The Philadelphia Union lost for the third time at home in 2018 on Saturday in a 2-0 loss to Atlanta United.
Here are the three top takeaways from the Union’s defeat at Talen Energy Stadium to the first team to reach 40 points in Major League Soccer this season.
1. Union Must Find A Fix To Scoring Struggles
The Union have the second-worst scoring mark in MLS behind the Seattle Sounders, who remain at 15 goals scored following their 0-0 draw with New England on Saturday.
Every team in the Eastern Conference has at least 23 goals, except for the Union, who sit at 21 through 18 games. That’s just barely over one goal per game for a team in the playoff hunt.
Most of the blame is being thrown at C.J. Sapong from the outside, as the 16-goal scorer from a year ago has three shots on goal since the start of May, and he took one shot Saturday, which went off target before being taken off in the 64th minute.
Normally Union manager Jim Curtin pinpoints a part of Sapong’s game in which he thrived despite not making an impact in the final third, but that wasn’t the case Saturday.
“He held the ball up okay,” Curtin said. “He could’ve maybe started some runs a little earlier when Fafa got to the endline. Overall an okay night for CJ, but again at the moment when he’s having a tough time scoring, that’s what he’s going to be judged on. That’s fair or unfair, the life of a striker, but still a guy I believe in.”
Sapong recorded 19 touches, attempted 12 passes and had the one off target shot. Compared to Cory Burke’s 27-minute stat line, it isn’t great, as the substitute put one of his two shots on target, made 10 touches and won three aerial duels.
The most productive Union player in the final third against Atlanta was Borek Dockal, who dished out five key passes from his No. 10 role and finished second behind Haris Medunjanin in touches with 79. Medunjanin had 80.
If the Union want to take advantage of the pressure created by the collection of five midfielders behind the forward in their 4-2-3-1 formation, something has to change.
With a crucial contest coming up on Wednesday in Chicago, the Union need to find a way to make things right, and that shouldn’t include starting Sapong.
It’s clear Sapong isn’t in the best form of his career and it’s costing the Union points. Since Burke is the next man up on the depth chart, he deserves a start because of the all-out effort he puts out when leading the team’s pressing system.
The other option is to call Jay Simpson back into the matchday squad. With a friendly against Eintracht Frankfurt coming up Saturday, the Union could get the Englishman minutes, which could lead to a U.S. Open Cup cameo against Orlando City on July 18.
If that all goes well, maybe Simpson deserves a spot in the 18 for the next league clash at home against the LA Galaxy on July 21.
Every option should be on the table for the Union when it comes to fixing the scoring issues, and if that requires going out on the open market to do so, they should go full steam ahead with it.
2. Press Put Atlanta Under Pressure For Long Stretches
One thing the Union attack did well in the loss to Atlanta was utilize its pressing system to near perfection during parts of the game.
Throughout the first half, there were moments in which the Union got so close to Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan that it forced him to play quicker from his position.
Dockal and Fafa Picault took charge of the press to keep Guzan under duress, which led to 11 first-half shots.
However, the press and the shots couldn’t put Guzan under more pressure, as only one of the 11 attempts challenged the Atlanta goalkeeper, which was an ill-fated effort from Dockal in the 40th minute.
If the press continues to be this functional against the Fire and future opponents, it will eventually create the chances for a forward to finish.
3. Rosenberry-Ilsinho Combination Continues To Impress
Another functional part of the Union attack was the right-sided combination of Keegan Rosenberry and Ilsinho.
Rosenberry is arguably in the best form of any Union player, and it showed Saturday, as he made a few key interceptions from his right back position that led to attacks down the flank.
The particular instances in which Rosenberry won the ball led to Ilsinho leading the attack more on the right side, which in turn led to nice combination play between the two players because of Rosenberry’s overlapping runs.
“(Rosenberry) had a good night tonight,” Curtin said. “He played on the frontfoot. I think he was aggressive and stepped in and intercepted a lot of passes. Really gave us some good opportunities on the night on the right hand side with Ilsinho.”
“The amount of opportunities Ilsinho created tonight was probably at its highest point and I would say it’s because of Keegan and his ability to play good entry passes to him, it allows Ilsinho to have some time to run at defenders so the right side of the field did a good job and created chances,” Curtin said.
“Obviously I felt there were more things I got right tonight that were better for us, but I said before it’s such an easy relationship with Ilsinho because he’s such a good player and he makes it easy on me,” Rosenberry said. “We would like to get some end results out of that play as well.”
While it’s easy to focus on the lack of scoring because it is the team’s top concern, if one of the scorers steps up, it could turn into the opening of the floodgates with how well other functions of the attack are working.