The Union's lack of scoring this year doesn't just look bad to the human eye. It looks bad by statistical measures, too.
For proof, look at a widely-used metric called expected goals. It uses quantity and quality of shots to judge how many goals a team should have scored in a game or season.
Opta, MLS' official stats provider, gave the Inquirer and Daily News the league-wide ranking of what it calls Goals Above Average: the difference between a team's expected goals and scored goals. Going into the weekend, the Union (1-2-2, 5 points) ranked dead last. They have three goals in five games, the second-worst scoring total in MLS. The expected goals formula says they should have nearly six more.
It's not for lack of trying. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The Union's average of 17.2 shots per game is the highest in MLS, according to Opta. Second-place Sporting Kansas City averages almost one shot fewer. The big question is: Why aren't those shots going in the net?
The Union would say there's an element of bad luck to it. Perhaps there is, given the saves opposing goalkeepers have made in recent games. But it's also worth noting shots aren't going toward the net as often as they could. The Union average 5.2 shots on target per game, sixth-highest in MLS. The New York Red Bulls rank No. 1 with 7.4 shots on target per game.
The stats look bad at the individual level too. David Accam, C.J. Sapong and Fafa Picault — the three attackers on the Union's front line — each rank in the bottom 25 of the league for Goals Above Average. Sapong, who hasn't scored since the season opener, ranks second-worst overall at -2.27. Accam, who hasn't scored this year, is 12th-worst at -1.14.
"We're creating chances and we just lack a little bit of final quality," said Accam.
Accam knows what it takes. The Ghanaian scored 14 goals last year for the Chicago Fire and has scored at least nine every season he's been in MLS.
Seventeen players across MLS have a GAA of -1.0 or worse, with Atlanta United star Miguel Almirón's -2.38 at the very bottom. But Almirón has MLS' top scorer this season, Josef Martínez, playing in front of him. Atlanta is in second place in the Eastern Conference thanks in part to Martínez's five goals.
The Union don't have anyone of either player's caliber, not to mention price tag, on their squad. They have who they have, and those are the players who must execute — and it starts with Sapong.
"Personally, for me I think about just being a little hungrier and willing yourself to win. … that no matter how the ball goes in, just get it in the net," he said. "With results not going our way, it's easy for guys to try too hard to do all the functional stuff the best that they can, and sometimes that takes time and energy away from putting that power into mentally just finding a way to win."
"The scoresheet is all that people see at the end, it's all that makes people money, it's all that gets people to write their articles — but also, the journey and the process is the big part of it," he said. "We can't just undermine that because the standings and stat sheets aren't looking the way we would like them to."
Perhaps not, but the process is a lot harder to trust when the ball isn't going in the net.
Saturday, 8 p.m. at Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
Union's record: 1-2-2, 5 points (8th in the East); 0-1-0 on the road
Dallas' record: 2-0-3, 9 points (5th in the West); 1-0-3 at home
Series history: Dallas 5 wins, Union 1 win, 4 ties
At Toyota Stadium: Dallas 4 wins, Union 0 wins, 1 tie
M Roland Lamah: The speedy Ivory Coast native can create and finish from his perch on the left side of midfield. He has three goals and two assists this season.
M Mauro Diaz: A classic Argentine playmaker, he has long been the straw that stirs Dallas' drink.