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November 11, 2016

Finding a forward – realistic offseason targets for the Philadelphia Union (part one)

In 2016, seven strikers in Major League Soccer scored 15 or more goals.

In seven years of Philadelphia soccer, Union forwards have never scored 15 or more goals.

It's clear that the tip of the spear needs to be the biggest priority this winter, after another season of Union strikers failing to even reach double-digit goals. The top scorer on the team was Chris Pontius, a left-sided midfielder, and the second-highest goal scorer was Roland Alberg, a backup number ten who played less than 1,200 minutes.

C.J. Sapong did a lot of good things this year in the hustle and hold-up game, but finished with just seven goals after a torrid start to the campaign. It originally looked like Sapong would reach ten goals for the first time in his six-year MLS career, reinforcing the Union's decision to give him a three-year contract extension in February.

That didn't happen, and Sapong struggled down the stretch, going 11 games without a goal to finish the year.

This team, fan base, and city needs a game-changing, goal-scoring striker.

But it doesn't have to be a five-million dollar Sebastian Giovinco, or a four-million dollar Clint Dempsey, or even a three-million dollar Robbie Keane. It's never been the franchise strategy to spend that kind of money on any one player.

What they can do is find a $450,000 Michael De Leeuw, or a $425,000 Ola Kamara, or a $630,000 Fanendo Adi. Affordable forwards are out there, if you know where to look, and I think that Sporting Director Earnie Stewart certainly does.

Plus, if the Union are willing to pay Alejandro Bedoya more than a million dollars, then surely the standard for spending changes moving forward.

Here's a look at some players that might fit the bill.

Terrence Boyd

The German newspaper BILD recently reported that Red Bull Leipzig is willing to listen to offers for the 25 year old American international.

Boyd signed with Leipzig in 2014 after a successful spell with Rapid Vienna, then promptly tore his ACL. He's only appeared seven times for the senior team, but did score four goals in seven games for the reserve side in 2016.

Boyd is a perfect fit for the Union's 4-2-3-1 system, as he's a strong center forward with exceptional qualities in the air. He's 6'2" and really attacks the ball in the box, not dissimilar from what you would see from a Kei Kamara or a young Brian McBride.

Atlanta currently holds the top spot in the MLS allocation rankings, which is likely the mechanism that would be used to get Boyd into the league. A healthy Boyd starts for just about any MLS team. His transfer fee to the Bundesliga was a little more than two million dollars, which gives him a manageable market value.

Aron Johannsson

Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart signed Johannsson at AZ Alkmaar.

The Alabama-born, U.S. forward scored more than 25 goals for Alkmaar from 2013 to 2015, which earned him a transfer to Bundesliga side Werder Bremen.

Similar to Boyd, Johannsson has been sidelined through injury since moving to Germany. He has three goals in nine appearances, and also experienced a coaching change at the beginning of the 2016 season. He's attempting to work his way back into Bremen's starting lineup.

Johannsson is a different player than Boyd. He's a bit smaller, and does most of his scoring with his feet. Stylistically, he shows the qualities you saw with Jack McInerney, or even Marco Di Vaio, which is to say that he's incredibly intelligent with movement, positioning, and run timing. This is a player who can sit on the back shoulder of a center back, or split the channels, or bring down a long ball with ease. The variety of things he can do makes him difficult to defend, so long as he's not stranded up top and disconnected from the midfield.

Stewart bought Johannsson for around $1.7 million and sold him for more than $4 million, so negotiating a transfer fee is going to be difficult for MLS, should Aron want to play in MLS.

Charlison Benschop

Benschop was another Alkmaar player under Earnie Stewart.

He didn't score much for AZ, but eventually found his way to the German second-division, where he had a great run with Fortuna Dusseldorf. That form earned him a transfer to Hannover, where he's struggled with injuries, just like Boyd and Johannsson.

The 27 year old is 6'3", but scores goals with his feet and makes smart, late runs into the box. He moves well for a big guy and reminds me of Blaise Nkufo, the former Twente striker who had a brief spell with Seattle.

There are a few rumors floating around that Benschop might be headed back to Dusseldorf.

Robert Muhren

Muhren is in the final year of his contract with Alkmaar.

He's a 27 year old Dutch striker who plays like Johannson, with smart movement in the box and veteran-level anticipation and calmness.

Muhren scored a boatload of goals for second-tier Volendam, but hasn't entirely replicated that form in the Eredivisie. He only has seven goals in more than 35 appearances, but has so far bagged three goals in five appearances this year. He's used mostly off the bench, with 18 appearances and only one start during the 2015-2016 Alkmaar campaign.

Mitchell te Vrede

The Dutch forward came through the AZ youth ranks before moving to Excelsior in 2011. After one season there, he went to parent club Feyenoord before moving to Heerenveen in 2015 on a $500,000 transfer.

Te Vrede is 6'3" and excellent in the air. He seems to be a streaky player, and will score goals in bunches before going through droughts. It's hard to really draw much from that, since he didn't play a ton of minutes for Feyenoord and had a good amount of substitute appearances. Those minutes have increased for Heerenveen, despite missing a few games through injury.

Fernando Aristeguieta

Why not?

Aristeguieta wanted to be back this year, and I think the Union would have liked to see him return. For whatever reason, it didn't happen.

Fernando had a quiet year on loan to second-division French team Red Star, with one goal in just eight appearances.

It seems like Aristeguieta might return to Caracas next year, but I think he would be an affordable bench option behind Sapong or a DP striker.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @Kevin_Kinkead