Anthony Fontana scored another dazzler to lead the Philadelphia Union past the New England Revolution Monday night, stating his case for more playing time in a crowded midfield that’s juggling suspensions, travel restrictions, and fatigue following a congested schedule.
But the Union’s goal of finishing at the top of the Eastern Conference standings and earning the Supporters’ Shield (or at least what the shield represents) will be put to the test this Saturday night when they face Toronto FC at Subaru Park. The Union have proven to be among the MLS’s strongest defensive units, further solidified by Andre Blake’s performance Monday night, but as of late they’ve sputtered in the attacking third and aside from rare flashes of brilliance by Brendan Aaronson, Jamiro Monteiro, Sergio Santos, Alejandro Bedoya, and Ilsinho, Anthony Fontana has been the most consistent goal scorer in Jim Curtin’s lineup.
Against the Revolution, Fontana scored his sixth goal in eight games, and while he hasn’t been the creative spark in the attacking midfield role, he’s been the Union’s most dangerous threat in and around the penalty area. His first bunch of goals came from insane strikes near the top of the box, displaying a rapid release and flawless technique. He’s had numerous chances on target thwarted by some exceptional goalkeeping, but his last two goals have added a dimension to the Union attack that has been lacking in recent games—the penetrating runs behind defenders.
Fontana’s ability to find something special out of nothing has been the difference when the Union have either been outplayed or faced an opposition content on protecting the penalty area. His last goal against the Revolution came from his ability to read the movement of his teammates, then provide that knife’s edge in slicing through another steady back four. The build-up along the left side from Jamiro Monteiro to Wagner broke down with extra New England defenders sealing off the overlapping run from Wagner, whose earlier cross was steered into the net by Revs’ defender Andrew Farrell. But Monteiro still had options going forward. Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos gave listless checks to the ball, which resembled many of the prior possessions that gave the Union attack a sense of predictability and rigidness, but in doing so created enough space for Fontana to fill in behind.
Fontana’s run was dynamic and well-timed, releasing forward as soon as Monteiro played the ball over the top, and if it weren’t for the high bounce on the turf, Fontana would’ve beaten Matt Polster by ten yards and been clear to goal. But because he had to wait for the ball, he had to use his body to fight off Polster while at the same time spot Matt Turner coming off his line. The awareness to see the defender, the ball, and the goalkeeper is difficult enough, but then to demonstrate the skill to dink the ball over Turner and into the net was a moment of absolute class.
After the game, Curtin spoke about how Fontana’s movements. “His ability to arrive in the box at the right time and make plays reminds me of Clint Dempsey, where he just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, those deep runs that are hard to track with center backs. I certainly remember that, he (Dempsey) scored a lot of goals against me.”
Dempsey, the co-leading scorer for the U.S. Men’s National Team, played two years with New England after a successful career at Furman, mainly as a midfielder, but his attacking prowess made him a club-favorite at Fulham where he scored 50 goals in 184 appearances, including 21 in all competitions during his final season in London in 2011-12.
“I’m not saying that’s what Anthony is or he’s that talented but the similarities in the movement in the box is something that I think is a real comparison,” Curtin said. “It’s a special one to do it from a deep spot.”
On the flip side, many Union fans may be wondering what has become of Kacper Przybylko, who hasn’t scored a goal since his brace in the 4-1 win over 10-man Montreal Impact on September 20. Aside from his two assists against Inter Miami, one on Fontana’s goal and the other to set up Ilsinho’s tap-in, Przybylko has been quiet. And in recent games, like against New England, he barely had a sniff at goal.
Przybylko, Aaronson, Monteiro, and Blake are the only Union players to start every game of the season. After a slow start in the MLS is Back tournament in which he scored once, Przybylko appeared to have found his rhythm. During a stretch from the first Red Bulls game on August 25 to the first Montreal game nearly a month later, he scored six goals in six games. But he’s now gone scoreless in seven straight, a stat magnified by the Union’s trouble with lesser opponents who’ve been playing with their backs against a wall.
Fontana’s output in recent games is among the best in MLS. He currently has a goal per 90 minute ratio of 1.23 with just over 400 minutes played and a goals per shot ratio of .4. Diego Rossi, the MLS leader in goals with over three times the minutes played as Fontana, has a GP90 of .81. Przybylko, who’s among the league-leaders in minutes played, has seen his GP90 dip to .38 and his GPS fall to .18, which is 41st in the league despite an Expected Goal Ratio of 6.9 that is 8th in the league.
The Union have reached a crucial juncture in the season where the competition has become more intense as clubs fight for playoff spots, seedings, and jobs, and they will need moments like Fontana’s to steal games. But when asked about whether or not we’ll see Fontana in an more advanced role, Curtin said, “As a striker, it would be hard for him to be a target number 9 but I think he could float underneath just because he’s good at finding space, arriving at the box at the right time. Certainly an option for us. He’s a good versatile player, you can see how he can turn in tight spaces, has some pretty good awareness, he can play as an 8, a 10, or even as that second striker.”
Fontana’s ability to find the goal could propel him into a false 9 in the future, and the return of Cory Burke also means Przybylko could receive some rest as Curtin has more flexibility with squad rotation. It’s unlikely we’ll see that this Saturday when the Union face Toronto, but with four games remaining against playoff teams, including the November 1 battle against the defensive-minded Columbus Crew, the Union will need quick strikes against bullish defensive lines, and Fontana could be the deciding player in those tight games.