Sapong’s struggles up front hurt in Portland
Union forward C.J. Sapong struggled once again at striker during Saturday’s loss in Portland. He needs to find his form if the Union are going to make the MLS playoffs.
In the rainy, raucous atmosphere of Providence Park, the Portland Timbers gave Jim Curtin plenty of positives to focus on.
The Philadelphia Union manager was effusive in his praise of the hosts, who claimed a 2-1 win, showing their MLS Cup credentials in a match in which the Union hung tight but lacked that decisive, championship trait to threaten for the full three points.
“We made a couple mistakes,” Curtin said. “I think they made a couple mistakes. We got punished for ours. (Fanendo) Adi and (Diego) Valeri were a handful, and they made us pay.”
The Timbers narrowly outshot the Union, 18-15, with the Union owning the edge in shots on target at 8-6. But few of Jake Gleeson’s seven denials fell into the “spectacular” category, courtesy of wasteful finishing. (His most electrifying save of the night, or so it appeared in the moment, occurred on a shot CJ Sapong rattled off the post.)
Therein lies the crux of the Union’s recent issues: They are creating a glut of chances, sufficient to earn results nightly, but they’re not finding the back of the net nearly enough. The syndrome concentrates on Sapong, the front-runner nominally tasked with spinning chances into goals. But again Saturday, he was muted, a stark contrast to the devastating finishing and relentless predatory verve with which his opposite number, Adi, attacks games.
Sapong has just one goal from the run of play and two total since midMay, including a month out with an ankle injury. Adi equaled that first tally with the game-winner in the 53rd minute, a consummate finisher’s goal as he carved out a sliver of space on Josh Yaro and deftly redirected a driven Darren Mattocks cross home.
But more damning than the results is Sapong’s process. Adi Saturday collected seven shots, three on target, the 6-foot-4 Nigerian showing why he’s drawn multi-million-dollar offers from European suitors.
Sapong, meanwhile, fired two shots, one on target, a harmless effort into Gleeson’s breadbasket in the 68th minute for his first shot on target since Aug. 20.
Sapong, in his last 10 games (all starts), has a grand total of 11 shots, dating to mid-July. In three outings this week alone, including Portland’s CONCACAF Champions League match with Deportivo Saprissa, Adi has produced 13 shots, six on target and three goals.
“Both teams had their chances tonight,” said Chris Pontius, who potted his 11th goal of the season. “In key moments in the game, we turned off right at the start of the second half. You talk about things you need to do in the locker room and then come out a little flat, they catch us off guard and it’s 1-0. We respond well to it though, get back to 1-1. At that point, they had a few chances, we had a few chances. They end up putting theirs away.”
Despite the paucity of tangible impact on the game, Sapong wasn’t the first Union player subbed off, with Fabian Herbers, who set up Pontius’ goal a minute after Valeri’s opener and has been the team’s most effective attacker the last month or so, exiting for Ilsinho.
Charlie Davies, the only rostered remedy up top, entered in the 74th, marking his longest of six substitute appearances since his acquisition, totaling all of 62 minutes.
Those cameos, per the refrain Curtin struck again, make it hard to judge Davies’ progress from a long layoff for cancer treatment. But a longer audition? Doesn’t sound like something Curtin is keen on yet.
“Charlie put a lot into it, did a lot of dirty running,” Curtin said, “but again we probably didn’t get enough balls into his feet to get a true judgement of him or assessment. He worked his tail off, did everything I asked him.”
The striking woes are a more chronic defect than the other ills blighting the Union (11-11-8, 41 points) Saturday. Yaro was sent off for an iffy yellow card, then a no-doubter straight red in the 85th, which extinguished dim comeback hopes. It’s the rookie’s second red, and it opens the door for Ken Tribbett to play next week in Toronto, the team that torched him so badly that he was removed at halftime when the teams last met.
Rarer was the degree to which Mattocks owned Keegan Rosenberry on the flank. He assisted on both goals and generally bossed the Timbers’ left flank, until Yaro took a chunk out of him for the red.
Disappointing as the curtain-raiser on the pivotal three-game road swing was, results elsewhere fell favorably for the Union. They began the week eight points clear of the nearest team on the wrong side of the red line in seventh. They’ll end the weekend seven clear, with D.C. United drawing, Orlando City losing and Montreal, in fifth, faltering again at home.
That’s at least some consolation for a dispirited return flight home.
Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, in yellow, blocks the ball during a match against the Timbers Saturday in Portland, Ore.