Photo: Paul Rudderow
Much of the focus following Saturday’s win over Columbus Crew was on a starting lineup that included seven starters and three substitutes who were 23-years-old or younger. And why shouldn’t it be, it’s an exciting story that bodes well for the long-term future of the team. In the short term, however, the bigger story was the continuing return to form of the defense and Sebastien Le Toux continuing return to the score sheet.
The defense is getting it back together
Going in to Saturday’s game against Columbus Crew, not only were the Philadelphia Union winless in eight games, they had given up the same number of goals (14) in those eight games as they did in the first 15 games of the season. Allowing four goals in the first half against New England marked the first time any team had reached that tally since Colorado defeated the Union 4–1 on September 29, 2010. It was also the first time any team had scored more than two goals against the Union at PPL Park.
The second half turnaround against New England was notable not just for the three goals the Union scored to record a remarkable draw. The second half also marked the beginning of a defensive turnaround that continued through Saturday night’s 1-0 win over Columbus.
Against New England, the Union allowed six attempts on goal in the first half including one blocked shot, one shot off target and four shots on target, each of which found the back of the net, three of which came from headers.
Whatever was said in the locker room at the half has had a lasting effect.
Beginning with the second half against New England, the Union defense not only has shut out its opponents, it has not allowed more than one shot on goal to their opponents, and none from headers.
The improvement is also reflected in the defensive stats from the past three games, particularly in the number of clearances and recoveries.
The back line’s passing numbers have also improved significantly over the past three games. Against New England, the back four accounted for 138, or 34 percent of the Union’s 400 successful passes. Against Portland, the back four’s 153 successful passes equaled 43 percent of the team’s 354 successful passes. In the win over New England, the defense’s 153 passes totaled 49 percent of the team’s 311 successful passes.
Along with a greater share of the team’s successful possession has come an increase in passing accuracy. While the team’s total passing accuracy percentage against New England was 79 percent, the defense was not far behind at 77 percent. Against Portland, the 75 percent passing accuracy of the defense surpassed the team’s 71 percent. The defense again had better passing accuracy than the team as a whole against Columbus, recording a passing accuracy of 77 percent compared to the team’s 74 percent.
Le Toux regains Le Touch
In view of his numbers in 2010, Sebastien Le Toux’s season stats after the win in New England on July 17 can only be described as tragic. With one goal at that point in the season from 46 shots, 12 of which were on goal, Le Toux’s goals/shots on goal conversion rate stood at 8 percent. In comparison, the goals/shots on goal conversion rate at the time for Carlos Ruiz was 43 percent while Danny Mwanga’s was 38 percent.
While a lesser man may have continued to founder, Le Toux managed to fight through the doubt while the team was slumping and he now has six goals in six games. The beginning of his return to form could be said to have begun with his lovely assist of Jack McInerney’s goal against Houston. It was his eighth assist of the year and his first since the win away against New England. The goals scoring gates finally opened against Dallas in the next match with two coolly taken PKs.
The importance of Le Toux’s goals are difficult to overstate. In three of the four matches in which he scored over the past six games, Le Toux’s goals were responsible for securing draws at home—the two PKs against Dallas, a PK and stoppage time goal against New England—when the team was behind and in real danger of slipping out of the playoff race. Against first place Columbus, his goal was enough to put an end to the eight game winless streak and the team within striking distance of re-capturing first place. Although the game was ultimately lost, even his beauty of a goal against Real Salt Lake put the Union back in the game when they were down to two early goals.
Beginning with the game at home against Dallas, Le Toux has six goals from 21 shots, 11 of which were on goal, giving him an astounding goals/shot on goals conversion rate of 55 percent. Overall, Le Toux’s goals/shots on goal conversion rate is 29%.
Among active Union players who have scored three or more goals, Roger Torres tops the list with three goals from six shots on goal for a conversion rate of 50 percent. Next is Veljko Paunovic with three goals from seven shots on goal for a conversion rate of 43 percent. Danny Mwanga, with a conversion rate of 38 percent at the start of the slump, sees his personal slump continue with a current goals/shots on goal conversion rate of 25 percent from five goals and 20 shots on goal.
A stronger defense that denies their opponent chances while confidently maintaining possession and accurately distributing the ball. A franchise player returning to form and scoring goals from open play and from his most comfortable position on the field. That is how slumps turn into successful playoff runs. Some more goals from elsewhere would be nice, though.