In 2015 C.J. Sapong overcame a fractured cheekbone, a reckless DUI, and competition from a Designated Player to become the Philadelphia Union's leading goal scorer and starting striker. He more than just resurrected his career, he overcame significant adversity while doing so. Despite his success however, the Union had a disappointing season and consequently need to upgrade several positions to compete for a playoff spot next year. The problems were across the board, starting with the offense which scored just 42 goals this season - down from 51 in 2014. Sapong scored nine of those goals last season while breaking a team record in shooting percentage with 20.4% (for players with at least 30 shots). He's just 25 years old and certainly still has more upside. How much of the blame for the team's decline goes to C.J. Sapong, and should he carry the load going forward as the Union stretch for the playoffs?
To unpack these questions we need to look at Sapong in the context of Union's preferred formation, which is the 4-2-3-1. They started in this formation in every game but their first last season. Sapong started as the lone forward in the formation twenty times, which has become very popular in MLS the last two seasons. It's possible that the Union shift from this formation next season. There are rumors that new Sporting Director Earnie Stewart is biased toward the more proactive 4-3-3, which is popular in the Eredivisie. If that's the case, then Sapong will have more support up top and won't be the focal point of the offense as he is now. He's also played that formation with Sporting Kansas City where he did have early success in the striker role. So let's assume that if he can be successful in the 4-2-3-1, although the roles can change, then he can also be successful in the 4-3-3. What do successful 4-2-3-1 teams need from their striker?
Production from the 4-2-3-1 formation across the league
In 2015 there were ten teams in MLS who used the 4-2-3-1 formation in the majority of their matches, and seven of them made the playoffs. Just two seasons prior, this formation was primarily used by just two teams. Since 2013 eighteen clubs have used the formation and eleven have made the playoffs, which is roughly what would be expected on average. The records of these teams is the starting point of a blueprint of what it takes to be successful. Surprisingly there's not a ton of difference between the winners and losers.
The eleven playoff teams that played the 4-2-3-1 averaged a modest 49.8 goals. The seven non-playoff teams that played the 4-2-3-1 averaged a more modest 45.6 goals. That's hardly a big difference but still a difference nonetheless. There is the defensive side of the game too. Since there are four attacking players in the formation, I looked at the top four goalscorers of each of the eighteen teams. Most of the goal gap is within these key players. The top four scorers for the playoffs teams averaged 29.6 goals. The top four scorers for the non-playoff teams averaged 26.4. This is where most of the difference comes from, but the percentages of total goals are roughly equal. The top four goal scorers on playoff teams score 59% of the team's goals while non-playoff teams get 58% of their goals from the top four goal scorers.
When breaking out the top four scorers by forwards and midfielders in the 4-2-3-1, an interesting dichotomy emerges.
Note that for playoff teams, the midfielders carry a bigger scoring load than the forwards. The opposite is true for non-playoff teams. Unfortunately for the Union last season, the top four scorers looked exactly like that non-playoff team. Sapong and Fernando Aristeguieta combined for 14 goals while Sebastien Le Toux and Vincent Nogueira combined for 11. It appears that what the Union really need is more goal scoring production out of the midfield.
What does Sapong need to do to be successful?
The top goal scorer for 4-2-3-1 playing playoff teams is 11.5 and Sapong was not too far off with his nine goals. Three of the eleven playoff teams had a leading goal scorer of nine or fewer goals, so it can be done, but the reality is the Union do need Sapong to get his figure up to 12 or 13 in 2016. If he plays a full season he should easily be able to hit that mark.
Sapong only took 44 shots this season in 27 appearances, which is remarkably few shots for a lone striker. Blame the midfielders or Sapong's conservative shot selection but Sapong needs to be more varied and add to his shot taking repertoire next season.
Defensively C.J. Sapong appears up to the task. He led all strikers in MLS with at least 20 appearances in interceptions per game with 0.5 and he was second among strikers with 0.4 successful tackles per game. He also is a strong aerial threat, behind only Kei Kamara in aerial duels won per game.
The more concerning issue for the Union is the production from the midfield. With Le Toux's production likely on the decline due to his age, there has to be more offensive firepower from the attacking three. Sapong should be good enough to get the Union to the playoffs, but if the Union don't upgrade the supporting staff then they may need to upgrade the striker position to cover the gap that already exists.
This is where the GMs role plays a huge part. If Le Toux, Tranquillo Barnetta and Cristian Maidana are the penciled in starters next year then the Union almost certainly need a top of the league striker to cover for their scoring deficiencies. If the Union get a scoring threat in the attacking midfield, then they should be able to get to the playoffs with Sapong as the lone striker.
So you make the call...