The curious case of C.J. Sapong

This is a dead horse.

As idioms go, to unrelentingly beat a dead horse is “to continue a particular endeavor [that] is a waste of time as the outcome has already been decided.”

This data, this argument, this discussion… All of it is a dead horse, but worth beating again following some comments from Union Head Coach Jim Curtin during his press conference yesterday.

After acknowledgments of the passing of American soccer legend Walter Bahr and Union Ring of Honor honoree Sebastien Le Toux, Coach Curtin said this:

The Twitter comments were predictable.


This is absurd

Jay Simpson lost his starting spot after one half. I think Burke has earned the right to start

Death, taxes, and Sapong starting if he’s breathing

The trendline

Whoscored.com captures detailed data from every player in every Major League Soccer game (in addition to games all over the world). Just like this publication, they assign scores out of 10 for each player in each match. By simply plotting the data points week by week and solving for a trend line, a narrative emerges (one that shouldn’t surprise any Union fan who has been applying their own version of the “Eye Test” to Sapong this season).

Sapong’s production has trended downward since the season’s opening match against New England. The win against the Revs was Sapong’s highest rated performance in 2018 (and one in which he still missed a half dozen above average scoring opportunities). On the Union, Sapong is only the team’s 10th best player. Knowing that a striker who’s rating is so low might be troubling for a team who struggles to score goals (and that a bear does it’s business in the woods, as is common knowledge), consider that in WhoScored’s overall rankings, Sapong is the 210th ranked player out of 323 players in the league.

Woof, as the internet says.

What now?

Jim Curtin has to defend his players and their ability to find their feet and save their own respective seasons. He’s not alone in the Union coaching annals in this pursuit, either: The Doops Hoops have a long history of riding players long after their form has dipped, particularly Curtin’s predecessor, John Hackworth.

While creative and inspired Boys in Blue like Roger Torres and Kleberson were marooned somewhere outside the team’s regular 18, maddeningly limited players like Keon Daniel, Aaron Wheeler, and Antoine Hoppenot found regular places on game day. None of the latter ever played themselves into any form beyond their obvious skills, and waiting for them to do so cost the Union dearly and eventually cost Hackworth his job.

So far, this strategy has proven the former to be true: the Union are a limited team, and sticking with limited players who are also out of form is a recipe for disaster. Whether the latter proves to be true without Coach Curtin’s primary supporter, Earnie Stewart, is something only time will tell.

As for Sapong, it’s time to leave him out of the XI and perhaps out of the 18 for a week or two. Corey Burke might not be the Union’s long term answer at striker (and it’s clear Jay Simpson isn’t either). However, he is the only obvious choice for today, tomorrow, and Saturday against Vancouver.

The sooner the Union make that decision, the better off they will be.


  1. For a long time, the argument has gone on about how much of the Union’s failings can be laid at the feet of Jim Curtin’s management vs. how much he has been handcuffed by missing pieces and Earnie dictating the formation and style of play.

    Well, Jim’s boss is gone in a matter of weeks. So we’re about to get that question answered.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Guy has outplayed Sapong at every corner this year…. taken his chances and one could argue has single handedly kept the Union at once totally adrift—-afloat…yet CJ Sapong is under no pressure.
    This is American Soccer?

  3. This is the defining inconsistency of Curtin’s tenure. Some players have a bad game and are banished to the Amobi Okugo memorial dog house. Recent tenants include Jack Elliot, Keegan Rosenberry and Derrick Jones. Yet other players like Wenger, Pontius and Sapong clearly have get out of the dog house free for life cards and can do no wrong. Is this because they look good in practice?

    I can understand a willingness to stick by players who are struggling, particularly goal scorers, but it is just way too inconsistent. And it continues to baffle me.

    • That is why Curtin has the records he has. Stats do not lie.

    • Rosenberry was terrible last year and still got into a decent amount of games. Elliot isn’t in the dog house, he’s just been outplayed. W have 2 highly priced good players above Jones. We also had complete crap behind Pontius and Wenger so there’s at least an excuse there. Sapong needs to sit thoug because he’s been absolutely terrible.

      • ” Elliot isn’t in the dog house, he’s just been outplayed” — Right. Applies to Elliot, but not to Sapong, who has been outplayed. And Jones is USL player of the week, but can’t make the 18.

  4. I can’t help but notice that the players who get chance after chance are usually American, while the players who get disappeared after one bad outing tend to be the foreign players. Conscious management decision, unconscious bias on the coach’s part, or too small a sample size to make a conclusion?

  5. John Harris says:

    Like a bad high school basketball coach…

    • This is the most appropriate comparison. Those bad high school coaches are usually connected with admins so untouchable until the admins get attention…so, Sugarman again?
      Whatever. I have season tickets since 2010, and haven’t been to a game since last July or August.
      Only have seats this year because habit. This is most likely the last time I re-up. Life goes on…

  6. scottymac says:

    So…it’s not actually a curiosity at all. Curtin plays his guys. Sapong is his guy. Jay Simpson never was. Burke may one day become his. It’s not curious, playing Sapong is consistent with Curtin’s game day decisions.
    All I hope is this puts paid to the idiotic “what Coach could do more with these players” trope for not replacing Jim. The answer to the trend line and everyone’s eye test seems to be, “anyone else”.

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