How the Philadelphia Union are setting a new standard in MLS

The recent MLS Cup final was hailed by many as one of the best games in the league’s history. A late Gereth Bale header to tie the game at 3-3 served as a perfect ending to the season finale staged just nine miles from Hollywood.

The final showcased what’s arguably Major League Soccer’s two model clubs, who couldn’t be more different. On the one side, a collection of household names on a team owned by celebrities. On the other, a humble and hard working Philadelphia Union, who mirror their city’s culture.

It’s easy to be impressed with LAFC. The infamous ‘3252’ supporters club are loud and fun, while Carlos Vela spearheads a smooth & technical attacking group supported by Gareth Bale off the bench.

But to many inside North American football (soccer!) it’s the Union turning heads.

‘Philly’ won the MLS Eastern Conference for the second time in three years (finishing second in 2021) and have taken more points than any team in Major League Soccer over this period.

Their sustained success is even more impressive when you consider their $10.4 million payroll, which places them second from bottom in all of MLS. For context, LAFC spend almost double on player salaries ($19 million).

Jim Curtin with his players after the penalty shootout loss.

MLS Coach of the Year Jim Curtin, alongside Sporting Director Ernst Tanner have played the long game, and are reaping the rewards. Focused on an innovative and open-minded approach, they’ve developed and sold Premier League star like Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), and Mark Mckenzie (Genk), while staying competitive with a team heavy in academy products.

Unsurprisingly, given their humility, the Union staff agreed to contribute to the APFA education courses in Individual Player Development, Opposition Analysis and Post-Match Analysis.

When you sit down with Curtin, it’s clear the team is built on so much more than hard work. Adopting an evidence-informed approach, the Union go as far as coloring key zones on the pitch in training, and educating players on goal-scoring locations and shot-types in Major League Soccer.

Culture begins at the top for the Union. Curtin’s methodical process splits post-game analysis into four common phases of the game, and performances are tracked throughout the season. These key insights impact training session design throughout the year, ensuring when performances drop in any one area, it’s quickly addressed so the team can perform at their best for prolonged periods.

And it’s not just the Head Coach driving an analysis culture. Crucially, Curtin and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner are in total alignment. Not just how the team want to to play, but how the philosophy is measured, reinforced, and how Key Performance Indicators fill the gaps missed by the human brain.

Not content with an objective pot-game process, the Union look for marginal gains everywhere. Confirmed by Tanner & Curtin, the club employs a specialist set-piece coach, and offer bonuses in contracts for goal difference from dead ball situations throughout the season.

It’s no surprise therefore, the Union have fostered an environment capable of producing a $40m asset recently bought by Leeds United. When staff and players are encouraged to think deeper, and more purposefully about how games are won and lost, there’s an inevitable positive impact.

Aaronson was provided with an Individual Development Plan by the club. Encouraged to analyze his own performances, set targets, and review these with staff to ensure his development was on track.

Perhaps a cliche, but there’s some truth in the phrase “form is temporary, but class is permanent”. The Union have built a classy foundation on excellent processes and principles. Curtin & Tanner are reported to have significant interest in their services from elsewhere, and rightly so. But until they do, you’d expect the Union to be topping the Major League Soccer table for some time to come.

Focusing on arguably the best cub in Major League Soccer is great, but the APFA aims to bring these valuable insights to those with fewer resources both financially and in time.

We asked APFA Ambassador Carl Carpenter his views on the takeaways from the Union:

While not every club is lucky enough to have the level of resources, staffing, etc. of an MLS club, an analyst can have a massive impact on the success of the team by making sure they have clearly defined processes & providing effective feedback that is tailored for the team. It might mean being slightly more creative due to a lack of sophisticated technology, but if you can have a “laser focus” on things which will be used consistently you can maximise your effectiveness. Whether it be basic player reports, opposition reports, and more, you can find unique and interesting ways to help the staff week to week.

The view is supported by Oliver Gage:

I’ve worked in conditions with less infrastructure in place than an MLS club. I’ve learned that the huge gains can be made very early by implementing the basics well, before you expand into the smaller details like the Union. At the University of Virginia we won a National Championship on the principal ‘games were won and lost in the box’. Of course this isn’t perfect, but really nailing some simple measurements around shot choices and types on a team and individual level made our attack extremely efficient. On the other side, we were incredible defensively in our own box.

Taking the Virginia approach, and measuring good vs poor shooting decisions and shot locations like inside/outside the box or in the ‘gold zone’ can answer powerful questions:

  • How often are we shooting from good locations?
  • How often are we shooting at the right time?

Using these insights could easily replicate the Union process ans drive session design and player feedback with just 5-10 minutes of work when reviewing post-game video. If you’re unsure about how this might be done, the APFA Post-Match Analysis walks you through it step-by-step.

Many Coaches are intimidated by ‘data analytics’ (which this is not!). In turn, they tend to shy away from any sort of true, proactive analysis, when in reality the answers they’ve been looking for aren’t that hard to find.

Do the basics well and reap the rewards.

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