A View from Afar

Sapong, Simpson and the road

Photo: Michael Reeves

Soccer is easier when you play with 11 players, as Philadelphia Union learned Saturday.

C.J. Sapong demonstrated that clearly against D.C. United when he entered the game in the 59th minute like a cannonball into a swimming pool. He immediately began checking deep to find the ball and then his teammates, winning aerial duels (3), and putting himself in dangerous attacking positions. On the night, he took five shots, put four on goal, and scored one. In the process, he made Alejandro Bedoya a visible offensive presence for one of the rare times of the latter’s tenure at the No. 10.

Rarely does a substitute make such a dramatic, obvious, and instant impact upon a game.

The invisible man, i.e. Jay Simpson

Sapong’s performance drastically contrasted that of the man he replaced, Jay Simpson, who was invisible before leaving after 59 minutes. The Union may as well have been playing 10-on-11 in attack for how minimal a presence Simpson provided (or 9-on-11 if you want to be that hard on Bedoya or Chris Pontius).


  • Simpson: 16 touches in 59 minutes (plus stoppage time), or one every 3 minutes, 41 seconds.
  • Sapong: 16 touches in 31 minutes (plus stoppage time), or one every 1 minute, 56 seconds.

Average field positions of Union starters vs. D.C. United. Of note: Simpson (27), Bedoya (11), Pontius (13). (Source: WhoScored.com)

The problem wasn’t necessarily that Simpson was too far upfield either. Both Bedoya and left winger Chris Pontius collected the ball in more advanced positions than Simpson, likely contributing to the continued disconnect between the Union’s holding midfielders and attack.

True, Simpson was returning from injury, but so far, he is fitting the scouting report we heard from Leyton Orient watchers in England: If you get him service, he can score, but don’t expect him to go find the ball and play as a lone center forward because he functions best when playing off a target man.

If that proves true over the course of the season, that’s not merely a Jay Simpson problem. That’s a scouting problem. And it’s a lineup selection problem — and probably a tactical problem. On that, the buck stops with the off-field decision-makers, namely Union sporting director Earnie Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin.

A uniquely unfriendly schedule: Opening on the road

Now, four games do not make a huge sample, particularly considering Simpson missed one match and most of a second.

Further, three of those four games have been on the road, which is typically harsh for MLS clubs, who have much farther to travel than their counterparts overseas.

MLS clubs are 6-24-14 on the road this season, averaging 0.73 points per game.

Only three MLS clubs opened 2017 with three of their first four games away from home this year: Philadelphia, Montreal and Minnesota. None won any of their first four games. (Minnesota won at home Saturday in their fifth game.) The fact that the Union currently sit in last place is as much a result of schedule as it is of their play.

Travel difficulties lead many MLS teams to significantly change their preferred tactics, play more conservatively, and settle for draws more than in other leagues.

That rings particularly true with the Union, with Curtin typically preferring a pragmatic, conservative approach on the road. In contrast, their one home game provided one of the most entertaining halves of attacking play we’ve ever seen from the Union.

In other words, we haven’t seen much of the team that Curtin really wants his team to be.

The cautionary tale of 2014

Regardless, the Union haven’t won a game since August, and Curtin is approaching 2014 John Hackworth territory here. Recall the situation:

  • Hackworth was incorporating a completely new midfield, sorting out injuries in central defense, and still experimenting with where players fit best.
  • He seemed to start figuring out where the pieces fit in late May, but by then, it was too late.
  • He got fired.

The Union now get three straight games at home, and six of their next eight will be at Talen Energy Stadium.

Curtin needs to figure out during this stretch how his pieces fit together and turn into wins. That means:

  1. Get the center forward involved in the match.
  2. Sort out the disconnect between Haris Medunjanin and the attack.
  3. Get Bedoya and Pontius involved in build-up play.

Lest you think that’s particularly easy, consider that one root of these problems may be that Keegan Rosenberry, perhaps the league’s best right back in possession in 2016, has been minimally involved in the attack this year because he’s playing more cautiously, either to cover for center back Oguchi Onyewu’s immobility, because of road pragmatism, or both.

