Before the season started, I did a statistical analysis of the Union’s 2015 season and identified specific areas they needed to get better. I also established goals for them based on that analysis which, if met, would likely see them into the playoffs. Here’s where the Union stands with nearly half their matches completed.
Win 14 games and get to 49 points: At 6-3-5, the Union are on pace to win 14.6 games and reach 55.8 points.
Have a positive or nearly-positive goal differential: This was something that made sense and was further confirmed by American Soccer Analysis; teams with a -2 or better goal differential have a much better chance to make the playoffs, mainly because it’s hard to get results when you’re giving up boatloads of goals and not scoring as many. The Union’s current goal differential? Plus 5.
Score first in at least half of their games: We established that the team who scored first in any given game averaged more points gained from that game (2.14 PPG) than the team who conceded first in that game (0.70 PPG) even if the team who scored first conceded later (1.68 PPG). Perhaps not coincidentally, we also saw every single team in the East who scored first in at least half of their matches last year make the playoffs. Through 14 games this year, the Union have scored first 8 times, or 57 percent of the time. They have gone 5-0-3 in those matches.
Turns leads into wins: The Union are 6-0-3 when they’ve had a lead at any point in a match this year, good for a 2.33 PPG mark in those games. The league average is 2.14. This means the Union are turning leads into points at a relatively high rate, something they were dismal at last year (just a 1.89 mark) when they dropped a whopping 20 points from a leading position.
Find a second goal: We showed how taking a two-goal lead was actually slightly better on the average in terms of gaining points from a game (2.77 PPG) than keeping a clean sheet (2.5 PPG). They had 5 two-goal leads last year; they’re on pace to double that this year. In addition, scoring a second goal allows a team who concedes first to come back and potentially win the game. Through 14 matches this year, the Union have scored at least two goals half the time, or 7 matches. Last year they scored two or more goals 11 times in 34 matches. And thanks to their stalwart defense this year, they have not lost (5-0-2) when scoring two, whereas last year they went 6-3-2 in matches in which they scored two.
Fight back: The Union went down a goal in 23 separate games last year. Only the Fire trailed in more individual games in the East. The U got 9 points total from those 23 matches, or 0.39 points per match, which was last in the East (average was 0.62 PPG). This year, not only are the Union projected to go down in less games (19.4 compared to 23 last year) but they’re getting more points from games in which they do trail (7 points already, or 0.875 PPG). This is better than the league average in this circumstance as well (0.62 PPG). This kind of resiliency was absent from the team last year.
- Last year the Union allowed 55 goals and scored 42. This year, they’re on pace to score 51 and allow 39. That’s a 25 goal swing in goal differential, from -13 to +12.
- A question that’s been posed a lot is “are the Union for real?” One way to look at this is with expected goals. Briefly, each shot the Union take is given a point total based on location of the shot and its likelihood of going in. Also, each shot the Union give up is given a point total and tallied. ASA’s expected goals model (calculated up to the Columbus match) has the Union at 21.96 expected goals for and 15.92 expected goals against, for an expected differential of 6.03. Their actual differential going into the match was 4, meaning the Union have actually been unlucky. It also means that this run should be sustainable, given the expected goals model mirrors what’s actually happened.
- One of the Union’s pre-season goals was to allow no more than a goal a match. They’ve conceded 16 goals in 14 matches for a 1.14 GAA.
- The Union are doing better than the league average in terms of getting points from matches in which they concede as well. The league average is 0.97 PPG; the Union get 1.27 PPG out of matches in which they concede. Giving up just one goal a match (and not allowing the other side to score that dreaded second goal) will allow you to do that; the U have allowed one goal or less in 9 of their 14 matches.
- The Union have scored first 8 times, and have conceded first 6 times.
- They have conceded in 11 matches and kept 3 clean sheets.
- They have taken a one-goal lead in 9 separate matches, and a two or more goal lead in 4 separate matches.
- They have been down a goal in 8 separate matches, and down two or more goals in just 2 matches.
The Union have gotten better in nearly every category in terms of collecting points in various situations as compared to both themselves last year and the league average this year. In my analysis at the beginning of this year, I compared a Union playoff run to a ride on the fabled trolley into the Land of Make Believe, but barring something debilitating (like an injury to Andre Blake or CJ Sapong), it looks like it could actually happen. The numbers certainly support it.