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Question to answer: Who will score the goals?

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Editor’s note: To read each post in the Questions to Answer series, click here.

The absence of a reliable, transcendent goalscorer continues to plague the Union. Last year, C.J. Sapong looked set for a breakout season only to run into the Sahara of dry spells and fall short of double digits. In his stead, Chris Pontius stepped up and hustled his way to a team-leading 12 goals. Roland Alberg, in an assortment of starts and off-the-bench appearances, scored nine times in just over 1,100 minutes.

The Union don’t need (or have) a player capable of making a Golden Boot run and thus must rely on a collective effort and a lot of things going right. The question is, will it be enough?

They need enough players to hit the 5 to 10-goal mark. So who could they be?

Count it

Chris Pontius

Coming off a career year and his first national team appearances, Chris Pontius will continue to find just enough space, poach when necessary, and grind out another double digit season if (and it’s a big one considering his track record) he can stay healthy.

Ilsinho

Jim Curtin has spoken about encouraging Ilsinho to pull the trigger more. The Brazilian can certainly make space for himself, but he just needs to be a little more selfish about firing away toward goal. He’s not a double-digit scorer, but he can be a solid goalscorer if he heeds Curtin’s advice.

Fabian Herbers

After the Impact preseason match, I wrote that Herbers needs to find his composure in front of goal under pressure. While the D.C. game likely put to bed the idea of Herbers seeing time as the No. 10, expect him to platoon on the right wing with Ilsinho and make some appearances on the left to spell Pontius. If he finds that composure along with his increased minutes, he will no doubt build on his three goal, seven assist rookie campaign.

Fingers crossed

Jay Simpson

You may have noticed all the dependable goal scoring options were wide midfielders, which goes back to the query on every Union fan’s lips:

Do they have a prolific striker on the roster? Probably not.

With the preseason merry-go-round as our only indicator of Jay Simpson’s quality, it’s hard to tell how he’ll adapt to MLS. He’s shown vision and playmaking ability, but has yet to see enough (or any) of the ball in the box. If he gets enough looks, fans can only pray he puts them away.

C.J. Sapong

For the first half of the 2016 season, C.J. Sapong was killing it. And then… it just stopped. Some of that can be attributed to the lack of dangerous balls sent his way. More of it can be attributed to C.J.’s one-dimensional skill set. Defenses were able to sniff out that near post run Sapong makes on nearly every cross, and the opportunities dried up. Sapong is never going to be someone who can create on the ball, so perhaps an off-the-bench role this year will let Sapong barrel through defenses late in games with those hard-charging runs. When he gets in the right positions, Sapong usually only needs one touch on the ball to score.

Haris Medunjanin

Don’t expect Medunjanin to get into the box often or ever. If the highlights are to be believed, however, the dude’s got a killer free kick that should fill in well for Tranquillo Barnetta on set pieces. He could be good for a few beautiful goals beyond the 18 in a Union shirt.

Rose-colored glasses

Alejandro Bedoya

Ale doesn’t have a nose for a goal, but, as we saw with that beautiful chip in Toronto over Clint Irwin’s outstretched arms, he has the touch. The question is how often he’ll put himself in those dangerous positions and have a go.

Marcus Epps

No doubt, Marcus Epps has played his way into the Union 18 this preseason. With the backlog on the wings, Epps won’t see the starting 11, but he can be a terrific bench option late in games to run at defenses, make those line-breaking runs along the wing, and bag a handful of goals.

Richie Marquez & Oguchi Onyewu

It’s been awhile since the Union had much of a set piece threat from their defensive corps. Marquez often wins headers in the opposition box, but has failed to put them away in previous years. If he improves, Gooch’s goal versus D.C. (assisted by Marquez) foreshadows a Union side much more dangerous on set pieces.

Derrick Jones & Maurice Edu

MLS Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle likened Derrick Jones’ massive territorial coverage to everyone’s favorite rampaging central midfielder Jermaine Jones. That’s quite a comparison, but not outlandish. If the Union can control the ball (another conversation in itself), affording Jones the freedom to push higher offensively, his athleticism and willingness to run indicate he’s capable of a few goals this year.

A healthy Maurice Edu will be expected to contribute even more offensively as a No. 8. A platoon of him and Jonesy should help shoulder the offensive burden for the rest of the midfield far more than Warren Creavalle or Brian Carroll.

Don’t get your hopes up

Roland Alberg

I love, love, love to see Roland Alberg hit a shot. He absolutely rips it. Yes, Alberg can knock the air out of a ball with his left foot, but, as everyone continues to ask, where does he fit in with this team? Most fans agree he’s better suited as a second striker and not a No. 10, even though he’s better on the ball than many of the other central midfield options. Given the team’s formational obstinance, Alberg may bag a few screamers, but it’s unlikely we see him repeat last year’s nine-goal season.

