Philadelphia Union: What do the numbers say about Philly's hot start?

Editor's Note

Krystian Witkowski played soccer for four seasons at Marist College before being selected by the Philadelphia Union with the No. 32 overall selection in the 2012 SuperDraft. He spent one season in Philly before returning to Marist, where he has been an assistant coach since 2013.

The Philadelphia Union are off to a great start, and this might just be the year they make their franchise's second playoff appearance. After a large roster overhaul, Jim Curtin’s team have hit the ground running: the 4-3-0 start is the club’s best since that lone postseason showing, under Peter Nowak five years ago.

Philadelphia Union: What do the numbers say about Philly's hot start? -

We may be just seven games into the season, but this first batch of game may have significant historic implications on whether or not a team makes the playoffs come November.

Here are three potential reasons the Union are outperforming previous years:

Goal Differential

One major reason why the Union have been more successful than previous seasons is the simple, but crucial, fact that they are scoring more than they have conceded for the first time in their six seasons. They have kept only two clean sheets but have still managed to outscore their opponents, 10-7.

Leading the charge this year is C.J. Sapong. After matching his career high of nine goals last season, Sapong has picked up where he left off and already has four in 2016. Each of Sapong’s goals has coincided with a Union victory. 

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Duel Success Rate

OptaPro’s classification of an action as a duel involves a 50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match. When competing at the highest levels, these opportunities can be the difference between three points or none. On average, during the opening seven-game stretch, the 2016 Philadelphia Union have outperformed each prior season in this category. In addition, the 2016 Philadelphia Union are boasting stronger numbers in their aerial success rate, a metric that is considered a duel and also directly correlated with points.

Interestingly enough, of all MLS players that have played at least 450 minutes and engaged in over 50 duels in 2016, Chris Pontius has the greatest success rate with 70.77 percent. After battling a host of injuries, Pontius is enjoying a bit of resurgence under Curtin with three goals to his name so far this season.

Philadelphia Union: What do the numbers say about Philly's hot start? -

Efficient Passing

A z-score tells you how many standard deviations a certain piece of data is above or below the mean, in order to make a more accurate comparison.

In this case we are looking at the z-scores pertaining to certain metrics that are subcategories of passes such as: passing accuracy in own half, passing accuracy ending in the final third, and passing accuracy in the opponents half. The few times I had a chance to work with Jim he occasionally referenced what he coined as "big boy passes." The sort of pass that was crisp, clean and full of vigor.

Long story short: much like the above analyses, the 2016 Philadelphia Union are outperforming five of six previous seasons (excluding 2014). I wouldn’t classify this Union squad as possession-oriented, but that they have created more chances in the first seven games of this season than in each season except 2013 might be a result of improved passing efficiency. Fabinho is another member of the current Union squad enjoying a strong start to the season, with two assists on top of his solid distribution numbers.

Philadelphia Union: What do the numbers say about Philly's hot start? -

When you combine the fact that the Union have improved their goal differential, increased their success in 50-50 battles and are passing more efficiently in key areas of the pitch, the story starts to come together. Jim Curtin might just finally bring some long overdue hardware to the city of Brotherly love, though there remain plenty of minutes to play in a league filled with a great deal of parity.

As a former member of the Philadelphia Union, and openly biased supporter, I sure hope this is the beginning of something great.