A View from Afar

Pine time leads to prime time for Sapong, Rosenberry, others

Photo: 215pix

Some time on the bench can pay off, and it finally has for Philadelphia Union.

You began to see that clearly around the 62nd minute of the Union’s 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

Keegan Rosenberry and Derrick Jones entered the game for Ray Gaddis and Roland Alberg, respectively.

The game promptly changed.

A messy, physical, disjointed game slowed down. Rosenberry’s poise and class on the ball changed the tempo. Jones provided energy where Alberg’s had gradually died over the prior half hour. It only got better once Fabian Herbers entered the game, slotted in on the right, and pushed Chris Pontius back to the left side, where Pontius promptly helped create two goals and Herbers played a part in one.

All four were playing the positions in which they started on opening day. Each lost his spot. (Except Pontius, who moved across the field.) Rosenberry will likely return to the starting lineup this week, and Jones might too. When they do, it may be in their old positions, but mentally, they may be different players than they were a month ago.

The value of the bench

A benching can do a world of good for a struggling player.

We’ve seen it this year with C.J. Sapong. Many forget that he was an all-star last year. I certainly didn’t forget that I wrote last year, “You don’t need a DP striker when you have C.J. Sapong.” Some thought (and still think) that was delusional, but I still believed it entering this year and still believe it now.

Last year, Sapong struggled after Vincent Nogueira’s departure changed the team. He spent most of his time thereafter picking long balls out of the air with defenders hanging on his back. Whatever else hasn’t worked for the Union this year, Sapong hasn’t had to do that.

So circumstances changed.

What also changed was the fact that Sapong lost his starting job to Jay Simpson.

Time on the sideline changes a player. It gives a new perspective from which to watch the game, along with motivation to earn a starting job back. And it does all sorts of things that we can’t psychologize from outside the player’s head (i.e. we have no idea what’s going on in there).

Sapong is still the same player, however, who was good enough to earn an all-star spot last season. Today, he leads MLS in goals scored and got my vote for MLS Player of the Week.

It goes further than that. Oguchi Onyewu played perhaps his best game in a Union uniform on Saturday. You could chalk that up to a variety of possible factors:

  1. He and Jack Elliott complement each other better than he and Richie Marquez.
  2. He’s rounding into form after a two-year layoff.
  3. He was motivated and focused after a benching.
  4. None/all of the above.

In the past, Union head coach Jim Curtin stuck with some struggling players too long, most notably Sapong and Andrew Wenger.

Curtin is likely now seeing the success of benching some of those players. When even the golden child — Rosenberry — sees pine time, it sends a message to the rest of the team: The best players play. Period. When he gets another opportunity and plays well, it reinforces that message for both the players and the fans.

It could be a turning point in Curtin’s coaching career. Curtin is viewed as a player’s coach who consistently protects his players in public. Given time, he could come to be viewed as a coach who also gets the best out of his players, as he figures it out. He’ll have to earn that reputation, and in truth, it will be Sapong, Rosenberry and company who determine that.

From winless streak to unbeaten streak

The Union have now delivered three-goal halves in two of their last three games. They have pitched two straight shutouts. Their winless streak is over, and now they’re on a three-game unbeaten streak.

Yes, that’s how quickly the narrative can change. Here’s more.

The Red Bulls started last season by losing six of their first seven and getting shut out in five of those games. They went 15-3-9 the rest of the way to win the Eastern Conference.

Nobody is predicting Philadelphia will do that. (That said, before the season started, I picked them to go to the playoffs. That prediction looks really bad now, doesn’t it?) But when you consider that the last two MLS champions sat in 9th place in May of the seasons in which they won, anything’s possible.

There’s nothing like a 3-0 win over a rival to kickstart that sort of drive.

Miscellaneous Union notes
  • Bedoya finding his way: Alejandro Bedoya is earning his paycheck with some excellent play of late. He put Sacha Kljestan in his pocket Saturday, and Kljestian might still be spitting out lint. The Union just need to figure out how to maximize Bedoya’s offensive potential. He wants to play the No. 8, and Union management wants him (ideally) at the No. 10. Neither one is quite right, considering how Bedoya consistently finds himself on the right side of the field regardless of what his stated position is. Unless the Union start playing a diamond midfield — not likely — he may fit best on the right of an inverted triangle. Regardless, it’s starting to look like they’re starting to figure it out.
  • Pontius, back to being Pontius: Pontius has put in some workmanlike shifts on the right flank recently, but once he moved back to the left after Herbers entered the game, he created two goals. The flip is a good tool to use occasionally, but Pontius still has to be Pontius, and when he’s on his game, that’s as the best left-sided inverted winger in MLS.
  • Curtin finally shows temper: Curtin has drawn some attention with his defensive and aggressive reaction Saturday to Philly Voice’s Kevin Kinkead, an occasional Philly Soccer Page contributor. (Watch below.) On one hand, it’s fair to ask whether Curtin will change tact to avoid running his starters into the ground this year, but Kinkead never actually got to that part of the question because Curtin cut him off. On the other hand, Curtin is right: 2017 is a different year. Sapong is a more mature player. Vincent Nogueira isn’t leaving in June. But Curtin still has to avoid overworking him. Jay Simpson will have to earn his paycheck eventually.

