A View from Afar / Commentary

You don’t need a DP striker when you have C.J. Sapong

Photo: Daniel Studio

You don’t need to import a high-priced striker from Europe when you have C.J. Sapong.

Sapong has demonstrated this season that his ascension to Philadelphia Union’s starting lineup in 2015 was no fluke. A week ago, he did all the small things to help his club upset Columbus. On Sunday, he did all the big things, netting two goals, earning a penalty, and nearly setting up another goal with a beautiful control-and-pass to Chris Pontius.

During the off-season, a regular topic of discussion regarding Philadelphia Union was their need for a big name striker, likely a designated player.

But that was never necessary. Union management prudently took a patient approach on that, probably to see if Sapong could match and improve upon his best of 2015 — particularly with an upgraded set of attacking midfielders — and allow them to spend that big money elsewhere. Sapong is proving they likely made the right call.

The 27-year-old striker’s path to this point has been rather circuitous. He earned the MLS Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and followed that up with a pair of U.S. National Team caps and a productive sophomore campaign for Sporting Kansas City in 2012. However, Sporting coach Peter Vermes began using Sapong on the wing, rather than the player’s preferred center forward position, and Sapong’s production dipped significantly. He was shipped out on loan to Orlando while it was still in USL in 2013, and he largely fell out of favor before Philadelphia acquired him after the 2014 season.

Last year, Sapong got his shot at center forward again, and he didn’t blow it. He cracked the Union’s starting lineup in June and never gave up his spot, netting nine goals and four assists despite a general lack of attacking prowess by the rest of the club.

Significantly, what Sapong has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt is that he belongs at center forward and nowhere else. Yes, he may be athletic enough to play out wide, but that doesn’t mean he should.

Sapong plays as a true target forward. He can post up defenders basketball-style and then turn and put a shot on goal, and he is equally adept at laying off easy passes for his teammates to run onto. His ability to come deep to find the ball and play hold-up opens up opportunities and lanes for the Union’s wingers to to cut into.

Oh, and he scores goals. He even plays defense.

His prediction that he could score 20 goals this year was not outlandish, even if he ended up backpedaling from it. Will he net 20? No, probably not. But he could create 20, which was where he backpedaled to, provided the Union can progressively improve their service to him, which can be fairly expected given that he has a group of attacking midfielders settling in to a new team. Sapong’s goals on Sunday came on his first two shots on goal this season. He has taken six shots through three games. Look for those numbers to increase as the imported attackers begin to gel around him.

Sapong is one of the Union’s most important player’s this season, and it’s not merely because of the role he plays in the actual scoring of goals. Rather, it’s because the Union have no like-for-like replacement at target forward. His backup is rookie Fabian Herbers, who has shown good signs so far in limited activity but who also has a very different playing style. Herbers is more of a second striker/attacking midfielder. There is no other target forward on the roster. That means the Union play a different style in attack when Sapong is not in the game. A Sapong injury would require significant tactical adjustments.

So while the Union may not need to add a big money striker to the roster, they could probably use a reliable backup with a similar style of play. They let target forwards Conor Casey and Fernando Aristeguieta go in the off-season, largely because each was more expensive (or more injured) than they wanted in a backup. That left them the option of acquiring a big name and relegating Sapong to backup status, but that is unlikely to happen if Sapong continues playing at this level.

Instead, the Union can burn that bigger paycheck elsewhere.


  1. If he goes down injured, we’d be in trouble though. It’s the one position on the field we don’t have good depth, so that is where the money needs to be spent.

    • Herbers, Pontius, LeToux, Alberg, all can play forward. That’s plenty of depth. Are any of those a target forward like C.J.? No. So I wouldn’t be adverse to acquiring another target forward. But saying there’s no depth, is just incorrect.

