 9 games the Union have exceeded 39% directness they’ve allowed 1.2 goals per game. They’ve allowed 2.0 goals per game in the games where they have not.

What can the Union do about it? Stop taking the bait and get back to their preferred style of play. Force the direct counter attacking approach they’ve abandoned. Focus on maintaining their defensive shape first and sending riskier long balls into the opponent territory, in an effort to get a numerical advantage. If they lose possession, so be it. They will at least have time to regain their defensive shape, which they desperately need. It’s time to play hot potato.

Can the Union turn this season around? It’s a long road to respectability. Maybe once the team is at full strength, with Blake back in the fold. But what they really need is to go back to what made them a really good team not too long ago. Dictate the style of play that made them that way.


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