Analyzing the Philadelphia Union’s record-breaking attack

Quick Hits
  • Earlier this year, Jim Curtin wanted an attacking playmaker to help the Philadelphia Union score goals 
  • The Union didn’t sign a major attacking piece in the summer, but they’re scoring goals at a record pace in MLS right now
Want more American soccer? We have you covered.

This is an excerpt from Monday’s Weekend Recap. Subscribe to our free newsletter to get future editions of the Weekend Recap delivered right to your inbox.

It wasn’t long ago that Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union were talking about needing something more. Or, really, someone more. 

“What we are missing right now is that one player to make a play. Maybe it’s beat a guy or change how the defense is playing us,” Curtin, Philadelphia’s head coach, said in June. “We’re a little bit safe and stagnant to play against,” he added later.

After Philadelphia’s 1-1 draw with FC Cincinnati on June 18 – their eighth draw through 15 games – Curtin made it clear that he wanted a playmaker. Not a box-crashing No. 10 like Daniel Gazdag. A true chance creator. But the summer transfer window came and went without any major players arriving in Philly, let alone an attacking game-changer. 

Even without any key summer signings, the Philadelphia Union are scoring goals by the truckload. They’ve won by six goals or more four times in the last 10 games, including a 6-0 win over the Colorado Rapids on Saturday. No team in MLS history has ever won four games by six goals or more, let alone won those four games in some magical 10 game stretch. Philly haven’t drawn a game in six weeks and, on the back of all of their goals (and LAFC’s slump), they’re right back in the Supporters’ Shield race.

“The goals weren’t coming and now the goals are really coming in bunches,” Curtin said after the win against Colorado. “I want to save some, to be honest, for the playoffs. But I’m really proud of the team.”

Curtin is right. The goals weren’t really coming before and now they’re falling like rain. So what happened? What changed for Philly?

Analyzing Philly’s outburst

Part of the Union’s attacking success boils down to their opponents. They’ve played a lot of bad teams over the last 10 games, which certainly helps inflate their attacking numbers. 

There’s more to Philly’s historic outburst than just bad defenses, though. The “hit it long first, ask questions later” Philadelphia Union are still hitting the ball long. They’re still pressing. And they’re still moving the ball really quickly. But they’re also settling in the final third, stringing passes together, and getting into the box. 

In other words, the Union are actually doing some of the foundational things that good attacking teams tend to do.

Before Curtin’s comments about needing another piece, the Union averaged 57.5 completed passes into the final third per 90 minutes, according to Second Spectrum. Since those comments, Philly are averaging 70.6. Their passes into the box and Zone 14 have also increased, along with the number of shots they generate from those passes. 

Instead of banking on one ball-dominant attacker to break teams down, the Union’s transformation stems from team-wide improvement. Philly’s passing completion percentages have increased by roughly five percent across the board. Young midfielder Jack McGlynn is carving through defenses and Alejandro Bedoya is staying back on the right side to provide distribution from deeper areas. With better passing and fewer turnovers, Curtin’s team has gone from taking 6.9 open-play shots per 90 minutes (25th in MLS) to taking 9.2 (8th in MLS). 

And a lot of those shots are turning into goals. 

Set piece improvement

Another major factor behind Philadelphia’s offensive bump is their work on set pieces. Before June 19, the Union scored just one goal on a restart and averaged 0.014 xG per corner or free kick (7th best in MLS). Since Curtin’s comments, the Union have scored six goals on restarts and are averaging 0.022 xG per corner or free kick (2nd in MLS). They’ve been one of the league’s best teams on set pieces.

When you add cleaner, smarter attacking play to brutally effective work on set pieces, you have a scary offensive team. When you combine a scary attack with one of the best defenses MLS has seen, you have a real trophy contender. 

If they maintain this form, the Philadelphia Union just might win two trophies in 2022 without Curtin’s true creator.