  2. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Dan, I disagree here. His hold up play has been good the last two weeks, but it was abysmal against Dallas. Also, Sapong does not create his own chances, a trait that separates the great strikers from the mediocre in MLS. I like Sapong, I think he is good, but to say that we can’t improve upon him is just narrow minded.

    Now if you are going to tell me that based on the TAM, the GAM and every other MLS money mechanism has been spent and that Sapong as a starter allows us to maintain our improved depth, then I may buy that argument. But based solely on potential and performance? I’ll take a TRUE DP striker any day of the week.

    Current DP strikers (IMO all better then Sapong)

    Fabian Castillo
    Octavio Rivero
    Dos Santos (we could argue his position)

    Current DP stikers that you could argue:

    Cubo Torres

    Take a look at that top list and tell me who you would take Sapong over?

    • Can you tell me which one of the DP strikers you listed works harder defensively than Sapong? I’m having trouble finding one. You may argue that defense isn’t really what you want your striker for. I will respond, that defense is needed from a striker on this Union team. Again, I’ll state that I wouldn’t be adverse to another target forward. I just don’t think you need to spend DP money on him.

      • Agreed, plus like half of those guys would be either playing on the wing or in the 10 and not replace Sapong anyway. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see a mix of speed and strength on that list equal to Sapong other than Kamara. I don’t disagree that most if not all of those players are better, but I’m not sure if many or any of them are really a better fit on this team. (I could just be a homer though).

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        Most of the list are true strikers. Yes, some are interchangeable, but my point is stop looking at speed and strength. This isn’t a track and field team. I want a striker who consistently scores goals and can create on his own. Sapong is great as a target, can run into the box to get on the end of crosses and what not, but how many goals has he ever created by himself? When has he ever been magical? I don’t want to disparage him, because I think he is a good player, but he is not elite.

      • I would argue that they are not true strikers on this Union team. Giovinco is probably the best player there and he would without a doubt not replace Sapong up top. My point on speed strength is most of those guys cannot do what Sapong does on this team. I agree he needs to put the ball in the net more but Castillo had the same number of goals last year and a few of the others only had 1 or 2 more. I agree that some of them are on a different goal scoring level but most honestly are not.
        I also think you underrate Sapong’s ability to create for himself and we will see that a lot more as the year goes on. He was so alone up top last year that no one was creating goals from his position. Time will tell though.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        I want a striker to score goals. If they chip in defensively great, but there are 10 other players on the field who can do that. I mean, if we had Villa, you’d be complaining that he isn’t defending?

      • Dan C… You have a supporter in me.
        I have respect for CJ and his strengths and game…but …. while he can turn and get off a shot, which I’d argue as it being a real strength- I see his touch causing both lost time and space on the turn.
        MY Union looks like this….
        … a midfield by midseason capable of building play and holding possession in the other team’s final third and a striker capable of disappearing and reappearing and finding just the needed 27″ of space on a whim to create the scoring opportunity… then of course scoring.
        In my starting XI… CJ is the change up striker option coming off the bench when you need to bunker behind the ball press the other team and ride out the last 20 minutes nursing a 2-1 lead with a strong ass forward capable of maintaining possession, springing the 3rd goal, or holding the corner flag with his foot on the ball.

      • old soccer coach says:

        if you are ever going to play a high pressure defense a la New York Soda Cans or Dallas FC, your striker has to be part of the defense and fast enough to carry it out. A slow one wrecks the scheme in this league, given its overall athleticism.
        My evidence? A healthy Conor Casey two seasons ago with the Philadelphia Union.

    • I’m going to have reserve a slot in my upcoming columns for your dissents. 😉

      To be clear, yes, I am arguing this in the context of what you say in your second paragraph, in terms of budgets, what the Union will/can realistically spend, etc. I pretty much always make the case in that context, enough that I figure y’all are sick of me rehashing it in columns.

