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David Accam is a very strong start to the offseason

It happened. The Philadelphia Union secured the player they needed.

Well, one of the players.

David Accam’s production over the past three seasons in Chicago looks eerily similar to CJ Sapong’s work since arriving in Philly. That’s good.

The Chicago winger is coming off his best season in MLS and understands the trials and tribulations of playing on a team that will often appear outgunned in a position-by-position breakdown. With the pace of Fafa Picault but more refined decision-making and comfort in tight spaces, Accam showed himself capable of becoming the perfect creative partner for a striker that thrives on timed arrivals in the box.

Accam is, in short, the best Earnie Stewart and company could have hoped for when they went looking for a high cost but low risk investment.

At least for the near term.

Accam’s arrival can be viewed from a number of perspectives. First, it significantly changes the Union’s offseason and allows Stewart to focus on acquiring a central attacker to take creative pressure off Haris Medunjanin during transitions. Second, it brings Philly’s strategy for 2018 into greater focus, and potentially provides the identity the club has long sought. And finally, it marks a much-needed change in how the Union approach using the designated player role.

The cost

The Union paid for Accam using a combination of General and Targeted Allocation money from both their 2018 allocation pot and their 2019 pot. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • $1.2 million allocation money
    • 2018 TAM: $400,000 (expires 8.31.19)
    • 2018 GAM: $200,000 (expires 5.31.19)
    • 2019 TAM: $500,000 (expires 8.31.20)
    • 2019 GAM: $100,000 (expires 5.31.20)

Each MLS franchise receives $1.2 million in TAM in 2018 and 2019, along with additional discretionary TAM that they can elect to spend.

Accam is currently in the final year of his contract, and Chicago retains a percentage of his sell-on rights through 2020:

“The Fire will retain a percent of the revenue should Accam be transferred outside of MLS. The Fire will receive 90 percent if the transfer takes place in 2018, 65 percent if during the first six months of 2019, 50 percent for the second half of 2019, 40 percent if during the first six months of 2020 and 15 percent for the second half of 2020.”

The player

After blasting through Sweden to the tune of 17 goals, Accam was acquired by the Chicago Fire three years ago. He has spent the majority of his MLS career as a left winger, but he has grown into a more adaptive player over the years and will drift into the center to find the game. Accam’s 14 goals and eight assists last season were both career highs in MLS. AmericanSoccerAnalysis’ Expected Goals model, however, drew a darker picture and thought Accam outperformed what he should have been expected to score by nearly five goals. That’s a large difference, though many of MLS’ most consistently strong performers also exceeded their xG by a similar margin.

A look at all of Accam’s goals from last season finds two penalty kick goals (with an xG around 0.8 each), and two rather fluky goals (one that looks as much like a tackle as a shot, and one that rebounded directly to the winger in front of goal).

Last season was the first time Accam was able to play next to a skilled finisher, and he excelled as a creator and source of gravity that pulled attention off of MLS golden boot winner Nemanja Nikolic. One aspect of the Ghanaian’s game that stands out from last season is the weighting of his throughballs. Philly can claim nobody outside of Medunjanin that could consistently lay in well-weighted throughballs, and Accam’s skill in this area will be a huge boost in 2018. 

Accam’s 43 key passes (passes that lead to a shot) in 2017 would have ranked second on the Union behind Haris Mendunjanin. He also put nearly 55% of his shots on frame, which is well above the 49% CJ Sapong put up last year to lead the Union. Additionally, over 28% of Accam’s shots were unassisted, indicating he can create his own looks. In contrast, about 21% of Chris Pontius’ and Fafa Picault’s shots were unassisted last year.

The big takeaway, though, is that David Accam is as close as the Union could have come to acquiring a sure thing. And their attack desperately needed a sure thing.

Now they just need to build a system that gets the best out of him.

The offseason

During his first two years on the Fire, David Accam showed he is quite capable of operating with minimal support on a team so certain of being at the bottom of a well that nobody needed Lassie to tell them where to look. Intriguingly, though, he also flourished as part of a more powerful attack last season, using his movement to create space for others while also showing the ability to find the right pass in transition. As anybody that watched the Union last season knows, this is a skill that was largely absent from the home side at Talen Energy stadium. Below, you can see that Ilsinho ends up as the player with time and space to pick out a pass that releases the counterattack, and the attack falls apart. 

And here you can see the Union’s basic plan following turnovers for much of last season: Find Medunjanin and make runs that allow him to pass beyond the first line of defense.

And, apologies for highlighting Ilsinho again, once more the Union get a nominal playmaker on the ball but make poor decisions when they have numbers in the opposition final third.

Adding Accam is not enough, though. The speedy winger will be extremely dangerous in transitions, but, judging by last season’s play, the Union still need a player through the middle to find Accam in threatening spots.

