What can we take away from the Union’s consecutive clean sheets?

After playing historically bad defense for a long time the Union have promptly muted their critics with two consecutive clean sheets. The first was on the road in Los Angeles where the Union have not done well in the past, and the other was this past weekend against the New York Red Bulls, one of the better teams in the East. Were these surprising 180 minutes just a matter of good bounces or has something changed?

Prior to the recent pair of clean sheets the Union’s defense was on a historically bad run. In the 32 games leading up to the Galaxy game the Union had allowed an astounding 64 goals. Only a handful of teams have averaged roughly two goals allowed per game over a similar stretch in league history. The most recent example was the dreaded 2013 Chivas USA team that allowed 67 goals in 34 games. Back in 2005 Chivas topped that ineptitude with 67 goals in 32 games, on their way to a four win season. Your eyes have been witnessing something that is really bad. Even worse, Chivas USA bad.

So have the Union’s clean sheets just been a lucky blip or is something else going on? The Union have allowed seven shots on target in the two games, so luck might be partly involved, but looking more deeply the data reveals that the key to the Union’s two clean sheets has been a more compact defense, with less emphasis on pressuring the opponent the further they are away from the goal.

How can we see the Union’s defense has been more compact?

We can analyze defensive pressure by looking at cumulative defensive actions such as challenges, tackles and interceptions. Thanks to data from American Soccer Analysis we can look at these actions in different regions on the field. Against the Red Bulls and LA Galaxy the Union attempted only 5.5 defensive actions in their opponents defensive half (the Union’s offensive half). In all other games the Union averaged double that amount of activity, with 11 defensive actions per game in their opponents’ attacking half.

There isn’t public data available that shows the exact position of all players off the ball at all times of the game. So we need to find a proxy for where the defenseman is sitting. The flaw of simply looking at defensive actions is that it doesn’t account for how much activity happened in that area. One measure that helps solve this problem is passes allowed per defensive action. In other words, how many passes did the Union allow to occur before taking an aggressive defensive action. The higher the number the less defensive pressure the Union put on the opposing team. Looking at this metric outside of the Union’s defensive third we see that the Union allowed 25 passes per defensive action against LA and New York. They allowed 15 passes against in their prior seven games. The lower number indicates the Union were pressuring further up the field and therefore spreading their defense more thinly. Two goals per game against in those games indicates a change was needed. Against LA and New York they have been more compact allowing 67% more passes before taking an action. This indicates the defense is playing off the ball until the opponent gets closer to the goal. It’s working.

Here’s how this looks visually:

Defensive Action Chart Home NYRB and Tor

The Union were far more active defensively in their attacking half against Toronto early in the season and allowed two goals. Meanwhile they were far less active away from goal during the New York Red Bulls shutout. The number of defensive actions in the defensive third during both games were nearly identical, but notice the Union applied more wide pressure and also pressure closer to the goal. For those thinking that Ray Gaddis must be the difference on the right, that’s actually not the case. Bedoya is credited with a number of those actions on the outside, a benefit of moving him deeper in the formation.

After 32 games of historically bad defense the Union have decided to get compact and commit to defense. It’s worked so far and is a trend to keep watching as the Union look to turn the season around.

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