      Right now, I think they would be better served dropping serious cash on a legit, game-changing left back than on a DP striker, because they’d get more bang for their buck that way (by that, I mean that striker salaries/transfer fees are inflated in comparison) and I think Sapong can have a very good season. (I reserve the right to change my mind about that if Sapong blows out a knee or something!)

      Regarding your list … good list. Castillo isn’t a striker though. I’d take Sapong over dos Santos and probably Rivero and Valdez (in the context of the current Union team makeup). With the others, that’s the sort of thing where you just can’t make a successful argument against those players, because of track records that Sapong just doesn’t have. So we’ll have to revisit that in a few months, eh?

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        Dan, good point on Castillo and you can certainly make arguments for/against people listed on the list. I’m going to wow you here and tell you that you already have a game changing LB. Sure his defensive inconsistencies have been well documented, but he is really playing box to box this year and making his side difficult for the other team to play on. As stated, we will revisit as the season progresses, or once the U bring back Carlos Ruiz!

      • I agree with this point though. I wonder which position upgrade you would want the Union to upgrade first? And if it’s striker, what’s #2. Honestly curious.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        I would upgrade Striker first and holding mid second. I’m not sold on Edu when he is healthy and Carrol and Crevalle are what they are. Again not being negative about them, but if you had a truly dynamic holding mid, that would just improve everyone from your midfield to your back four.

      • pragmatist says:

        I’m with you on Fabinho, and I cringed a little with the mention of Ruiz. Dude just rubbed me the wrong way. Must have been the incessant flopping.
        I’m pretty sure he took a dive on a coin toss once…

      • Bring back Ruiz? Now, those are fighting words!

      • Lucky Striker says:

        Music to my ears Mr. Walsh……

        Obviously, I would love to have a more clinical finisher-but in the economic realities the Union live in CJ’s size, pace, holdup and passing game will more than do for now.

        It’s going to be all about the health and service going forward.

        Philly has real problems in the pivot and at LB. Been screaming for years ! THAT is where the attention first has to go.

        They need a vet backup at striker who fits. They got rid of 3-and while I absolutely believe Herbers has a future here….one isn’t enough in return.

      • Yes Lucky Striker, agree 100%.

    • There are only maybe 3-4 forwards I would take over Sapong and they all cost $4 million or more…absolutely not worth it. If you look at those teams that have high cost DP forwards, the rest of the team’s quality suffers and usually can’t go toe to toe with a true team with depth. Those teams either missed the playoffs entirely or crashed ingloriously out of the playoffs *cough* Toronto *cough*. It’s more important to find someone that fits your system at a reasonable cost (aka Sapong) then blowing your budget on a forward. BWP, Kamara etc…fairly reasonable costs and they produce, but they also play on very good TEAMS. Sapong had 9 goals last season and missed quite a few games and also played on a team that didn’t have consistent service or committed runs. So I feel similarly to Dan W. at least for this season. From the first three games, my sense is there is going to be better service and runs into the box this year and Sapong should put up better numbers along with his excellent work rate.

      • pragmatist says:

        ^ This.

      • Yeah. I mean, comparing Sapong to, say, Giovinco is ridiculous. Of course Giovinco is better — he’s the best player in the entire league. But he comes at a cost: many millions per year, in fact, and that affects the rest of your team, since we play in a league with a salary cap. So the question is not “Who is better than Sapong, ” but “Who is better than Sapong dollar for dollar???” I’m a big fan of Kai Kamara, so I might take him dollar for dollar. But the rest of these guys, as a dollar-for-dollar proposition, are questionable at best.

      • Thing about Kamara is not just that he is more expensive but that he is 31 years old and CJ 27.
        I find it hard to believe that Kamara is ever going to equal or top his production last season while at the same time I think there is reason to believe that the best that CJ has to offer is yet to come in the next 3-4 seasons.

