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

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:
David Villa, New York City FC 19 goals, 9 assists
Diego Valeri, Portland 17 goals, 9 assists
Lee Nguyen, New England 9 goals, 14 assists
David Accam, Chicago 14 goals, 7 assists
Victor Vazquez, Toronto 6 goals, 15 assists
Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago 17 goals, 3 assists
Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto 15 goals, 4 assists
Ignacio Piatti, Montreal, 15 goals, 4 assists
Romain Alessandrini, Los Angeles 9 goals, 10 assists
Miguel Almiron, Atlanta 8 goals, 11 assists
Ola Kamara, Columbus 15 goals, 3 assists
CJ Sapong, UNION 13 goals, 5 assists
Jozy Altidore, Toronto 13 goals, 5 assists
Justin Meram, Columbus 11 goals, 7 assists

Sapong isn’t regarded as an elite chance-finisher, but the numbers indicate differently. His goalscoring rate on total shots (13 on 49 shots, 26.5 percent) is higher than anyone with 13 or more goals in MLS, and his hit rate per shots on goal (13 goals on 27 SOG, 48.1 percent) is higher than “elite” scorers like David Villa, Nemanja Nikolic, Ola Kamara, David Accam and Sebastian Giovinco.

Since the start of the 2015 season, Sapong has 29 MLS goals, despite the Union twice bringing in underwhelming striking options in an effort supplant him as the starter. Only 13 players have score more in that span (in order): Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Giovinco, Kei Kamara, Cyle Larin, Fanendo Adi, Ignacio Piatti, Chris Wondolowski, Altidore, Diego Valeri, Dom Dwyer, Accam, Ola Kamara, Robbie Keane. Sapong is one behind Keane and tied with Clint Dempsey, who has 29 goals since the start of the 2015 season. (Dempsey has 15 assists to Sapong’s 11; Deuce has played fewer minutes, 5,028 to Sapong’s 6,695).

If those numbers don’t sway you, let’s get qualitative. Sapong has put up a career year as a player who makes those around him better. He’s instinctively deferential, and his defensive pressure and hold-up play are central to the team’s structure.

Here’s the upshot: If you have a team where Sapong is going to play 89.8 percent of the minutes at forward as he has in 2016 and hinge its success on Sapong scoring 20-plus goals, that’s a design flaw. Sapong has been everything this season that the club could realistically hope for him to be. If the expectations were any higher, that’s a failure up the chain of command for which Sapong isn’t culpable.

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