For Pete's Sake / Season Reviews / Union

Season review: The striker situation

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Editor’s note: This post is part of PSP’s 2018 Season Review series, in which PSP breaks down the season that was and look at the off-season ahead. To read the full series, click here.

It’s been years since anyone would use the word “predictable” to describe Philadelphia Union’s striker situation.

Entering 2017, Jay Simpson expected to score the bulk of the goals as the team’s top acquisition. Not so, as C.J. Sapong instead uncorked a career year.

Surely that would mean that Sapong would build on that momentum in 2018? Not so again, with the scuffling striker losing his touch and his job to offseason afterthought Cory Burke, signed as a depth option from Bethlehem Steel.

Now, as we brace for the offseason the position may be in flux again, with new sporting director Ernst Tanner set to decide whether to bring in reinforcements at the top of the formation.

Let’s take a look at where the Union’s three strikers stand entering the offseason — and how their corps may change before 2019 kicks off.

No time to be a Burkean conservative

Make no mistake — Cory Burke saved the Union’s season.

At a time when every other attacker seemed stuck in the mud, the Jamaican came off the bench to score goal after goal, eventually forcing his way into the starting lineup. Burke combined decent finishing skill with tremendous tenacity, with many of his goals seemingly the product of wanting the ball more than some hapless defender.

But Burke is not without his flaws. He committed 48 fouls on the year — just two fewer than C.J. Sapong in about 900 fewer minutes. Burke may have been lucky to escape the year with just one red card. Burke also seemed to struggle at times with the relentless pressure of the starting role, sometimes pressing lackadaisically (and causing a kerfluffle with Borek Dockal at the worst possible time).

Ideally, Burke would enter 2019 as a second striker. Burke is old for a striker just breaking into the first team, turning 27 in December, and he remains a touch too raw to be counted on week-in and week-out.

The Union need to upgrade at this position. Few professional soccer teams are successful without a quality striker whom you can count on to put the ball in the net on a regular basis. Forget the focus on whether a striker plays enough defense — the scouting should focus on finding someone with finishing ability from anywhere in the 18 yard box, the intelligence to make runs to get in behind or create space for other players, and (ideally) either enough speed or ball control to challenge defenders 1v1 if necessary.

Finding someone with that pedigree — on the Union’s meager budget — may take some doing. But it absolutely should be a priority for Tanner, because having a player like that would be a game-changer for Philadelphia. With Unnamed Striker piling the pressure on opposing defenses, and Burke waiting in the wings for a late game burst of firepower, the Union would have a fearsome tandem.

What remains to be seen is if Tanner can make it happen.

Slumping C.J.

If Burke is a no-brainer to return, and the Union add a quality striker from outside the organization, where does that leave C.J. Sapong?

This time last year, Sapong was ascendant. He set a Union record for goals in a season, scoring 16 in 2017. He muscled his way into the U.S. national team in the wake of the Trinidad disaster. And the Union rewarded him with a new contract to start the season.

The picture is very different today. Sapong suffered through a brutal season, notching just four goals. Never a strong finisher, this year a chasm developed between Sapong’s positioning and his results. By xG, Sapong should have scored six more goals on the year than he did, the second-worst mark in MLS.

Despite his ineffectiveness, his playing time barely dropped. Sapong played in all but two games this season, sliding in as the starter at right wing after Burke forced his way into the starting lineup. His final tally was one goal for every 580 minutes on the pitch, or fewer than one in every six games.

How Sapong fits into the team’s future is one of the most interesting situations to watch this winter. Union manager Jim Curtin loves his defensive work, he offers positional versatility, and the xG number suggests that he’s at least getting in good positions.

But the Union would be deluding themselves if they think Sapong is going to be the starting striker on a playoff team. Sapong turns 30 next month, and his physical gifts are likely to deteriorate with each passing season. When you look at his full career, 2017 is more the aberration than the norm. In eight full seasons in MLS, Sapong has only once scored more than ten goals. Sapong’s wing play doesn’t qualify him to be more than a backup at that position, as his production didn’t increase at all when moved wide.