      • pragmatist says:

        Right. Most of these teams with high-priced DP’s struggle to field quality teams under one of two circumstances:
        1) Their starters aren’t good enough across the board, because all their money was spent on one or 2 players
        2) They have no quality depth, meaning if their DP goes down, they are crippled.
        The U have done what appears to be a pretty impressive job of loading up with Above-Average talent across the board this season, including subs. That is not easy to do in a capped league.
        Unless you have Microsoft money propping you up, it’s about more than the cap, too. If the cap is $4.5M (arbitrary guess), your owners still may only have $8M/year to spend on salaries (again, arbitrary for discussion purposes). So the question becomes, how do you allot that money without crippling multiple positions.
        Having a Keane to play alongside CJ would be great. But I’m of the opinion that having a holdup CF like CJ (or Kamara) works best in this league, if you surround them with quality midfielders and wings, which we appear to have done.
        A lot of season left to see if this experiment truly is successful, but it’s an appealing recipe.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Salary Cap this season is $3,660,000.
        The total spending beyond the limit of the salary cap last season on Designated players was $86 million. Five teams spent $62 million of that (72%); the other fifteen, $28 million (28%).
        Your $8 million assumption places you just below fourth place in the DP spending table. 5th place is $7.7 million; 6th is 2.8 million.
        Final point: I cannot get close to the actual quote from Jay Sugarman from sometime last late summer, but he said that nothing was going to be “taken out” of the team for the foreseeable future, which I took to mean no profits will be removed, all profits will continue to be reinvested.
        All numbers generated from my reading of the salary cap rules and the September 2015 salary data published by the Players Association. Any errors are my responsibility.

    • I don’t want octavio rivero. Period. Pretty much at any price. He’s been borderline useless so far this year in vancouver. Blas Perez has picked up most of the slack and it shows. Most importantly, HOW these guys play the striker position is much different. Many you listed are pure goal scorers, not target men like CJ. Giovinco and CJ may play the same position, but they might as well not given the style a team needs to adopt to make each more effective. The best style analogous you listed was altidore. And we’re paying 1/4 what Toronto is for him. And there’s a debate CJ might be better. Well done union on this one.

  3. JediLos117 says:

    He was robbed out of hat trick…twice.
    Whoever is on a hat trick should be given pk.

    • I agree with your second sentence, but only in those cases where a team is already leading by a substantial margin.
      As long as the outcome is still in doubt, I want my team’s best PK shooter to take the shot. Securing a win takes precedence over completing the hat trick.

  4. There is no way ES thinks he is set at the striker position, NO WAY. Where is the competition at this position….there is none. I like Sapong,(Herbers too for that matter), but I would like to have a different type of forward. One with tons of technical skill, can turn and beat you one on one, maybe blow by a defender with speed and of course be able to make pretty goals…one that makes you say WOW! We do not have that now. We have a gritty finisher. Anyway that’s what I think we need to win big games and impress us fans as well.

    ES is a money ball guy, so I think he can find us a quality striker on the cheap.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Laz & El P & everyone else:
        While the final USL Roster compliance date has not yet been reached, judging by the absence of a finalized one for BSFC, we all suspect that the date is tomorrow or Friday noon, because games begin later on FRiday itself.
        Currently, BSFC, counting trialists, rostered players, and one upon whose status all the sources I have seen still disagree, has FIVE strikers in camp.
        Earnie is looking for his striker reinforcements among the young, the inexperienced and the inexpensive.
        One of them, 19 year old Amoy Brown, has scored two game winners about which we know. A second, 24 year old Jamaican loanee Corey Burke has just return from Jamaican National Team camp not having made the 23 man roster for this weekends’ qualifiers against Costa Rica.
        Last point: while the sound byte “Union 2.0” more than applies [cue wild celebrations in The River End and elsewhere!!], the Union have never been big on bringing in players after the season has started, consistent with their strong emphasis on locker room chemistry.