Earnie Stewart knows this, and he has made it clear that the second half of the Union’s offseason plan will take the form of an attacking midfielder. The qualities required from this No. 10 come into focus with the Accam signing (though they were fairly clear already). The Union need a player that can release the transition and defend as part of a group in a way that Ilsinho and Roland Alberg could not last season.

Releasing and quarterbacking a transition are different skills, and, ideally, Philly will find someone who can do both. Releasing the transition means playing the pass that forces a defense into a more chaotic, disorganized retreat. This can be a ball behind the back line, or simply one into a wide area that breaks counterpressure and allows Medunjanin to rotate into space and tap into his special powers. Quarterbacking the transition involves pushing the ball forward at speed, understanding what angle to attack to open space, and having the patience and confidence to wait until a defense commits to the ball before making a pass. A player that can excel at both is, quite reasonably, difficult to find. But so is a winger of Accam’s record in MLS, and the Union have already done that.

Philly has been patient this offseason (though they were apparently quite “aggressive,” and initiated contact with Chicago once they settled on Accam), but — even with Accam — they will remain outside the playoff picture if they whiff on a No. 10. The counterattack that is threatening enough to take pressure off a defense will be starting question marks across the back line requires the creator Philly still lacks.

Tactics and Identity

Two years ago, the Union hoped to execute an aggressive press with three high-octane midfielders in the center. Last year, they switched directions entirely by signing Haris Medunjanin, eventually settling on an organized block that sought to control the center of the pitch, punish impatience, and break quickly enough that their inability to even marginally threaten a set defense would remain an issue in theory only.

Below, you can see the Union in the shape they adopted toward the end of last season. They varied the highest point of pressure depending on the opponent, but the strategy was largely the same: Induce a pass into the center, collapse on that pass, and break quickly off a turnover in midfield.

Accam fits well into this system. He has developed a far better sense of how to manipulate a defense over the course of a match since he entered MLS, and Curtin will likely continue to stick with a system that simplifies defensive decision-making.

Although his speed remains his biggest asset, Accam has grown as a decision-maker in the final third. This development allowed the winger to integrate well as Chicago adopted a more possession-heavy approach last season, but it will be even more important in Philly where nobody seemed that thrilled to carry the creative burden on their shoulders near the opposition box. If Earnie Stewart successfully adds a dangerous offensive presence out of midfield before the offseason ends, the Union will finally have the creative options to prevent teams from sitting on Medunjanin and stifling the attack.

By offering more of a goal threat from wide areas, the Union should now be able to create space for Medunjanin in deeper positions. The Bosnian’s passing range should translate into 1v1 opportunities for Accam on the wing, and Philly’s new signing has a far more varied collection of tricks than Picault, effective as he was last season, can boast.

Accam will also be expected to help when the Union build out of the back. He can drift centrally and drop deep, offering an alternative to Picault’s central movements that looked to get behind the defense. The Ghanaian’s comfort in tight spaces allows him to act as an extra body in midfield to break down organized high defenses that can squeeze Medunjanin’s space and force Philly to build from the center backs.

Given the lack of gamebreakers on Philly’s roster, and the skillsets of key central players, Accam is a great fit for the Union. Jim Curtin’s team cannot boast the big spending or big names, but they can gain a competitive advantage by developing systems that effectively counter the strategies used by teams at the top.. The cream of the east are strongly committed to high defensive lines and space compression. That means teams that would struggle to acquire the quality or depth necessary to play such a system successfully over a season, like the Union, need to find ways to attack the spaces Toronto, NYC, Red Bull, and Atlanta leave behind. Accam, fed by Medunjanin and (if he avoids the sophomore slump both Keegan Rosenberry plowed into with devastating results) Jack Elliott, can punish teams that commit wide defenders forward.

The big questions around Accam are whether he can provide the requisite defensive support the Union’s inconsistent back line will need and whether he can sustain production over the course of a season. The Union’s defensive stability rests in no small way on the wingers’ ability to read the build-up patterns of the opponent and ensure that a) CJ Sapong isn’t stranded and chasing shadows alone, and b) the opposition cannot use wide areas to pull Medunjanin and Bedoya out of the center.

Assuming Picault starts opposite Accam, the Union will be placing a considerable bet on two bolts of lightning that have crossed the 2000 minute threshold once between them. Accam’s production sputtered over the final two months of last season, though an All-Star snub and uncertainty about his future may have played a large role in that dry spell. The Fire’s heavy spending meant they could glide into the playoffs even without Accam fully engaged, but that will not be the case for the Union.

The future

At 27, Accam is in the prime of his career. He is also at a point where he knows he has admirers in Europe and that he will have to move soon if he wants to play a significant role in a European season or two. That ambivalence about remaining in MLS was likely part of the reason Chicago parted ways with such a consistent attacking threat after regularly turning down offers for the winger. The aggressiveness the Union showed while chasing Accam suggests they believe they can ink him to a longer-term deal, and this is particularly important since Chicago retains a significant portion of Accam’s sell-on value over the next few years.