If the Union take seven points from their next three games and 14 to 16 points over the larger eight-game stretch, then it all works out fine, and the rough opening stretch gets viewed as a function of schedule and chemistry experiments.

If not, the Union are probably looking for a new head coach come June 4.


  1. Great, balanced article Dan. There are some big issues out there that need to be sorted out, if they are not corrected in the next two months it may be time for a change.
    But we have a lot of home games coming up, while our current play is concerning it’s not time to panic just yet.

  2. I really can’t wait to see the overreactions regarding CJ. We KNOW what he is. WE SAW HIM ALL OF LAST YEAR.

    Maybe he looks so good BECAUSE he is at best, a super sub? Maybe if he started this game, he would be invisible like Simpson was!?! (based on the fact that this happened ALL THE TIME last year?)

    Please don’t let a good sub appearance go to anyones head.

    • I agree, but he still needs to start the next game. The message needs to be sent that you play poorly you lose your spot. There has been no desire to get involved by many players this year. Force them to get in the game or put them on the bench where they belong.

    • I may not be as loud as you about it, but I agree with your general sentiment. He had a better game Saturday and got a good poachers goal, which he should with his work rate. I think he’ll make an excellent sub this year, it fits his personality better.
      We can’t forget his play previously, including this year, where he was completely uninvolved as well. This isn’t excusing Simpson, who played awful this game. Jen did have some good hold up play and movement earlier though.
      Bottom line, we can’t keep the same lineup and tactics and hope to succeed.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Agreed. He entered the game with a team enjoying a two goal lead in the 70th minute at home. good chance I could get service too at that point. And I’m not discrediting CJ at all… he stepped on the field and balled… good for him.
      Jay Simpson was poor for sure— okay…. how about demonstrating something resembling connective play.
      How about having a CAM actually trying to get the ball to the striker who needs service to score. I saw Simpson checking back plenty in the TFC game… holding up and connecting passes. Let us remember the difference in that game- the Union were actually able to maintain possession. For me this team panics under pressure and does not have the commensurate nuance of thinking in how to break a press. That’s coaching. Even adequate basketball teams can break a press and once you break the press a few times– the other team tends to back up a bit. I’ve said from the beginning– the book is out on Union. Until they display composure on the ball in an away game– this is going to be the repeatable theme.
      Also…there was an ENORMOUS hole in the middle of the field over and over and over again…which then forces Ilsinho to feel he has to do everything– a domino effect IMO.
      a 4-2-3-1 is designed with the need for a creative- creative midfielder. Correct?
      UGH. Play well.

      • I actually don’t think you need a super creative midfielder in the 10 in our formation, especially since we have a pretty creative 8. But what we do need is much more movement out of everyone giving options to the player with the ball. We are much too static. CJ was moving all over the place and that opened up everything.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I ceed the point but have always felt the nature of the two holding midfielders inverted triangle forces the 10 to bare brunt of playmaking… I suppose we could debate into infinity over the nuances of responsibility within a formation.
        Ultimately, the lack of movement has plagued Union teams what seems forever- so your point is well noted.
        Cue Vincent Noguiera and the ‘what the fuck.’
        Can you imagine..there are teams so good at this game they actually invite the press– want it.—-wait and wait and wait in possession for you to finally step at them and boom.
        Marin Hamsek’s goal for Napoli a prime example this weekend as seen on a nice Tweet I saw.

      • HopkinsMD says:

        This is my concern with Portland. They will eat Union alive on both sides of the press.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      If you saw him ALL of last year, then you should also remember the first third/half of the season, when he was an all-star and scoring about one goal every two games.

      • But taken as a whole body of work is that period of 3 months versus the rest of the year where he was invisible and his career in SKC where he was more like late 2016 CJ than early 2016 CJ.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        It’s fair to say his career has been a mix of up and down and to accept there are periods and circumstances under which he plays very well and poorly. He was not invisible all of his career in KC. He was rookie of the year there, and he earned USMNT caps there. And then he was benched there. It’s a mix.

