A View from Afar / Union

Go big or go home: Fixing the Union’s striker position

Philadelphia Union’s 4-1 loss to Los Angeles FC was a tale of two strikers.

During Philadelphia’s dominant opening stretch of the game, C.J. Sapong muffed a great setup in the 11th minute and failed to get a shot off. Fourteen minutes later, Los Angeles striker Adama Diomande played Mark McKenzie like a pirouette in the open field to score against the run of play and reverse the flow of the game. Momentum swung to Los Angeles and never went back. Diomande netted a hat trick. Sapong put in another subpar, anonymous performance most notable for his failings near goal.

Consider how different that game would have been if the Union had gone up 1-0 in the 11th minute while dominating the opening 24 minutes.

As good as Sapong is in other aspects of the game — he may be the league’s best defensive forward — if your striker isn’t dangerous in front of goal, your team is likely dropping points all season long.

Two years ago, I wrote that the Union didn’t need to import a striker from Europe because they had Sapong, and I was right.

However, this is a very different Union team in a different position.

The Union may be a good striker away from being a very, very good club. Like, the sort that contends for a title this year.

Ideally, that striker would be Sapong, and the Sapong of 2017 would be good enough for a title contender. He scored 16 goals in 2,794 minutes last year and earned his U.S. national team call-up with that play.

This year, he has two goals in 1,154. He looks cold, tentative, tired, and unsure of himself. We saw him in this zone before (late 2016), albeit perhaps not quite to this degree, so we know how it goes — not well. He’s not finding space in dangerous positions as often. When he gets opportunities, he’s blowing them in ways that seem more mental than physical. Right now, his play appears to be getting worse, not better. He looks like Andrew Wenger a few years ago: Poised for stardom, suddenly slumping, his confidence shot.

The Union need a change at striker, not just for the team’s benefit, but for Sapong’s. He remains a valuable player for Philadelphia who has shown he can regain top form after a cold streak. You could argue the Union need to keep starting him until he breaks his duck, but bringing him into games as a fresh sub against a tired defense could be exactly what helps him do it.

The alternatives

The Union have alternatives, whether they’re willing to spend money or not.

  • Cory Burke: Burke has two goals and an assist in 349 minutes, and his activity has made the team look more dangerous and opened opportunities for teammates. He’s very raw, however, and always looks inches away from spectacularly losing control. (Remember his red card in his first start.) The benefit in giving Burke some starts is that you see what you have on the roster while giving Sapong time to right himself in a different role without spending more money.
  • Jay Simpson: An option because he’s on the roster, but he’s unlikely to see the light of day. Let’s move on.
  • Fabian Herbers: Herbers has rarely played striker in MLS, but it’s where he played in college. He netted a goal and two assists in a start up top for Bethlehem Steel this past weekend.
  • An import from abroad: The summer transfer window opens July 10. Plenty of strikers will be on the move, as is the case every summer. The Union have a recent track record of good mid-season signings from Europe (Tranquillo Barnetta, Alejandro Bedoya). A loan might be preferred, particularly if the Union feel Sapong can regain his good form. Could Earnie Stewart and Jay Sugarman shock Union fandom into delirious optimism by springing for a striker before Stewart departs the club in August?
  • Trade within MLS: MLS may not be overflowing with excess productive strikers, but there are legitimate trade prospects out there.
    • Ola Kamara, LA Galaxy: The Galaxy have looked like a perfect trade partner all season. Prior to a recent injury, Kamara was shoehorned in as an inverted left winger to make room for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Meanwhile the Union’s big off-season signing, inverted left winger David Accam is now the Union’s fourth choice winger due to lack of productivity. A straight up trade — throw in allocation money if need be — would help both teams. Meanwhile, the Galaxy also need quality center backs, which the Union have in spades. The Galaxy even have excess depth in center midfield. A deal is waiting to be made.
    • Juan Agudelo, New England: Agudelo has lost his starting spot again in New England, whose biggest weakness remains central defense, where the Union are loaded. Agudelo even has south Jersey roots, having spent much of his childhood in Barnegat, Ocean County.
    • Christian Ramirez, Minnesota: Minnesota is like that one team in every fantasy league that you can count on to make boneheaded personnel moves, so let’s slot them in as option No. 3. (Portland isn’t dealing Fanendo Adi or Samuel Armenteros with the latter only on loan.) They are awful in central defense, and they apparently don’t believe you can ever have too many wingers. Coincidentally, those are the two spots where the Union have the most talent. You might just be able to convince Minnesota GM Manny Lagos into swapping Ramirez, a solid No. 9 keeping Abu Danladi on the bench, for Jack Elliott and allocation money, or for David Accam straight up. Maybe throw in a few cold ones to seal the deal. (This entry is only half-joking.)
Windows open, windows shut

Sometimes, you have to seize the moment.

The Union may have one. From goalkeeper to the No. 10, they have looked as good on the ball as any team in the league since May 12. The midfield has clicked, Keegan Rosenberry has regained his all-star form, and even Ray Gaddis is looking good in attack down the left flank. No, he’s not a true left back, which remains the Union’s second weak link, but he’s been fine in attack and, as always, very good in defense.

The wall is their striker situation.