Sapong has value within the league, and a change of scenery might do him some good. With Burke on the rise, and another striker likely inbound, the curtain may need to close on C.J. Sapong’s tenure in Philadelphia.

A final word on Jay

You can take one look at Jay Simpson and see many different things. For some, he’s the epitome of Earnie Stewart’s failures as a talent scout, a player brought in to play in a certain style that isn’t his forte. Or he’s a casualty of some of Jim Curtin’s worst tendencies — playing favorites, taking someone’s job due to injury, and smashing square pegs into round holes rather than trying to make the holes a little squarer.

Others may simply see someone who isn’t good enough, or, most sympathetically, someone who’s just had terrible luck from the moment he decided to star in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.

It may, of course, be a bit of all those things. And the question is largely moot, with Simpson’s Union tenure certainly coming to an end this offseason.

Simpson will be remembered as a bust, yes. But he deserves credit for staying a good soldier through it all — the anti-Rais Mbolhi — and will leave the organization on good terms.

His brace to lead a reserve side past Sporting Kansas City in September might qualify as the most shocking moment of the Union’s season, and hopefully the memory that lingers for Union fans.

16 Comments

  1. The striker situation will be directly tied to whether Tanner is going to be as rigidly fixated to the 4-5-1 as the club’s sole formation as Stewart seemed to be. I think both Burke and Sapong can be solid in the role of a second striker in any formation that plays with two, but being the sole option requires a more complete and diverse skill set than either one has.
    C.J.’s big year came in a season when the Union attack consisted of little more than wide crosses which he managed to fight his way to win or be in position for rebounds and deflections. This season with a true number 10 directing the show from the middle required runs and timing he just doesn’t have. If Dockal runs the show next year and it’s a 4-5-1, CJ would be better served playing elsewhere while Burke backs up whoever the club brings in.

  2. CJ has got to go. Simpson too obviously. We need a new starting striker badly. Burke is a really good #2. I wouldn’t mind Herbers as the 3 or someone else new.

  3. Steven Turner says:

    There is an expansion draft coming up in December, and the 5 teams LAFC picked from last year aren’t participating. Plus, Cincy has shown the love for former Union players (McLaughlin, Corben Bone) so I don’t think it’s inconceivable that if CJ or Corey is left unprotected (and I don’t think they can afford to protect both) that one of them goes to Cincinnati.

  4. To paraphrase from Pete Andrews in yesterday’s roundtable piece, getting this position is the most important. If you don’t have a good striker, your #10 won’t make a difference.

  5. The Union also have Pryzbelko at the striker position… I have no idea where he is on the depth chart at this point.

  6. i am genuinely excited for a striker upgrade.
    it’ll finally happen and we’ll be better next season. despite all the uncertainty in the off-season, even with Jim returning, even on a limited budget, this they will get right.

  7. Yes it would be nice to get an upgrade over Burke. But I think there are other positions in greater need of an upgrade: right wing, left back, returning Dockal or his replacement.

    With good solutions to those three positions, we can be fine with Burke.

  8. …or a holding midfielder that holds…

  9. James Lockerbie says:

    I liked everything, I read in this article and agree with the author. Good Job !

  10. HOPELESSLY FALLING BEHIND THE CURVE…. its the same story every year its hopeless unless ownership improves …WANTED… NEW OWNER OF PHILLY UNION MUST HAVE DEEP POCKETS AND BE WILLING TO HIRE A POFFESSIONAL COACH WITH A WINNING RECORD MUST BE WILLING TO IMPROVE QUALITY OF PLAYERS EACH YEAR TO KEEP UP WITH THE REST OF THE MLS…..as was said if we don’t keep Dockal or upgrade to a better replacement it does not matter who is playing forward and this team will fail. to improve We need a more mobile version of Harris. We also need to upgrade at left back maturity from current cbs a better coach and a younger version of ilshinio. Unfortunately it all starts with a new wealthier owner or this team will continue its pattern of perpetual mediocrity. Its just a shame for Philly soccer fans…..at the end of the season all the top teams make 4 or 5 moves to upgrade and are usually are right at least 75% of the time. We average about 3 attempts to upgrade and are correct about 33% of the time. We keep falling behind the curve each year

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