        It’s clear he lost his confidence late last season after Nogueira left and the team’s style changed. It’s clear he has it back now.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Thanks for the calmer reasoning than many of the other recent posts, Dan. The Union are one poor Bedoya PK away from having that first win and Curtin is not the one who took that PK.
    A month ago I was wondering if the Union would have any points from their first four games. They are 2 points ahead of that worst but not unrealistic expectation.
    June 4 should be the absolute earliest any decision is made. Personally, I don’t think a new coach makes sense until the end of the season unless there is someone who is both available and interested in coming to Philly. Otherwise we risk the same old cycle of promoting an assistant and making him the head coach after a strong US Open Cup run.

  4. For me, we need honestly need at least 6 of 9 points from the next 3 matches at home for me to even think about Curtin continuing as manager, and I honestly do not think that is too harsh whatsoever.

  5. pragmatist says:

    I am very curious about how much of difference Yaro will make in the lineup over Gooch. His presence could free up Rosenberry to get more involved in the offense since he won’t have to cover as much. Also, Yaro’s passing has been missed as a great start to the offensive push.
    I’m not claiming he’s a panacea, but sometimes is just takes one domino inserted in the correct place to let the rest fall as intended.

    • I think the kind of speed Yaro brings is the kind that makes everyone around him more comfortable.

      And what makes Yaro such a promising player, is that he has skills besides his spee. As you said, his passing should really open things up as well.

    • HopkinsMD says:

      Fair point.

  6. I mentioned this in another thread, but I’ll say it again here. The one thing I have noticed about CJ Sapong is that he consistently, time and time again, plays far, far better when he is fighting for his job. I mean, this is true of many players, of course, but with Sapong it seems to be extreme. His fantastic run last year came in the wake of his DUI arrest, when he really had something to prove. Bring in some dude to battle for his spot, and CJ plays like a demon. But hand him the keys, and he slacks off. I think the key may be to constantly have somebody near his level to keep him honest. It’s a win-win, because you need the depth anyway.

    • I was curious if you thought rest has anything to do with it? He was basically the team’s only option last year and Curtin ran him into the ground even when it was apparent he needed a break. Could it be that a well rested C.J. is a better producing C.J. Granted it’s early in the season, but he’s gotta be well rested and he’s scoring goals. Nobody in this league gets hammered more often with less calls going his way. Some may call it criminal neglect the way he is treated.

      • HopkinsMD says:

        I think this is significant. When you are physically worn out, the mind is also affected. And in this game, that’s a problem that shows up in making a wrong run, not making a run at all, being a step late, and even the belief and confidence you need to succeed.

      • Well that was definitely a factor toward the end of the season, without a doubt. He did start to tail off before that, though, which I think may have been complacency. Could well be some element of both.

  7. Seven from 3 means Timbers are a must result match. A loss also would damage confidence.
    Who would we rather be our manager anyway?

    • pragmatist says:

      Ah yes…that is the question that no one is asking. Switching managers always reeks of “be careful of what you wish for,” even when it becomes necessary.

    • I like the vaping guy who runs Sutton United, a guy who knows how to get results with nothing.

  8. So here is a fun question:
    If Marquez is unable to go against Portland this weekend who is starting next to Gooch?
    Edit: Asking both “who would you want to start” as well as “who do you think will start”?

    • Trusty.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Elliot will start for sure. And its the right choice IMO.
      Hard to throw Trusty into a game this important against a team playing so well when the other starting CB is also a projected back up.

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, this is the right answer. As much as we are clamoring to see what we have in Trusty, it may not be the right week. But you definitely carry him on the bench. (Not that you are flush with choices…)

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Agreed, Elliott will probably start. Had he not played fairly well last week, I would say it would be Tribbett.

      • Yup. I think it will be Elliott.
        Tribbett would be next in line given his experience while throwing Trusty out there is not really putting him in a situation to succeed.
        I worry about the speed of Nagbe, Blanco, Mattocks, etc against a CB pairing of Gooch and Elliott/Tribbett. Maybe a dark horse candidate would be starting Gaddis? He has played as an emergency CB late in games before and has the speed and experience. The big worry there is if he gets isolated with Adi he will be eaten alive in the air.

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