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

Monday, September 25, 2017

The times they are a changin? What the Union's formation swap means going forward

Alejandro Bedoya, right, delivered a sterling performance Saturday
in a reconfigured midfielder that yielded a 3-1 Union win over Chicago.
(Mikey Reeves/DFM)
Jim Curtin heard you, dear citizens of Twitter, and decided to change his formation as a result.

OK, no, that wasn’t the reason that Curtin flipped the Union from the 4-2-3-1 into what is more of a 4-1-4-1 Saturday, a move that certainly contributed to a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire. To what degree is debatable. Curtin pushed the right tactical button by clamping down on the central midfield space afforded to Dax McCarty in a Fire side deprived of Juninho and Bastian Schweinsteiger. But the efficacy of Saturday’s switch has limits, and no one was more cognizant of that than Curtin, who cheekily faced up to a question about the formation change with a response that deserves to be published in full:
“Yeah you know, people get caught up in the graphics and how they get put out and as soon as I saw the graphic get put out that I figured that you would probably come with that as the first question. To be honest, it's still a 4-2-3-1, you know, just because it's written that way on a schematic that comes out, it's the difference between a yard or two in either direction. If you look, go back and watch the tape, as we will as well, by design we still always had someone next to Warren, so it is still the 4-2-3-1. The best thing about the formation is there can be fluidity in it. Warren is a guy who is a ball winner. We thought, matchup-wise, he's obviously been in good form and what Chicago likes to do, we thought that it was important to invert the triangle a little bit in some moments to get pressure to Dax McCarty, who for me is the engine of that team. So, yes, on paper it looks a little different. The running of five, six yards a little more forward from Alejandro defensively and from Haris is a little bit of a change, but still the same formation, the same idea, same principles that the guys, as you saw, when they execute them, are pretty dangerous and tough to play against.”
It’s been two and a half years since Curtin has done anything even remotely as different as this in his formation, so the temptation could be to read too much into it. So let’s assess what this move does, and what it doesn’t do moving forward for the Union.

- It does … minimize a weakness and maximize a strength. We can argue until we’re blue in the face whether Ilsinho and/or Roland Alberg has been given too many opportunities this season. There’s no rationale I’ll allow for saying that Warren Creavalle should be starting fewer than 10 MLS games. He’s just a better player than that, and his failure to find the field regularly lands squarely on the lack of attacking creativity in the other five members of the midfield/forward six. In this regard, it’s a smart move by Curtin given the constraints of his roster.
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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and prematch notes

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Gaddis, Yaro, Creavalle, Alberg, Simpson, Davies 

New York Red Bulls (3-1-3-3) 
Lade- Davis-Etienne 
Bench: Meara, Long, Escobar, Duka, Adams, Wright-Phillips, Kljestan 

- It’s four changes this week for the Union as they travel to Red Bull Arena. Richie Marquez starts for the first time in MLS since April 29 thanks to Oguchi Onyewu’s suspension and a Josh Yaro knee injury that leaves him on the bench. Fabinho is in for Giliano Wijnaldum, who has started 12 of the last 13 MLS matches. Alejandro Bedoya returns from suspension, and Marcus Epps is in at the wing for Fafa Picault, who misses out with an illness.

- Beyond the changes, it’s more of the same for the Union. Ilsinho gets the nod at the No. 10 for the fifth time in seven games, preferred to Roland Alberg. It’s an attack-minded bench with Alberg, Jay Simpson and Charlie Davies included.

- The Red Bulls opt for rest for some of their top guys, but it’s still a daunting lineup three days in advance of the U.S. Open Cup final Wednesday with Sporting Kansas City. Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan start on the bench. But Felipe is out there, as are the likes of Sean Davis and Alex Muyl and the omnipresent Luis Robles, with Gonzalo Veron the danger man up top.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

A career year: Digging into CJ Sapong's successful 2017

This hasn't been the season the Union wanted.
But none of the blame goes to CJ Sapong. (AP)
In certain corners of Union Twitter, there persists a notion that blame for the team’s devolution to non-playoff status this season owes to a failure to address concerns at the striker position. Some would argue that the factor constraining the Union is the lack of a star up top; for further evidence, look at how the Union endeavored and failed to fill that hole via Jay Simpson last offseason.

