Thursday, April 24, 2014
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A lesson for the Philadelphia Union: why starting a season strong matters in Major League Soccer

Officially, the Philadelphia Union were eliminated from the playoff race at the end of September. Unofficially, we know that their hopes of a second consecutive postseason berth died much earlier than that.

A lesson for the Philadelphia Union: why starting a season strong matters in Major League Soccer

Zac MacMath´s early struggles were a major reason why the Union had a poor start to the season. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)
Zac MacMath's early struggles were a major reason why the Union had a poor start to the season. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)

Officially, the Philadelphia Union were eliminated from the playoff race at the end of September. Unofficially, we know that their hopes of a second consecutive postseason berth died much earlier than that. 

I've spent a lot of time in recent weeks thinking about the roots of why this year has been so disappointing for Union fans. You can come up with any number of answers both on the field and off it, and I'm sure you all can do just that. 

But if I had to pick just one thing to focus on, I'd go with this: a poor start to the season from which the team never had a chance to recover. 

This hasn't just been a problem for the Union. Columbus, Montréal, Dallas and Portland also struggled early in the year and couldn't make up for it. Columbus and Dallas came close, finishing just outside the playoff spots in their respective divisions; and Montréal was also in the playoff race for longer than anyone expected. 

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The Union's lack of results early in the season were particularly significant, though. They played 11 games from March through May, and recorded just one win and two draws. Last year, by contrast, they also played 11 games from March through May, but recorded six wins and two draws. 

That's 15 points off the board before Memorial Day. And while the current gap between the Union and fifth-place Houston is more than 15 points, it's hard to imagine that there wouldn't have been an impact if this year had started like last year. 

Here's something else that I find striking. Once the 10 teams that qualified for this year's MLS Cup playoffs were finalized. I went to look up the MLS standings on the first weekday of each month of the season. I found that most of those teams have spent a very long time this year in the playoff places. 


Although the seedings haven't been finalized in the Eastern Conference, the 10 teams that will participate in this year's postseason are these: 

Eastern Conference: Sporting Kansas City, D.C. United, Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo 

Western Conference: San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps

The breakdown of how the standings looked at the start of each month of the season, from April onward, is as follows:

Monday, April 2: 7 of 10 teams currently in playoff places 

Eastern Conference

1. Sporting Kansas City, 12 points from 4 games
2. New York Red Bulls, 6 points from 4 games

3. Columbus Crew, 6 points from 3 games
4. Houston Dynamo, 6 points from 3 games
5. New England Revolution, 6 points from 4 games

Western Conference 

1. Real Salt Lake, 9 points from 4 games
2. San Jose Earthquakes, 9 points from 4 games

3. Colorado Rapids, 9 points from 4 games
4. Vancouver Whitecaps, 8 points from 2 games
5. Seattle Sounders, 6 points from 2 games

Tuesday, May 1: 9 of 10 teams currently in playoff places

Eastern Conference

1. Sporting Kansas City, 21 points from 8 games
2. D.C. United, 15 points from 9 games
3. New York Red Bulls, 13 points from 8 games
4. Chicago Fire: 8 points from 6 games
5. Houston Dynamo, 8 points from 6 games

Western Conference

1. San Jose Earthquakes, 19 points from 8 games
2. Real Salt Lake, 19 points from 10 games
3. Vancouver Whitecaps, 14 points from 8 games
4. Seattle Sounders, 13 points from 6 games

5. Colorado Rapids, 12 points from 8 games

Friday, June 1: 8 of 10 teams currently in playoff places

Eastern Conference

1. D.C. United, 27 points from 15 games
2. New York Red Bulls, 26 points from 13 games
3. Sporting Kansas City, 25 points from 12 games

4. Columbus Crew, 18 points from 12 games
5. Chicago Fire, 18 points from 12 games

Western Conference

1. Real Salt Lake, 29 points from 14 games
2. San Jose Earthquakes, 27 points from 15 games
3. Seattle Sounders, 24 points from 13 games

4. Colorado Rapids, 19 points from 13 games
5. Vancouver Whitecaps, 19 points from 12 games

Monday, July 2: 9 of 10 teams currently in playoff places

Eastern Conference

1. D.C. United, 33 points from 18 games
2. New York Red Bulls, 31 points from 17 games
3. Sporting Kansas City, 29 points from 16 games
4. Chicago Fire, 27 points from 17 games
5. Houston Dynamo, 23 points from 16 games

