Chris Pontius - Philadelphia Union - March 12, 2016

On Saturday, May 28, the Philadelphia Union will take on the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in a battle of conference leaders (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE).


After finishing near or at the bottom of their respective conferences last year, both teams have successfully turned things around. On the surface, they share common traits. Both teams boast two young managers with strong MLS pedigrees as players, large roster overhauls with several key off-season acquisitions, and two of the league’s top defenses in terms of goals conceded. Moreover, both clubs also currently enjoy extensive unbeaten streaks (Philly at six and Colorado at eight), which only adds to the allure of Saturday’s match-up.


We wanted to take a deeper dive into some key metrics in order to gauge how these complete turnarounds have been possible. As it turns out, these two teams share more than just surface similarities.


Philadelphia


From a quantitative standpoint, the Union are clearly better in some key aspects compared to last year:

<strong>Philadelphia Union</strong>
<strong>2015</strong>
<strong>2016</strong>
<strong><em>Change</em></strong>
<strong>2015 Rank</strong>
<strong>2016 Rank</strong>
Chances from open play (per game)
7.06
7.58
<em>7.4%</em>
15
13
Chances from set play (per game)
1.41
1.67
<em>18.1%</em>
11
9
Possession
45.5%
47.9%
<em>5.4%</em>
20
14
Save Percentage (in box)
52.1%
64.9%
<em>24.5%</em>
20
10
Conversion Rate
14%
15%
<em>7.8%</em>
14
9
Aerial Success Rate
46.3%
56.2%
<em>21.4%</em>
19
1

The team has improved dramatically, as they have managed to create more chances both from open play and from set pieces. This is indicative of a more nuanced attack led by Chris Pontius, CJ Sapong and Tranquillo Barnetta, who have enjoyed stellar seasons with the Union.


In particular, Barnetta has proven prolific in dead-ball situations, exemplified by his top five league-wide ranking in chances created from set plays. This is fueled in part by Sapong’s league-leading ability to draw fouls in the last third of the pitch.


Philadelphia were last in the league in terms of possession and save success (from shots inside the box) in 2015. But they've been able to improve upon both this year. After strong performances in his six games last year, goalkeeper Andre Blake has been able to build on that success this year, and brought some much-needed stability to a backline that was in constant flux last year.


Perhaps even more significant has been the notable jump in Philadelphia's aerial success rate over the first 12 games of this season. They've soared from 19th to first in the league as a result of Pontius, Sapong, Keegan Rosenberry and Richie Marquez dominating in the air relative to their positional peers.


Colorado


Looking at the Colorado Rapids, we clearly see that the turnaround is directly tied to some of the same metrics that we analyzed for Philadelphia:

<strong>Colorado Rapids</strong>
<strong>2015</strong>
<strong>2016</strong>
<strong><em>Change</em></strong>
<strong>2015 Rank</strong>
<strong>2016 Rank</strong>
Chances from open play (per game)
7.94
8.00
<em>0.8%</em>
8
9
Chances from set play (per game)
1.24
1.77
<em>43.2%</em>
13
7
Possession
49.5%
46.9%
<em>-5.2%</em>
12
17
Save Percentage (in box)
64.3%
73.1%
<em>13.7%</em>
8
1
Conversion Rate
10.4%
12.4%
<em>19.5%</em>
20
15
Aerial Success Rate
50.3%
54%
<em>7.5%</em>
12
4

While Colorado has not enjoyed the same successful jump in chances created from open play, they have been able to generate an astonishing 43.2 percent more chances per game from set pieces compared to last year. This is in large part due to Shkelzen Gashi's arrival; he's proven to be a valuable off-season acquisition under Pablo Mastroeni.


With 24 chances created in 10 matches--13 from set plays--Gashi has proven Colorado’s key offensive cog. He's currently also top 10 league-wide in combined chances created. Additionally, he is fourth in the league in shots on target, while producing two goals and three assists so far.


Another key acquisition has undoubtedly been Jermaine Jones. After serving his suspension, he has returned the Rapids' faith in him with three goals in seven matches, while playing higher up the pitch and offering a level of bite and energy the Rapids lacked last year.


Much like the Union, aerial dominance has been a key factor in Colorado’s early success. Leading the defensive charge is 6'7" Axel Sjöberg, alongside MLS vet Bobby Burling, who himself stands comfortably at 6'6." Sjöberg and Burling form the tallest center-back tandem in MLS history, and have put their tall frames to good use with Colorado, commanding the third-most headed clearances, while enjoying the league’s fourth best aerial success rate.


With a second overall ranking in shots faced on target, Colorado have successfully been denying the opposition’s goal-scoring opportunities with their impressive defensive play. When considering that the team is also ranked first in save percentage from shots inside the box, a result of Zac MacMath’s excellent form, it is no surprise that no other team has conceded fewer goals.


Bottom Line


The impressive sustained improvement across the board for both teams indicate that their success does not simply boil down to luck or a small sample size. That said, it will be interesting to see if both teams continue to create as many chances from set play situations, and whether the goalkeepers will continue their excellent campaigns. Even if they regress somewhat, the positive early signs have to be encouraging for two of the least successful MLS franchises in recent years.


Nikolai Staugaard Eriksen contributed to this article.