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The Philadelphia Union need a target man

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Free kicks, corners, and Jay Simpson are all going wasted

MLS: Philadelphia Union vs D.C. United Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

During the Union- LA Galaxy broadcast, the announcers noted that Haris Medunjanin had created the third most chances in MLS this season. Stats like “chances created” are always a bit dubious, as once person’s created chance is another person’s decent corner and another person’s good defensive effort. But the point remains that Medunjanin is a wizard on dead ball situations, putting free kicks and corners into dangerous positions that often go wasted by the Union.

The Philadelphia Union need a target man to take advantage of Medunjanin’s ability from dead-ball situations. Right now, the Union have CJ Sapong and Chris Pontius who are over six feet tall and are decent in the air, but neither of them could be described as a target man.

The Union need a player like Andy Carroll, who plays for West Ham United, or Fernando Llorente, who plays for Swansea City. Both are players who excel at getting their head to the ball in the box and are great examples of what kind of player that the Union need. A target man like one of those players would be also be able to convert crosses into goals - or at least get them on target to create problems for the other team’s defense. The full backs on the Union often make good overlapping runs with the wingers in the 4-2-3-1 system that Manager Jim Curtin utilizes, and a true target man would give the team an added attacking dimension that it currently lacks. While it’s not exciting or fun to watch the home team destroy the other team’s attack and wait for set pieces to steal a goal or two, it can bring results for an otherwise underwhelming team. Sam Allardyce’s Bolton teams that featured Kevin Nolan and Kevin Davies are an example of a team that had limited resources and talent but got results and home wins, something that has been sorely lacking in Philadelphia so far this year.

The LA Galaxy match featured a lot of opportunities for a strong aerial presence to take over the game. The wingers and forwards did a great job of drawing fouls in dangerous areas, and Medunjanin provided good delivery on free kicks a number of occasions that were ultimately not converted. Against the Portland Timbers, the team took the lead against a team that is on paper much more talented than the Union by a Richie Marquez header off of a corner that was given up after an excellent free kick that was saved by the fingertips of the TImbers keeper Jake Gleeson. The Timbers, who were suffering from the absence of their defensive leader Liam Ridgewell, were vulnerable in the air and while the Union were able to convert one chance into a goal, they were unable to exploit it any further.

The Union’s lack of a true target man is wasting Haris Medunjanin’s excellent deliveries on set pieces. If the team is going to keep him in the lineup despite his inability to play any defense, they need to use a target man to help justify his presence in the lineup. He can provide any number of beautiful free kicks and corners, but if the team isn’t good enough in the air to turn those chances into goals, then what is the point of playing him?

The other reason that the Union need a target man is Jay Simpson. The transfer of Simpson in the off-season had most Philadelphia Union fans scratching their heads and furiously googling to see who exactly this guy was. The first number that popped up and got everyone excited was the number of goals that Simpson scored in the 2015-16 season for English team Leyton Orient.

In the English League Two, Jay Simpson scored 25 goals for Leyton Orient, including 11 goals in the team’s first 14 league games. The team won six of those games, drew five, and lost only three games. Impressive form indeed for Simpson, the former Arsenal youth team player. As the season continued, his scoring pace slowed down and Orient missed out on the last promotion playoff position (seventh place) by six points in League Two after being relegated the season before. Meanwhile Orient had also burned through four managers, including player-manager Kevin Nolan, as the team slid down the table.

What almost all of the games have in common when Simpson was scoring? A target man. He was routinely paired up top with 6’3” Paul McCallum, 6’5” Ollie Palmer, and 6’1” John Marquis. When Simpson was on fire, scoring goals and keeping Orient near the top of the table, he played off the big target man who could win the ball in the air. Simpson is misused as a lone striker, since he’s not going to be someone to win the ball in the air or hold up play on his own. He’s best as a second striker playing off of a target man or another goal scoring threat, allowing him to get in and be a poacher. Perhaps using Sapong and Simpson both at striker would work, but that hasn’t been tried yet, and given the team’s commitment to the 4-2-3-1 formation, it may not be used anytime soon.

Simpson’s talent is going wasted right now, and in a salary cap league, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a player that isn’t being used correctly and sitting on the bench costing the team so much money. If the Union are committed to the current group of players, they need to bring in a target man so that Simpson and Medunjanin can be used correctly and turn this season around.