Photo: Michael Reeves
Soccer is easier when you play with 11 players, as Philadelphia Union learned Saturday.
C.J. Sapong demonstrated that clearly against D.C. United when he entered the game in the 59th minute like a cannonball into a swimming pool. He immediately began checking deep to find the ball and then his teammates, winning aerial duels (3), and putting himself in dangerous attacking positions. On the night, he took five shots, put four on goal, and scored one. In the process, he made Alejandro Bedoya a visible offensive presence for one of the rare times of the latter’s tenure at the No. 10.
Rarely does a substitute make such a dramatic, obvious, and instant impact upon a game.
The invisible man, i.e. Jay Simpson
Sapong’s performance drastically contrasted that of the man he replaced, Jay Simpson, who was invisible before leaving after 59 minutes. The Union may as well have been playing 10-on-11 in attack for how minimal a presence Simpson provided (or 9-on-11 if you want to be that hard on Bedoya or Chris Pontius).
- Simpson: 16 touches in 59 minutes (plus stoppage time), or one every 3 minutes, 41 seconds.
- Sapong: 16 touches in 31 minutes (plus stoppage time), or one every 1 minute, 56 seconds.
The problem wasn’t necessarily that Simpson was too far upfield either. Both Bedoya and left winger Chris Pontius collected the ball in more advanced positions than Simpson, likely contributing to the continued disconnect between the Union’s holding midfielders and attack.
True, Simpson was returning from injury, but so far, he is fitting the scouting report we heard from Leyton Orient watchers in England: If you get him service, he can score, but don’t expect him to go find the ball and play as a lone center forward because he functions best when playing off a target man.
If that proves true over the course of the season, that’s not merely a Jay Simpson problem. That’s a scouting problem. And it’s a lineup selection problem — and probably a tactical problem. On that, the buck stops with the off-field decision-makers, namely Union sporting director Earnie Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin.
A uniquely unfriendly schedule: Opening on the road
Now, four games do not make a huge sample, particularly considering Simpson missed one match and most of a second.
Further, three of those four games have been on the road, which is typically harsh for MLS clubs, who have much farther to travel than their counterparts overseas.
MLS clubs are 6-24-14 on the road this season, averaging 0.73 points per game.
Only three MLS clubs opened 2017 with three of their first four games away from home this year: Philadelphia, Montreal and Minnesota. None won any of their first four games. (Minnesota won at home Saturday in their fifth game.) The fact that the Union currently sit in last place is as much a result of schedule as it is of their play.
Travel difficulties lead many MLS teams to significantly change their preferred tactics, play more conservatively, and settle for draws more than in other leagues.
That rings particularly true with the Union, with Curtin typically preferring a pragmatic, conservative approach on the road. In contrast, their one home game provided one of the most entertaining halves of attacking play we’ve ever seen from the Union.
In other words, we haven’t seen much of the team that Curtin really wants his team to be.
The cautionary tale of 2014
Regardless, the Union haven’t won a game since August, and Curtin is approaching 2014 John Hackworth territory here. Recall the situation:
- Hackworth was incorporating a completely new midfield, sorting out injuries in central defense, and still experimenting with where players fit best.
- He seemed to start figuring out where the pieces fit in late May, but by then, it was too late.
- He got fired.
The Union now get three straight games at home, and six of their next eight will be at Talen Energy Stadium.
Curtin needs to figure out during this stretch how his pieces fit together and turn into wins. That means:
- Get the center forward involved in the match.
- Sort out the disconnect between Haris Medunjanin and the attack.
- Get Bedoya and Pontius involved in build-up play.
Lest you think that’s particularly easy, consider that one root of these problems may be that Keegan Rosenberry, perhaps the league’s best right back in possession in 2016, has been minimally involved in the attack this year because he’s playing more cautiously, either to cover for center back Oguchi Onyewu’s immobility, because of road pragmatism, or both.
If the Union take seven points from their next three games and 14 to 16 points over the larger eight-game stretch, then it all works out fine, and the rough opening stretch gets viewed as a function of schedule and chemistry experiments.
If not, the Union are probably looking for a new head coach come June 4.