That stance – that somehow CJ Sapong is the deficiency holding this team back – is completely ludicrous. And quietly, while Sapong has been chronically underestimated, he’s compiled one of the best seasons ever by a Union player.

It’s September and Sapong is tied with Jozy Altidore for the MLS lead in goals by an American player at 13. Sapong has played more games than Jozy Altidore, but has fired fewer shots in that time. I’d argue that Sapong is more central to the Union’s attack than Altidore is to Toronto’s, in part due to the absence of a central playmaker (of which TFC possesses two). Both have 10 goals from open play and three from the penalty spot, though Sapong is 3-for-3 on penalties while Altidore has missed a pair. Sapong has also drawn two penalties for others to take.

Sapong has five assists, a high number for the kind of target forward Sapong is usually typecast as. All five are primary assists. His assist and goal totals are both career highs.

There’s no disputing how monumental those achievements are given Sapong’s history. But where does he fall in Union history and in MLS this season?

Lucky No. 20

In eight MLS seasons, the Union have had 20 players account for more than 10 combined goals and assists in a season, a group that includes Haris Medunjanin (two goals and eight assists this season).

The cut for the elite seasons falls at 19, which culls the fraternity to five.

Sebastien Le Toux, 2010 14 goals, 11 assists (25)
Chris Pontius, 2016 12 goals, 6 assists, 3 PKs drawn (21)
Sebastien Le Toux, 2011 11 goals, 9 assists (20)
CJ Sapong, 2017 13 goals, 5 assists, 2 PKs drawn (20)
Sebastien Le Toux, 2014 12 goals, 7 assists (19)

(Note: Penalties drawn aren’t easily recovered, so they’re not included in Le Toux’s numbers. Chances are he would’ve taken those PKs anyway; in Pontius’ and Sapong’s case, the PKs were taken by others.)

That list is a long way of getting to a concise point: Sapong is having one of the most statistically productive seasons the club has ever had.

18 and over only please

Across MLS, Sapong is one of 14 players this season whose goals and assists sum to 18 or greater. It’s the kind of company an attacking player aspires to keep: Read more »

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Down the stretch they come: Seven goals for the Union's last seven games

The Union's 2017 season is likely lost. So why not give minutes
to young players like Keegan Rosenberry? (DFM/Mikey Reeves)
If you’re of the sort that trusts probability, the Union’s chances of making the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs are essentially nil. That means to salvage merit from a lost season, the sixth of eight in Union existence in which they’ve fallen at the manageable hurdle of playoff qualification, the goals must shift. (Even tanking for the sake of a draft pick is off the table, as you’ll recall.)

The remaining seven games of 2017 should be aimed at granular accomplishments. Time to take a page out of the Phillies’ book of perpetual rebuilding: The Union need to know who is worth keeping and who isn’t. The best way to glean that info is to let players take their lumps and, for better or worse, evaluate how they emerge on the other side.

Let’s consider seven objectives, which care little how many of the 21 points on offer the Union reap.

Play. Your. Kids. Josh Yaro has struggled this year. Keegan Rosenberry has been up and down. But the Union are better off knowing if their rookie successes were outliers or the norm. Given the peaks and valleys, Jim Curtin and the organization need to know where the mean for each player rests. Yaro won’t travel to Minnesota in observance of his red card. He should play the last six games. We know well what Ray Gaddis brings at right back, and it’s unlikely to differ in the next seven games from his previous 138. (Not a value judgement, just an observation on plasticity.) What Rosenberry brings requires space to be sussed out.

Two starts for Adam Najem. That’s at a minimum. I doubt Roland Alberg is in the Union’s plans beyond this season. I don’t know if Ilsinho is. I would hope the organization recognizes and will act on the glaring need for a No. 10. But ascertaining what it has Najem, in terms of starting potential or merely carving a positional niche, is vital.
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