Charlie Davies

As much as Union fans like and admire Charlie Davies, we have yet to see how he fits into the Union’s 4-2-3-1. It’s doubtful Davies will get many sniffs of the field with Simpson, Sapong, and likely, Picault, all ahead of him on the depth chart.

Finding an offensive identity

Many of these prediction enigmas boil down to the Union’s offensive identity. Many of the strongest goal scorers are all wide midfielders so what does that mean for the attack? Will the team bank on hard driving runs from the wings or capitulate to the fullbacks sending in cross after cross into the box? Will the central midfielders open up play through incisive passing? Sunday’s match versus Vancouver may provide an indication, but we may not know the Union’s true offensive identity for some weeks.

Outlook

On the brink of another Union season, we’re asking this same question yet again. While the team has not had a game-breaking scorer for some time, someone has stepped up each year. Few people expected Chris Pontius to have such an impact last season. So it will be the same in 2017. With Medunjanin as the safety valve and distributor, the Union’s creative players should once again have the freedom to break down defenses that was lost when Vincent Nogueira left midseason. The Union’s wingers have shown they have a penchant for finding the back of the net, but a truly successful season will depend upon whether the Union’s strike force and midfield spine can lend a hand.

15 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    if Pontius, Bedoya, Striker score 28 or so between them I think they will be okay cause there are surely 12-15 spread among the remaining player. This should be an ample ratio if the defense is tight don’t you think?

    • Based on the preseason Ilsinho does look focused more on end production. Would not be surprised to see him chip in a lot more then last year.

    • “… if the defense is tight…”
      .
      This sums up my top concern. Hope I’m proven wrong, but I think that it will take time for them to defend well as a team.

      • pragmatist says:

        That time being when Yaro returns from injury.
        .
        sorry, I don’t have a ton of faith in the 2017 version of Gooch.

        • I’m trying to be hopeful. Chelsea had some horrifically bad CB play early in their season (I mean seriously…some of the worst I’ve ever seen) and obviously they’re doing ok now. Perhaps not 10 points clear hopeful, but maybe being in the conversation of good teams.

          • pragmatist says:

            We need them to be average, that’s all. And they can do that. I just am not optimistic about Gooch being a lock-down defender, or a true difference-maker.

  2. I know this doesn’t quite fit the narrative, but I’m not sure it matters.I can see a handful of players getting 6-12 goals: pontius, simpson, bedoya, medunjanin, herbers, sapong, illsinho, marquez/onyewu. Even if each of those get 6 we are nearing 50 goals.
    .
    I looked it up and was shocked: the Union scored 52 goals last year. 1 more than TFC and 8 more than Seattle. 5th most in the east, 6th overall.
    .
    Again, i know this doesn’t fit this article, but i think the “we don’t have a goal scorer” or “we need to sign a big name striker” narrative needs to die out. Despite having (one of)the best goal keepers in the league we still ended with a negative goal differential. I think this is the main issue. Kind of shocking that we scored so many but still let in 55.

    • I mean, that is essentially what the article says. So, yes, agreed! We don’t need a big name striker if everyone contributes.

    • pragmatist says:

      There was a defensive collapse at the end of last season. We can probably attribute a lot of that to Nogs’ departure. While he may not have been a defensive stalwart, he provided a sense of composure to the backline that let them play with more confidence. Plus, our rookies/2nd year guys just hit a wall of sorts.
      .
      Get the defense back to at least middle of the pack performance and we’ll be fine.

      • As mentioned, once Nogs was gone the defense had no release valve and were forced to settle for clearances up the field instead of keeping the ball on deck and maintaining possession. This lead to opposing teams gaining more possession, which limited our offensive chances and increased theirs.

    • I feel it all comes down to the defense. We scored plenty of goals last year. I feel we’ll hit similar number this year, possibly more. Even if Simpson isn’t the goal scoring machine we were looking for, hopefully perhaps splitting time with Sapong will keep them both fresher and allow them to get 14+ goals between them. If we can get double digits from one or both, great. But still if we’re giving up 2-3 goals as a habit, we’re not going anywhere.

    • hobosocks says:

      It seems like I’m just in agreement with everyone else posting today, but I think your point is well taken. We (as in the Union message-board public) seem to obsess over the Union’s lack of a big time striker, but the reality is the attack is what got the team its results last year (and before to some extend). The Union is a team that scores goals, as Curtin often points out.
      .
      The defense is the disaster, and I also think that’s the big worry for this season. Blake will still pull some games out for us, but our centerback / defensive midfield still seems so weak. I’m cautiously not optimistic.

      • The jury is still out on Curtin, but how can a former (above average at least) center-back manage a team defense so poorly?

        • Maybe the players just aren’t that good or just weren’t ready? Fabinho has made great defensive improvements the past few years. I am hopeful that Marquez/Yaro/Tribbett can do the same. I think a legit 6 will help too, hopefully that is Jones or Edu.

  3. Fun interview with Jay Simpson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c10Eym91crU Looking forward to see him play. Hope he will become a top striker here.

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