Armchair Analyst: How the Philadelphia Union have become the most frustrating team in MLS
But here's the thing: I was actually kind of cheating for the first five weeks of the season. I just picked all the home teams to win, and I'll give you two good reasons why. First, home teams have historically been a great bet in MLS, winning 50.7 percent last year and 51.8 percent in 2012. My buddy Devin Pleuler, who is part mathematician and part Vulcan, joked about creating an algorithm to pick games vs. the MLS experts.
After talking an inappropriate amount of smack, he admitted that it would probably just pick the home team to win every game.
My second rationale is this: early in the season, it's pretty impossible to tell who's "good" and who's just "ok." I can tell you who's really good and who's bad, but that leaves 17 other teams to figure out.
"Ok" can sometimes beat "good," provided there's a mental lapse or a bad call or a lucky deflection. And OK can tie the hell out of good even without that.
Then you can have Ok vs. Ok, or good vs. good, and you might as well just throw darts. Or -- better -- pick the home team to win.
Then you have the Philadelphia freaking Union, who occupy every single spot on the "really good" to "outright crap" spectrum.
Let's talk a bit about their 2-2 home draw against RSL:
1. The Union are very, very good
There are a few things that I look for when trying to figure out how strong a team is. The biggest one, for me, is "do they know how to get out of their own end and maintain possession?"
With a mostly new midfield playing a mostly new formation, the Union should struggle with this aspect of the game. Building from back-to-front like that requires cohesion, which is tough to find in a single offseason.
Teams like RSL and Sporting KC have it. And somehow, Philly do already as well.
Look at their first goal on Saturday. That's one of the best back-to-front builds of the season. Brian Carroll's coverage is perfect, and Sheanon Williams does well to first beat Luke Mullholland, then hit a dead-accurate third-line pass to Vincent Nogueira.
Nogueira, meanwhile, has understood that, because of Carroll's solid defensive position and RSL being just a touch reckless, there is space to be found if he drifts to the flank.
And then, of course, there's the final ball. So pretty. And Andrew Wenger's finish is calm and precise.
But it wasn't just a "moment of brilliance" from Philly. It was a clockwork break that undressed a very good, very disciplined team.
2. The Union are very, very bad
Second, Austin Berry -- who had a miserable day -- fails to clear, instead trying to cheekily sidefoot out of trouble and into a gaggle of waiting teammates. Instead he plays it off of Javier Morales' shin, and that is why you don't screw around with the ball in your own 18 when Morales is right there.
Even at that point, however, the whole mess was salvageable. The Union would have had to scramble, but they can often scramble very well and had the benefit of playing in front of a hot 'keeper. Zac MacMath was stellar today.
Then the third thing went wrong:
— Tim Froh (@TimFroh) April 12, 2014
Every team has mental lapses, brain farts, or just bad days. But the "good" and "very good" teams don't have the kind we're seeing from the Union week after week after week.
This isn't a tactics or talent thing. Edu should go to Brazil, Raymon Gaddis is one of the best defensive fullbacks in the league, and Leo Fernandes is front and center in the discussion for "Most Improved Player."
This is a responsibility thing. It happened to those three guys today, but in the weeks leading up to this it's happened to Berry and Nogueira and Carroll and Aaron Wheeler and Amobi Okugo and on and on and on. And we're only on MatchDay 6.
Right now, if I was asked to sum up the Union in two words, they'd be "mental lapse."
Somebody on Philly has to call a players-only meeting and say "we can give up goals, but we can't give up those kinds of goals. No more."
3. The Union are good
The thing that makes Sporting KC champions, and still the best defensive team in the league, is that when they're at their best they put their foot on your throat and never let you breathe. You will have precious little of the ball, and that's that.
Their dirty secret is that they're not particularly good at scrambling defensively. But it's a secret because they rarely put themselves into a position to have to scramble in the first place.
This is what Philly are aiming for, and what I think they have the pieces to achieve given enough time to marinate.
In the meantime, they will have to scramble, and have to recover defensively. Which they did nicely on this play in the first half:
MacMath deserves the credit for staying big (he's gotten so good at that), but Berry did an excellent job of cutting down Olmes Garcia's angle. It was basically "perfect shot or nothing" for the RSL forward.
Gaddis, meanwhile, gets back into position and continues his run, meaning he's the man on the spot to clear out the rebound.
The fact that they handled that break-out so adeptly makes their failure on Beckerman's goal that much more confusing. They are able to do "good," "really good", and "Oh my God did they forget they were actually playing soccer?" all during the same 90-minute span.
Philly fans should be frustrated, because nobody's left more points on the table than the Union thus far. And I'm frustrated, because I keep picking them to win and my percentage keeps sinking lower and lower and lower.
Will the mental lapses eventually stop? I think so -- I'm picking them to win again next week, and I still think they're going to be a playoff team.
But I also thought that about the San Jose Earthquakes last year. And their surfeit of early-season mental lapses ended up costing them a spot in the postseason.
If there's no happy November in Chester, remember the frustration of April and a really good team that had too many really bad moments.