Assuming he sticks around, Accam looks to be the focal point of Philly’s attack for the next few seasons. Unlike recent big signings such as Tranquillo Barnetta, Alejandro Bedoya, and Haris Medunjanin, Accam remains young enough to be a player the Union can build around for the future (there could be some argument about Bedoya fitting this description, but it’s far more likely opposing teams plan to be aware of Bedoya, while they need to account for Accam. The difference is real). The future, then, becomes a question of how to create a sustainably competitive team around the constant spectre of a turbo-charged counterattack.

One key will be the ability to bypass a high press by maintaining multiple players capable of playing accurate long aerial passes. Medunjanin and Elliott fit the bill right now, but one is on the wrong side of the aging curve and the other still has to prove he can take a step forward defensively.

Another key will be finding a central creative hub, of course. Finding another player that can ease CJ Sapong’s burden without a big dropoff in performance may be a low-key but hugely significant area of improvement needed in the near future. Jay Simpson spent a lot of time last season looking like a kitten that stumbled into the Puppy Bowl. If he can’t step up this season the Union will need to find reinforcements in a hurry or risk moving Accam into the center where he will receive more physical abuse and find far less space than he would prefer.

Conclusion

David Accam cost Philadelphia Union a pretty penny in MLS Monopoly money. More intriguingly, a large portion of the payment came in the form of 2019 allocation money, meaning the Union are potentially restricting their ability to maneuver post-2018. This is all fine. Even the most hard-working, hustle-and-bustle teams need a sparkplug that can put a defense under pressure all by themselves. Fafa Picault has that potential; David Accam is already that player. The Union had to do whatever it took to secure a player like David Accam this offseason, and they did it. This doesn’t make Philly a contender, and it doesn’t even make them particularly likely to supplant New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But it gives them a far better chance than they had in 2017.

Whether you look at it from an on-field performance perspective, a fan perspective, or a front office perspective, this was a good and necessary move.

And — hopefully — there is more still to be done.

8 Comments

  1. Accam is a great move for this club. Pace and the best goal scoring threat this club’s added in a long time. And I agree on the CAM. This club really needs to hit a home run with its #10. Has to be a goal scoring threat, a good passer and is going to need some pace to keep up with his wingers. I think Lee Nguyen would be my baseline. Has to be that quality or better. Or this club is going to miss the playoffs again.

    • Due to the arbitrary derpiness of the MLS Accam may be enough to get us into the playoffs. But yes we need a 10.

      • I agree in that I don’t think we need a home run #10. Just a solid #10. If Accam can provide some creativity, then you don’t need as creative a #10.

        Solving for the Winger problem, then helps make the #10 problem easier to solve.

    • I have high hopes for Accam in Philly, but I think it’s important to have a No. 10 that can make the pass to start transitions or it’s going to be difficult to get Accam in those positions where he can be use his full set of tools.

  2. I would like to see Picault’s game take some big steps forward simply by playing alongside a similar but better player. They have the same foundational tools, but Accam has greater skill and game-awareness. If Accam can pull Picault somewhere near his peak level, we will see a very significant upgrade.
    .
    The CAM will be interesting. If you get an MLS player, there is no adjusting to the league necessary. But is there a greater benefit to finding an international?
    .
    Emerson Hyndman is looking to come back to the US, but I don’t think he is the full creative player we are looking for.
    .
    All I know is that I’m going to get impatient very quickly waiting for #10!

    • I think Hyndman would do well here. He’d be good for any MLS club. I read last week, though, that Celtic were interested in him. And that so is Sunderland. Celtic would seem like the no brainer for me — Champions League, good chance to be sold to Southampton (and then to Liverpool). Sunderland wants him, but I might prefer MLS to what is likely to be a League 1 club. If he has a choice in the matter. A trip to MLS is probably giving up on European ambition. HE’s only 21. He’s got time.

  3. So first off, I really like Accam as a player. He can absolutely be a game changer and the Union are better with him.
    .
    But what does this do to Fafa? Do they ‘Pontius’ him and move him to the right side where he will be less effective? Curtin sacrificed Chris last year to get Fafa on the left. Should Fafa have just been playing on the right last year instead and kept Pontius on the left after a career year in that spot?
    .
    Is Fafa just a back-up now?
    .
    If there is one thing that Curtin does very well, it’s crushing a player the year following their break out career year.

    • @silver – I imagine we’ll find out more tomorrow, but my guess is that Fafa will be on the right. I don’t necessarily think he’ll be less effective there, but he will have to improve his crossing and decision-making in the final third to be a difference-maker over there. Fafa’s ability to get into the box and attack aerial balls should be very useful with Sapong hopefully driving defenders deep on the break.

      All that said, I do think you’re right that he may take a while to adjust to a position that forces him to cut onto his left to come central.

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