C.J. Sapong has been through a lot with the Philadelphia Union.
We’re talking about a guy who, during his debut season in 2015, broke his face, suffered two concussions, and was suspended for three games due to DUI charges that he ultimately beat in court. He’s been asked to run at the top of Jim Curtin’s 4-2-3-1 formation as the lone striker, thanklessly battling two center backs by himself as he tries to hold the ball up, bring teammates into the play, and win fouls. If you’re talking about auxiliary target man qualities that can’t be measured statistically, C.J. has always excelled in a Union shirt.
Where he doesn’t excel is in the areas that can be measured, the metrics most important to the forward position: goals and assists. He’ll roll key passes for his teammates but just isn’t seeing enough of the ball, nor is he taking his chances when they do come. He’s missed at least five sitters and a penalty this season. He will not and cannot turn and face, dribble a defender, and create his own shot. In basketball terms, he’s a catch and shoot guy with a loose handle who can’t get to the rim.
And that’s absolutely killing the Union right now, because the rest of the team is playing rather well. Union fans are watching Sapong, a guy who scored a career-high 16 goals last season, go through a drought where he’s bagged just two goals and one assist through 1,290 minutes and 18 games, which is now beyond the mid-point of the regular season. He’s making $500,000 this season and is the sixth-highest paid player on the team, behind Borek Dockal, Alejandro Bedoya, David Accam, Jay Simpson, and Haris Medunjanin.
Simpson can’t sniff the field and and will go down as the worst signing of the Earnie Stewart era. Accam, the prized offseason acquisition from Chicago, was bumped to the bench after looking like he forgot how to play soccer coming off a 14 goal and 8 assist 2017. He’s contributed a whopping 0 goals and 0 assists for Philadelphia this season.
Sapong, Simpson, and Accam have put up these combined numbers:
Union have roughly $2.4 million wrapped up in Accam, Sapong, Simpson. Just 2g, 1a in 35 combined games for that group.
— Ryan Bright (@RBrightUnion) July 9, 2018
35 combined games for three guys who are putting up one goal per 1,098 minutes and 1 assist per 2,196 minutes.
The forward with the most goals for the Union this season (2) is Corey Burke, who has looked more lively and energetic than Sapong, but continues to come off the bench. Midfielders Dockal, Ilsinho, and Fafa Picault lead the team with 5, 4, and 3 goals, respectively.
As a team, the Union have the worst strike total in the Eastern Conference, scoring just 21 goals in 18 games as they slide from the final playoff spot down to 8th place with a -6 goal differential. Ironically enough, the 19-year-old center back pairing of Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty has been more stable than predicted, while the veteran forward corps struggles to perform at a level even close to being acceptable.
And maybe that’s on Jim Curtin for continuing to set up his team in the same formation with the same set of tactics going on four full seasons now. The Union are utterly predictable in a strategic sense and looked even worse in the beginning of the year before Dockal found his feet and Ilsinho rediscovered his 2016 form. We’ve seen Sapong play alongside another striker just once in his Union career, and that was opening day, 2015, when he played 45 minutes next to Fernando Aristeguieta before suffering a Zygomatic fracture. Who knows what he could do in a different formation.
I don’t know how Sapong or the players feel about Curtin, whose future looks cloudy with Stewart departing at the end of this month to take a new gig as the general manager of U.S. Soccer.
What I do know is that Sapong just doesn’t have that killer instinct. He doesn’t have that predatory goal-scoring moxie. He’s not an asshole who will grab a shirt, work the ref, go in hard on a tackle, or make himself a nuisance in the box, and sometimes those are the qualities you need in a striker, like a Carlos Ruiz or a Dom Dwyer. C.J. is a laid back, namaste type of guy, someone who feels the vibes and rides the mental waves and feels the balance of the cosmos and seems to perform better when he’s in the right head space. His physical form feels like an extension of his mental status, as the guy has always been a “mind and body are one” type of player. He’s always been kind of “far out” in the way he views life, like he’s on a surfboard or tripping acid, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Just look at this series of quotes from Jack McCaffery’s postgame piece in the Delco Times:
Sapong was active Saturday, involved in much of the play in front of the Atlanta net, willing to sprint end-to-end, trying. Yet in his last 485 minutes over eight games, he has provided seven total shots and just one on goal.
“Ah, well, you’ve got to give other people opportunities,” Sapong said. “I don’t feel any way about it. You have to give other people opportunities as well. I haven’t finished chances. So, that’s how the game goes. That’s why you have 24, 25 players.”
So what happened in the last year to have blunted his professional rise?
“You tell me,” he said. “You guys are the analysts, right?” He added, “I’ll leave that to you guys, because you are the experts.”
If that sounded like a call to dig past the score sheet, it did invite the observation that he is often crowded if not smothered while in possession of the ball. And he is not surrounded by anyone skilled enough to warrant a robust demand for a bobblehead night. So there’s that. But he has played in 17 games, has started 16, and has not scored a goal since April 28. At some point, he has the obligation to carry a team, even if in something less than a soccer constellation.
“At the end of the day, this is a metaphor of life,” Sapong said. “And I truly believe that when darkness comes, there is light if you try to see it, try to look at it. So that’s how I try to approach every day and hope for the best.”
Anyway, in the Atlanta loss, he was hardly effective, logging just 10 actions in a 63 minute shift. Two were key passes and five other successful attempts went backwards and sideways via hold-up play:
— Joe Tansey (@JTansey90) July 8, 2018
So if he’s out of form, just bench him, yeah? Bring him off the pine as a super sub or let him run the wing, where he played in Kansas City and where he’s been effective before. You have to give him something different and give opponents (and his teammates) something different, too. Maybe then he’ll rediscover his 16-goal form.
That’s what I find odd about Curtin’s approach, because he’s shown a willingness in recent years to bench players who are not performing. Keegan Rosenberry was yanked last year. Accam was taken out of the starting XI with ease and Derrick Jones has fallen off the face of mother Earth. What, then, is preventing Curtin from using this same approach with Sapong?
It feels like there’s always some guy who stays in the lineup when he has no business being there. Andrew Wenger was famously given 22 starts in 2015 and contributed just one goal and two assists. Chris Pontius scored 2 goals in 30 games last season and was allowed to start 27 of them.
It’s boring, it’s predictable, and it’s crushing the Philadelphia Union, who had a really nice late spring/early summer surge and are now doing what they always do – fading into irrelevance while the cream of MLS rises to the top.
I know Curtin doesn’t have the same tools as other MLS coaches, but he does have the rare opportunity to help himself here. He has to put C.J. on the bench.