CHESTER, PA– The Philadelphia Union went from having forward depth to figuring out an emergency situation at the position in a short amount of time.
During an April 9 loss to the Columbus Crew, C.J. Sapong suffered an injury that kept him out of Saturday’s clash with the Montreal Impact, where Cory Burke picked up a red card after scoring his first career MLS goal.
With Sapong working his way back to full fitness for this Saturday’s contest at Talen Energy Stadium against Real Salt Lake, the Union must explore other options at forward.
“(Sapong)’s still not training with us on the field,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “There’s been a lot of treatments since last Wednesday. He took a really hard shot in the game. Our training staff is doing the best they can with him to get movement back in the leg, there’s a little bit of stiffness there. The contusion on the quad is a big concern, but he’s tough and he can play through that pain.
“There is a little bit of a carry over from a groin injury that he reached for a ball and has a little bit of a discomfort there. The hope is to have him in the lineup, but if not, you have the options of Fafa (Picault), Jay Simpson as well.”
If you read between the comments made by Curtin in recent weeks, Jay Simpson, who played 511 minutes since joining the club in 2016, isn’t the ideal option to fill in the lone striker role. The Englishman wasn’t included in the traveling party for the recent three-game road trip and hasn’t featured since a 14-minute stint against Orlando City on April 13.
Enter Fafa Picault, who in his time with the Union has played on the wing, as the fit to start up top in the scenario where Sapong doesn’t pass a fitness test.
Before moving to MLS, the 27-year-old American winger played as a natural forward for St. Pauli in the 2.Bundesliga.
“I’m comfortable. I played pretty much my whole career as a striker,” Picault said. “At St. Pauli I was a No. 9. I’m used to playing by myself. When I came here, I started playing on the wing so I’m just comfortable anywhere in the front, but if it needed for me to go and play up top, I’ve done it for most of my years.”
Picault’s presence brings a different element to the forward position than the Union are used to having, as he won’t be a physical, bruising force for 90 minutes like Sapong or Burke.
But what Picault does bring to the table is the ability to get behind defenders with his speed, which could prove to be a vital asset in a more central role against RSL.
“I think it just mixes it up a little bit more,” Picault said. “We have a lot of speed and we confuse defenders if we need to and get things going. Defenders aren’t used to marking us so we’ll definitely be able to do different things. I think different things can work and it shouldn’t be a problem.”
If he starts up top, Picault might be able to combine with David Accam more since he’ll have the freedom to move to either side of the field and create scoring opportunities alongside the Ghanaian.
“I think it’s important that we utilize our strengths,” Picault said. “We have a lot of speed off the wings and the top. It’s important we use the space, use our ability to get defenders one-on-one or creating 2v1s and using our speed and skill to go at teams. I think we definitely did that last game.”
Picault’s aerial ability partnered with his pace makes him the ideal candidate to move inside from the wing. While Accam could be considered in the role, Picault should get the nod.
In that situation, Curtin could opt to do a few things with the other wing position of his 4-2-3-1 formation, including a shift of Alejandro Bedoya’s position from the No. 8 to the right wing.
If that occurs, the Union have plenty of depth, whether it be Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones, to slot in alongside Haris Medunjanin.
The same can be said about the wing position, as Marcus Epps, Ilsinho and Fabian Herbers have all started out wide in the young season.
Regardless of who plays where and the opponent, the Union want to employ a similar game plan to Saturday in order to create more momentum heading into the final games before the World Cup break.
“The last game was our first away win in a while. It definitely helps us and now we’re playing back home in front of our crowd and our comfort zone,” Picault said. “It’s important we give a strong performance and get three points and then get ready to go back out and play in front of a different crowd. The important thing right now is just resting up, keeping the rhythm going and keeping the morale high and keeping guys confident so we can go at teams.”