      • I imagine a high degree of changeover, season to season. This being ES’ first season, we may see a higher than normal amount. ES also is dealing with differing transfer windows/seasons and it will be interesting to see if anything happens over the summer window. Moneyballing, Mr. Sciencing, Dr. Ruthing aside, he will look for good players that fit his scheme. i agree with Dan W that wingbacks are very important in this scheme – we seem to have found one for RB and could improve at LB. I would suggest, however, that even current players may not always be around – don’t get too attached, or stated positively, enjoy their moments now and don’t project. Be (Happy) Union are playing and doing well. Be Union (some of us, of course, always have been).

  5. Knee over the ball says:

    I really enjoy the debate and discussion on PSP.

    It isn’t about Sapong only for me it is who on the Union is going to generate enough goals to win. We need consistent scoring across the team and 2-3 scorers who contribute significantly (Over 8 goals a year). We have struggled to get scoring across the team over the last couple of years which is why JC rates Letoux. Sapong for me has the opportunity to show what he can contribute but he can’t do it alone. Then during the summer you assess where the gaps are and who is contributing and you look at who is available and ask yourself how would they fit into our club and what they contribute. I am open to any an all players including another striker if they would help us continue on our path upwards. I also believe a change of pace from Sapong can be effective.

    • I think we have that. You’ve already seen goals from Pontius and Le Toux so far this season, and I expect we’ll see more. You should also see goals from Ilsinho, Barnett, and Alberg. (And maybe Leo Fernandes, though it depends which one shows up to play — the one we saw against New England, or the one we saw in the first two matches.)

      • pragmatist says:

        JC seems to think that Alberg has a cannon for a foot. He made a few remarks about needing to get Alberg on the ball at the top of the box for a shot. It will be interesting to see what happens when he gets that chance and buries 2 or 3 of those. That will open up even more channels for everyone else, if the defense cheats to close down on him.
        This team is set up for cascading success. Key on one guy, and there are 2 others waiting to seize their openings.

    • Im not averse to the idea of adding another player, but I think the best conclusion to draw is that it needs to be the right guy, not just some random DP. The style CJ plays has been critical so far to our early success. Of the myriad holes in our lineup heading into the year, Earnie correctly decided this was one we could hold off on while making sure we don’t sign anyone just for the sake of getting a new player, but that we get the right guy.

  6. azog d'filer says:

    I just caught the Curtin presser here:

    Is it just me, or is he like a brand new coach this season? His approach and what he is saying is miles from last season. How much of this is ES?

    At one point when questioned about systems or philosophy, he mentioned that the U attacks as a team and defends as a team. From the backline up to CJ. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome “Total Soccer” to Philly….

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Yeah, I was thinking it would be great if the Union resembled the Dutch teams of the mid ’70s!

    • He still gives away to much information in my opinion.
      No need to mention that the group worked on a 3-5-2 for situations when losing in the last few minutes of a game.
      Also I would have never gave an honest answer to the “how can other teams look to attack you” question.

      • azog d'filer says:

        Maybe it’s Curtin’s version of “Maskirovka”.


      • One can hope. Last season I was able to call not only his starting 11 but the full 18 in most cases after watching his pressers. He consistently gave away more information then he needed to when answering question. If I can do it then you know the opponents can.
        In any case, “Curtin’s Ghost Army” sounds better to me. 😉

      • pragmatist says:

        Well, in his defense, there weren’t a whole lot of options last year.

      • Fair.
        But still, say a reporter would ask about the status of a player who has been injured but was seen in training that day. Curtin would respond along the lines of “Yeah, he is getting closer now and is working hard to get back to full fitness”.
        Which is a perfectly acceptable answer as is but he would continue with something like “I spoke to him today after training and he thinks he would be ready to put in 30 mins or so this weekend”.
        Too much information.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Or Magruder’s “Quaker Guns” [Yorktown, 1862, McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign, American Civil War.

      • but those fooled the Union.