The Union can fix it and, in the process, make a statement of intent to their fans. Just because you’re eternally building for the future, it doesn’t mean you can’t also try to win right now.

17 Comments

  1. Dan Walsh says:

    This post has been updated to add the note on Fabian Herbers.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    My biggest worry at this point is that while they bring in a striker, they are looking at a hole at #10 next year (beyond a still very young Fontana).

  3. Jacob Dextroseman says:

    So going home it is!

  4. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    I know it’s just a coincidence but
    Jack Mac
    Jeff Parke
    Chris Pontius
    Keegan Rosenberry
    CJ Sapong
    All called into USMNT followed by their game going to…..

  5. The Truth says:

    A summer striker signing would be cool I guess…even if they’ll be unknown and a probable bust *shrug*

  6. I really like the Accam for Ola Kamara trade idea. Anyone know if their salaries are similar? LAG would probably want some GarberBuck$ too, with how poorly Accam is playing. Do we have any of them left after sending a bunch to Chicago for Accam and buying him down to a non-DP?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      $925k for Kamara, $1.25m for Accam.

    • Who on earth is taking Accam? That contract is on pace to be a worse deal than Simpson. More $ and same zero productivity. Union would have to cover at least half of it. Also, the Union spent their cash, nada left without moving players.

  7. The Chopper says:

    Sapong is certainly streaky, but what we are also seeing is that he is ill suited to be a lone striker playing with a true 10. It is not an accident he thrived with a Union offense that was generated mostly from long balls from Medanjunin or Pontius and company swinging the play in from the outside. For C.J. to thrive with a ten, he needs to be the 2nd option and hold up guy. That means you need a front line striker and anew formation. If you are playing a lone striker with Dockal controlling the flow. C.J. is not your guy.

  8. Swap Sapong for Darren Mattocks. Now that Rooney is in town, his role will either change or diminish. Mullins might be available too.
    .
    Sapong for Blondell (Vancouver). CJ might be a better fit for their style.
    .
    Trade Accam or Sapong for Meram.
    .
    Send CJ to Steel for the next 10 days to get his confidence back. It worked when Vermes sent him to Orlando.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Deducing from behavior only — that Means only outsiders have voiced the idea — they Are not likely to use the Steel that way for some one as old as Sapong.
      .
      24 has been bandied about in the press box as the apparent cutoff. They went above it for Cory Burke at the beginning of the season.
      .
      So it’s not immutable, but Sapong seems very unlikely to get sent down.
      .
      And the MLS player has to agree to the loan.

  9. Regarding The Upcoming Atlanta Game …..If there ever was a statement revenge game to be made this year this is it.

    Curtin should be fired if he ever starts Sapong again. Sapong must be benched or sent down to Bethlehm. Burke is the only answer we have. At least Burke will take players on and has some ball skills. Bedoya and Medujian have something to prove this game and I expect a great effort will be put in by both of them and they will not lose their cool. I expect the attack and ball control to be much better then last week with Doakal in the lineup.

    Id even like to see the Union go all out and put Fhabino in on the left and sit Gaddis.

    Doakal Ilsinio and Rosenberg combo have been very effective on the right attack.

    Why not try the same thing on the left side with the Fafa Fahabino and Doakal combo.

    We have not tried it yet . It might be a little risky but Id love to see the Union burn Atalanta with multiple goals from both sides

  10. Herbers is my choice. And not just 1 game to see how he does. Platoon Herbers and Burke and hope they sign a real striker (not likely). Sapong needs a reality check, not rewarded for his disastrous season.

  11. Tim Jones says:

    General observation since I deliberately pay attention to the Steel, one of the reasons Herbers is playing there is because Aidan Apodaca has been unavailable due to a hamstring for the last few weeks.
    .
    Review tape of the Indy Eleven game to see Apodaca in action.

  12. Sorry but I am in complete disagreement that Sapong ever was a good striker for the Union. He doesn’t even belong in MLS. Sure he got his goals last year but…

    1) He spends more time on the ground than on his feet. Don’t tell me that a player of his size should be so easy to get to ground. No, drawing a foul is also no excuse. He needs to stay on his feet and make plays.

    2) He has ZERO ball control skills. He can certainly hold-up with is back to goal, but he can’t challenge anyone one-on-one and beat defenders like Dio did to us this past game. He is at best only a goal poacher, and he has failed even at that lately.

    3) He does not fit in to the current Union style of play with speedy wingers. His hold-up play is more of a liability now.

    As to trades, please NO WAY on Ola Kamara. Sure he is way better than CJ, but still not the quality finisher we need. We need someone with the quality dribbling and finishing skills of someone like Giovinco, Martinez, and yes even the old man Zlatan.

  13. Great article, Dan. The only thing critique I have, though, is that you didn’t address the elephant in the room: who is pulling the Union’s strings right now?? Earnie is nominally in charge until August 1st, I believe, but of course, he’s thinking about his next job, not this one. A move of the kind you are suggesting is a fairly big deal. So, who’s got the authority to do that?? Chris Albright?? Jim Curtin?? And whoever it is, would they be willing to put themselves on the line for the decision at this point in the organization’s transition?? I highly doubt it.

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