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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, May 8, 2017

Meet the new CJ: Why 2017 has been different for Sapong

CJ Sapong has had plenty to celebrate this season, including Saturday's hat trick
against the Red Bulls. (For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
Once or twice or seven times in the past, I’ve made the argument about a central deficiency of the Philadelphia Union: Never in franchise history has the club had a truly elite goalscorer, a top-10 MLS hit man to lead the line and paper over cracks elsewhere in the side.

They’ve had a lot of other positives – exemplary chance-creators (Sebastien Le Toux, the ultimate luxury player Cristian Maidana and now Haris Medunjanin), top defenders (Jeff Parke and Carlos Valdes, part one), even a goalkeeper of the year, hard as that may be to believe.

But the Union have flailed in vain for nearly a decade trying to find that star to reliably put goals in the back of the net and strike fear into the heart of opponents (pun intended). They’ve tried to go young, go old, draft and loan, literally around the world.

For all that searching, through the first quarter of the 2017 MLS season, CJ Sapong has looked like that elusive striker. Now we’ve heard versions of this story before – ah the halcyon days of #Sapong4USMNT – and it’s well established that Sapong hasn’t yet in his career been a double-digit scorer in MLS.

That reality caused a bit of tension following the Union’s 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls Saturday when that question was put to Union manager Jim Curtin (or at least was attempted; I’ll refer you to Kevin Kinkead’s timeline for further details).

So let’s attempt the query again: What makes 2017 different than the previous six seasons of evidence we have on Sapong? What evidence is there that nine goals isn’t the rigid ceiling it’s appeared to be, one Sapong has hit twice but never broken through (2015 with the Union and 2012 with Sporting Kansas City)?

Curtin’s response was short on details:
“He’s the same. He’s the same player. He’s confident though, and when strikers are confident, they go on runs, just like Bradley Wright-Phillips, when he’s confident, he goes on runs. David Villa, the same thing. It’s not one thing. It’s getting services, it’s a little bit of timing and movement in the box, sometimes a ball just drops to you and you get on a streak. The finish on a PK, he does that. He’s scored goals a lot of different ways, and CJ is again a very good striker who’s in good form right now, and when he’s confident, he’s as dangerous as anybody in our league.”

Since forecasting the future is not exactly my forte, let’s instead look at the present, which will tell you that Sapong is one of MLS’s most efficient forwards in the early going of the season.

Top scorers in MLS in 2017.

We know that Sapong is tied for the MLS lead in goals with Erick Torres on seven. But of the 11 players with six or more goals this season, Sapong has played the second-fewest minutes (trailing Maxi Urruti), taken the second-fewest shots (behind Juan Agudelo) and is tied for the third-fewest shots on goal (behind again Agudelo and Torres). It also should be noted that Torres has three goals on penalty kicks; Sapong, David Villa, Cyle Larin, Christian Ramirez, Agudelo and Nemanja Nikolic are tied for the MLS lead with six goals each from open play.

That’s all fine and good, but what about how 2017 Sapong stacks up with past Sapongs? Favorably, though the caveat of a small sample size means some of the changes might not be sustainable.

CJ Sapong statistics by season

For instance, much was made last year of Sapong’s aversion to shots on goal for stretches that lasted weeks. Indeed, among the five pro seasons in which he logged more than 1,500 minutes, Sapong’s rate of 0.78 shots on target per 90 minutes in 2016 was his second lowest.

This year? He’s more than doubled it to 1.63. Considering that his career average is 0.93 SOG/90, I wouldn’t expect this lofty shot rate to continue as defenses adjust to the new Sapong. But the point has clearly gotten across that Sapong needs to shoot more.

Indeed, Sapong shots are up across the board. He’s averaging 2.59 shots per 90 minutes this season, the highest rate of his career. He averaged just 2.13 last year and 2.17 for his career.

His completion rate is also up monstrously. Sapong is converted 36.8 percent of his total shots into goals and 58.3 percent of his shots on target into goals. His highest conversion rate on total shots for a single season was 20.5 in 2015, when he scored nine times, and 15.1 percent for his career. For shots on target, Sapong has never hit at a higher rate than the 42.9 in 2015, and he’s a career 35.2 percent shot maker.

He’s also drastically increased his percentage of shots finding the frame – 12 of 19 this season (63.2 percent) are on target. Last year, that number was 36.7, and he’s a career 43.0 percent shooter at the target.

So what’s that mean? Hold onto your hats: Sapong is not going to score seven goals in every nine games this season. He’s going to regress back to the mean and fall short of 26 goals for the season, in all likelihood. But for the first quarter, he’s on one of the best runs of his career for a notoriously streaky finisher. If he rides this form a bit longer, he’ll burst through those constraining career-bests.

But what’s most important is the process. Curtin has harped on Sapong to keep shooting, and he’s doing that. Some of the goals he’s scored, like the first one against Red Bulls with the driving run right at the space Aaron Long is supposed to be in indicate his increased aggressiveness.
Sapong isn’t going to turn into Larin or Villa anytime soon. But his mentality has grown more akin to what some of the elite strikers display. And even if some of his conversion rates return to earth as I’d bet on, he’s still shown marked improvement on the past.

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