Afternoon Delight: What the past tells us about the Union’s first four games
The ultimate goal in the MLS is still to win the MLS Cup, and while it is only the third season in team history, last years debut in the playoffs had many Union fans dreaming big for the 2012 season. After a less than impressive 0-3-1 start for the Union many of those same fans are questioning Nowak, the tactics, and the ability of the players to compete for a title (Before you say “we don’t question the players!” I’ve heard the calls for Lopez to be dropped, Gomez is too slow, and Adu is a waste of money). While the Union do not have a long history to look back on to try and put the slow start into perspective, but we can look at the starts of teams that have reached the MLS Cup and how they started. So here are some of the concerns with the Union’s slow start:
The Union haven’t won yet
There have been four MLS Cup finalists that began the season with no wins in their first four games. The 2009 LA Galaxy and 2010 FC Dallas teams began the season with one loss and three draws. The 2011 Houston Dynamo began the season with two losses and two draws, and the 1996 DC United team began the season with three loses and a draw. By not starting the season off with a win in four attempts the Union won’t be reinventing the wheel should they make it to MLS Cup 2012. In fact, if the Blue and Gold lift the Cup at the end of the year, they won’t even be the first team to begin the season with only 1 point from a possible 12. The 1996 DC United team that began the seasn 0-3-1 ended up winning the MLS Cup in its inaugural season.
The Union have given up too many goals
Actually, the Union’s 6 goals against to begin the season is almost half the amount given up by the 2000 edition of the Chicago Fire (11) on their way to the MLS Cup. The 1997 Colorado Rapids were not far behind in this regard, giving up 9 goals in their first 4 games. Plus you can look at it on the brightside. The Union gave up 3 goals agaisnt Portland, 2 to Colorado, 1 to Chicago, and posted a shutout against Vancouver. Steady improvement if you ask me.
The Union don’t score enough goals
With only two goals scored in those opening four games, the Union don’t look to be the most potent of attacks. However, four of the MLS Cup participants over the years have scored 2 or fewer goals in their opening games. The 2007 Houston Dynamo registered only 1 goal for in their opening stretch, yet had enough attack to win that year’s MLS Cup. DC United in 1996 scored 2 and lifted the Cup, while 2006 New England Revolution and 2011 Houston Dynamo each scored only twice and went on to fall just short in MLS Cup.
A negative 4 goal differential is not good enough
Almost half of the 32 teams to make it to the MLS Cup began their first four games of the season with a negative goal differential. The 1996 DC United Cup winning team registered the worst at -6 with 1997 Colorado Rapids at -3 and 2000 Chicago at -2 just behind them. With 14 of the finalists having a negative goal differential to start the season, it is not a very good factor in determining who will make the final at the end of the season.
Some other interesting MLS Cup facts
- Only the 1996 LA Galaxy started out the season 4-0-0 and made it to the MLS Cup, sorry Sporting KC
- There have been 3 MLS Cups featuring two teams that started off the first four games of the season with a negative goal differential (2001, 2009, 2011)
- On the flip side, there have been 4 MLS Cups featuring two teams that started off the season with a positive goal differential (1998, 2003, 2005, 2008)
- Only one team began the first four games of the season with an even goal differential (1999 LA Galaxy)
- Eight MLS Cup finalists have began the season without a loss in four games. Five of them ended up lifting the Cup (1997 DC United, 1999 DC United, 2000 Kansas City Wizards, 2002 LA Galaxy, and 2003 San Jose Earthquakes) and three lost in the final (1996 LA Galaxy, 2003 Chicago Fire, and 2005 New England Revolution)
- LA and DC have the most MLS Cup appearances with 6 each, but DC has not been to a final since 2004. New England has been to 4, Chicago and Houston 3, and Kansas City, Colorado, and San Jose round out the teams making multiple appearances with two a piece. New York, Salt Lake, Columbus, and Dallas all have been to the final once.
While we have ruled out the fact that the Union season is not lost quite yet, it might be helpful to find the finalist that best can be compared to the 2012 Union. That comparison would be the 1996 DC United team that started out 0-3-1. The comparison continues with DCs first three games resulting in losses before finally gaining a point in their fourth game. That run included 0-1, 0-4, and 1-2 losses and a 1-1 draw. DC only mustered two goals for in their opening stretch like the Union, but allowed two more goals against. So the Union are actually in better shape in clean sheets and goals against than the 1996 MLS Cup Champions. After the first four games DC didn’t immediately light the world on fire. Through their first 15 games DC had only collected 18 points with a 5-7-3 record. What really stands out when you look at the 1996 Black and Red is that they were able to end the season winning 12 out of their last 15 games including an 8 game unbeaten run to finish the season.
So the next time you’re feeling like hitting the panic button on the Union season, know that it is not how you begin the season when trying to reach the MLS Cup, its how you finish the season. So stay behind the Boys in Blue and hopefully with more time to gel as the season goes along the optimism will return to PPL Park and everything will be right in the Philly sports landscape.