While the missed penalty from C.J. Sapong was the biggest reason why the Philadelphia Union returned home with one point instead of three from North Jersey on Saturday night, it was one of three pivotal plays on the night.
The other two were similar sequences involving a great pass from a Union midfielder to Marcus Epps that ended up being saved, by the Red Bulls center back on one play and by their keeper on the other.
The first, started by a lovely long ball from Haris Medunjanin, resulted in Tim Parker’s headed clearance in the 18th minute off a left-footed strike from Epps.
The second was started by an imprecise pass from Sapong to Borek Dočkal deep in the midfield that Dočkal stretched for and turned into a beautiful defense-splitting pass all in one motion.
As he was on the first play 11 minutes earlier, Epps was on his horse and was able to catch up to the ball and take it in stride toward goal. His shot attempt this time never made it past Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara, who made a relatively routine save in the end with his chest.
This play was frustrating to watch in real time, seeing Epps waste such a beautiful pass like that. And yes, Meara’s position and timing coming off his line was excellent on the play. As a general rule though, when a goalkeeper barely has to move to make a save on a ball that hits him in the chest, it’s more “routine” than “great” save.
Epps needs to bury that chance, but does have to deal with the pressure from Kemar Lawrence, who takes him out after the shot. It’s very possible Lawrence threw Epps off enough to weaken the attempt but if you watch the play again you’ll notice there was a much easier path to goal than fighting off Lawrence and shooting around Meara.
In the middle of the screen you’ll see Fafa Picault showing off his wheels and putting himself in perfect position for a tap-in. The pass never comes and Picault (rightfully) reacts in kind, waving his arm and spinning around in frustration.
Going back to the first chance again, it’s less clear — and open to debate — but you’ll notice as Epps begins to take the shot he has Sapong open for a pass in front of goal. Epps does everything right on the shot there because it’s headed to the back of the net when Parker gets his head to it, but does a ball squared to Sapong create a higher percentage chance? Given the way Sapong has squandered his chances this season, maybe not.
If any of this sounds familiar, rewind back to last week and the 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake when captain Alejandro Bedoya was asked about Epps’ performance.
“It’s funny though cause I got a little mad at him in the first half when he couldn’t square two balls that we could have put away, which was the only critical thing that I think happened with the team today,” Bedoya said. “We could have killed the team off in the first half and scored four but we made it hard on ourselves again and a little bit in the second half; but great stuff from Marcus out there.”
Not squaring a couple balls in a 4-1 win is a minor footnote. Opting to shoot instead of setting up a wide open teammate in a scoreless draw that could’ve and should’ve been a triumphant three points over a top team in the league is a much bigger deal.
Epps, who has started the last three games and provided a much-needed spark, acknowledged that he needs to do better in his post-game interview Saturday.
“I think I did alright; did pretty well, created some chances but I think I have to do better in finishing these,” he said. “This is my second game that I’ve gotten myself in position so that’s definitely the next step.”
Is his finishing really the issue — he put two in the back of the net last week counting the goal taken away for an offside and had another shot heading to goal that hit Lawrence’s arm Saturday — or is it his passing and awareness that need work?