Western Conference

1. San Jose Earthquakes, 36 points from 17 games
2. Real Salt Lake, 32 points from 18 games
3. Seattle Sounders, 26 points from 17 games
4. Vancouver Whitecaps, 26 points from 16 games

5. Colorado Rapids, 22 points from 16 games

Wednesday, August 1: 10 of 10 teams currently in playoff places

Eastern Conference

1. New York Red Bulls, 38 points from 22 games
2. Houston Dynamo, 37 points from 22 games
3. Sporting Kansas City, 37 points from 22 games
4. D.C. United, 33 points from 21 games
5. Chicago Fire, 32 points from 21 games

Western Conference

1. San Jose Earthquakes, 44 points from 23 games
2. Real Salt Lake, 42 points from 23 games
3. Seattle Sounders, 34 points from 21 games
4. Vancouver Whitecaps, 34 points from 23 games
5. Los Angeles Galaxy, 33 points from 23 games

Tuesday, September 4: 9 of 10 teams currently in playoff places

Eastern Conference

1. Sporting Kansas City, 50 points from 27 games
2. New York Red Bulls, 46 points from 27 games
3. Chicago Fire, 44 points from 26 games
4. Houston Dynamo, 42 points from 27 games

5. Columbus Crew, 42 points from 26 games

Western Conference

1. San Jose Earthquakes, 53 points from 27 games
2. Real Salt Lake, 46 points from 28 games
3. Seattle Sounders, 44 points from 26 games
4. Los Angeles Galaxy, 43 points from 28 games
5. Vancouver Whitecaps, 37 points from 28 games

Monday, October 1: 10 of 10 teams in playoff places

Eastern Conference

1. Sporting Kansas City, 58 points from 31 games*
2. New York Red Bulls, 53 points from 31 games
3. Chicago Fire, 53 points from 30 games
4. D.C. United, 51 points from 31 games
5. Houston Dynamo, 49 points from 31 games

Western Conference

1. San Jose Earthquakes, 61 points from 31 games*
2. Real Salt Lake, 52 points from 31 games*
3. Los Angeles Galaxy, 50 points from 31 games*
4. Seattle Sounders, 49 points from 30 games*
5. Vancouver Whitecaps, 39 points from 31 games

* - clinched playoff berth at that point

I realize that this set of data doesn't represent every point in the season, but I think it's a pretty reasonable sample.

What the data show to me, is this: from April on, at least seven of the 10 teams currently in the playoff places were in the playoff places at the points measured as well. That the number was as high as nine of 10 as early as May 1 - and never dropped below nine after July 1 - really shows you something.

The only team that's in the playoffs now but wasn't on May 1 is the Los Angeles Galaxy. The biggest reason why is that at that point in the year, defender Omar Gonzalez was still recovering from an offseason ACL injury. Gonzalez didn't get on to the field until July 4 - against the Union, coincidentally.

In addition, star forward Robbie Keane was trying to avoid getting injured ahead of the European Championships, where he played for the Republic of Ireland


So with all this said, let's come back to the Union. What caused their poor start to the year? There are a lot of possibilities.

Was it Peter Nowak? Was it the offseason departures of Faryd Mondragón and Sébastien Le Toux? Was it Lionard Pajoy and Porfirio Lopez turning out to not be nearly as good as advertised? Was it Danny Califf regressing early in the year after a strong campaign in 2011? Was it Zac MacMath's concussion problems?

You could point to all those things and more besides.

So many things, from success on the field to psychology in the locker room, can come from starting a season well. If you're a Union supporter, you have to hope that 2013 brings better results early on than 2012 did. 

If the Union start next season poorly, though, you have to wonder what will happen to the organization, both on the field and in the stands. The Union have struggled mightily in two of their first three years of existence. That doesn't help when competing for fans' attention and money in one of the nation's most ruthless sports markets. 

Every MLS team has little margin for error, but the Union's is especially small at the moment. Recent results have brought reasons for optimism, especially Jack McInerney's recent scoring streak.

The hardest work, though - the work that will really get the team where it wants to be next year - is still to come.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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