  • Sugarman follow-up: Many readers praised Union owner Jay Sugarman for his open response to my open letter last week, and I give him a lot of credit too. Some readers asked for more specific details. So did I. Sugarman did not respond to my emailed inquiry.
  • Goalkeeping highlights: Goodness, Andre Blake. Welcome back to the highlight reel after keeping your team in the game. And you too, Luis Robles. The save on Sapong’s header was just outrageous, and if not for that, Sapong wouldn’t have needed the penalty kick for the hat trick.
  • Oh, and…: Good call, Bedoya, on ensuring that Sapong took the penalty kick. The captain did captain stuff, and it stopped a riot.

14 Comments

  1. pragmatist says:

    A win against DC (an actual rival) would do wonders for everything around this team.
    .
    I love pretty much everything about this article:
    – Squad rotation and its importance (despite past statements from JC), both from a rest and a motivational standpoint
    – Bedoya putting his stamp on games
    – Early seasons success (or lack thereof) compared to end-of-season.
    .
    I made a comment before the season: What if last year played out in reverse? A horrible start, followed up by a fantastic finish where we made the playoffs and lose in the first round? Would people riot? Or with the mood be more upbeat because the team rallied?
    .
    Narratives are very fluid.

    • As much as every says we aren’t a rival of NYRB, they rested a bunch of starters midweek so they could play us, we knocked them out of the Open Cup the last 2 years, their coach lost his mind last year against us, and the games are always more physical and have an edge to them. While NY likes to pretend we are rivals their play says otherwise, even if we aren’t the biggest one.

      • pragmatist says:

        We are “a rival” of NYRB. But if you ask their fans who their rival is, how many of them would say Philly? Without reciprocity, it’s not really a rivalry.
        .
        DC, on the other hand, will drum up emotions on both sides. They are more of a rival than NYRB. I’m not sure why MLS has decided we should be pitted against NY instead of DC, but then again, MLS has a very…unique…way of thinking.

      • Yeah I agree with that and especially now that NYCFC is there it’s a no brainer. You can have more than 1 rival though and i don’t think the rivalry between us and NYRB needs the quotation marks.

      • pragmatist says:

        That’s valid. I think I just take exception to how much the NYRB games get hyped by MLS and national press when we don’t feel it as strongly as it is portrayed. But yeah, they are still a nice scalp.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        I think they rested them midweek because they thought this was a more winnable game.

  2. I wonder if JC would have put KR in for Gaddis if it wasn’t for a knock?
    .
    Would he change a back 4 after 2 straight shut-outs?
    .
    I do believe KR is the right/better player but results are currently what we need and the back 4 albeit shaky has done the job.

  3. I would love to believe this team is turning things around, but the 2 clean sheets are quite misleading in that there was a good deal of luck involved in both. LA and NYRB missed several gilt-edged chances apiece. (And that’s besides Blake’s amazing ‘keeping in the last match.) We will not be continuing clean sheets unless the defense tightens up. Now, one could argue that the team was never as bad as its record showed, so that our good fortune in the last couple of matches is regression toward the mean. Which might be true. I’m just not yet prepared to believe that our mean is very high.

    • pragmatist says:

      The clean sheets won’t continue, but that’s fine, as long as we are scoring 2-3 per game. It’s when our goals dry up that we need to worry.

  4. scottymac says:

    They do have a small window of opportunity here to pick up some points – @DCU / HOU / COL. D-D-W would do wonders for confidence. Those kind of results may see Jimmy asking reporters and fans who bailed to meet him at the flagpole after school.

  5. Tim Jones says:

    Let us hope that Tab Ramos urges Derrick Jones to continue to develop his offensive distribution.
    .
    Jones will be away from today until at least May 28th when the US plays its last group stage game. 16 of the original 24 advance to the knockout stages, which are over June 1, June 5, June 8 and June 11.

  6. Alicat215 says:

    Buhahahahahaha! Sorry, I just looked at the headline, fell off my chair…….and am still laughing. Thanks Dan, that was the funniest thing I’ve heard all day!

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