      • old soccer coach says:

        yes, I can too: without the press conferences but from his behaviors in preceding games, the injury reports, etc.
        So can the assistant coaches and interns for the other side.
        I had a physics prof in college who had been with Fermi at U of Chicago in 1942 at the squash court [1st controlled fusion reaction, Manhattan Project]. He told us that for years he had security people present at all his classes making sure he was maintaining secrecy. The information was in the Encyclopedia Britannica at the time, he said.
        Curtin is giving nothing away in the pressers that able intelligent attentive people cannot deduce for themselves from other sources, as you yourself prove!

      • I recognize this perspective but in a day and age when coaches tell you next to nothing of value 75% of the time…I find it refreshing.
        3-5-2 or not.

      • Agreed, from a fan perspective, I love that he seems like a real genuine and honest guy.
        I just love winning more.

      • old soccer coach says:

        You already possessed the data about the 3-5-2 as the late game emergency goal-scoring approach from last season!
        Ethan White or another four best offensive player from the defense would come off, Aristeguieta or Casey would come on, and we would gamble for the tie, since an extra point outranks goal difference in the table.

      • New season, new system, new players.

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    I really, really like CJ and wish him continued good health and many goals as a starter.
    But (you knew it was coming)
    The U have effectively put together enough midfield options to succeed regardless of injury or the wear and tear of a long season. If JC cycles his midfield players, there should still be fresh legs in September.
    If CJ can’t go, yes, there are resources who can be moved from midfield to forward, but that takes away from our midfield strength and options.
    I want to see an available sub for JC who comes off the bench and makes opponents and their fans say “Oh Shit!” High priced, low priced, moneyballed or miraculous, makes no difference. The sooner we get an “Oh Shit” forward, the better.

    • Re: your last paragraph. Having been in the enemy stands for the Columbus game I can tell you that this literally the role that Le Toux has for the Union now.

      • pragmatist says:

        That’s a good point. We may underrate Seba, but his speed and energy, along with a nose for goal, has to be deflating for teams in the 65′ minute.
        No, he’s not Gio, or Kamara, or Drogba (early nomination for “Understatement of the Year”), but he’s a guy you need to account for, at a time when your defenders are wearing down.
        His presence created opportunities on Sunday, even if we failed to convert.
        The “failed to convert” part might be what irks people the most, however.

      • wrong award category, I think – “Mis-positioned analogy” perhaps – I would hope JC would find a way to start Gio, Kamara or Drogba.

      • pragmatist says:

        Valid. Maybe comparative to the Jermain Dafoe role with Sunderland?

  8. John P O'Donnell says:

    I think Curtin speaks like someone from Philadelphia. No bull, just here it is. When so many people ask for transparency, he’s giving it to you. I also find it refreshing and like how he isn’t afraid to talk about other sports teams in the city, like when they asked him about Villanova. He’s the youngest coach in the league and with good support from the top, it looks like he’s starting to grow into the job.

  9. old soccer coach says:

    Just visited the USL website, went to their version of BSFC, and opened “Roster”, a menu that had produced nothing a few days ago, empty space.
    Worth noting that it lists Fabian Herbers and John McCarthy, in addition to some, not all of the players listed on the Union website under Steel FC and then under Roster.
    Herbers would be Steel FC’s 6th international, of seven allowed. To keep the seventh slot open in case of injury rehab need would make sense. I do not know whether USL will allow international slots to be traded as does MLS.

    • Seeing Herbers’ name there is an interesting development. Thank you, as always, for being a conduit of info on BSFC.

      • I would think Herbers playing time at Steel will depend if he gets into that game for the Union (and they both have home games with Steel playing on Sunday). He’s clearly staying on the 18 at this point.

  10. Who thinks CJ will play every match? Given his injury history, Pontius could be rested and sub on for CJ when Barnetta & Nogs. Big Ern wasn’t brought in to buy expensive DPs. Look for him to bring in a younger striker from Europe in the transfet window.

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