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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.