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January 02, 2017

New Year's resolutions for the Philadelphia Union – forwards

Soccer Union
010217_sapong_PSP Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page

C.J. Sapong scored four goals in the Union's first seven games but failed to find the back of the net in September and October.

The year 2017 is finally here, which means that the MLS SuperDraft and the Philadelphia Union preseason are just around the corner.

November and December were admittedly boring months, but that's usually the case for a team that does most of its transfer business in January and February.

In part one of our New Year's resolutions series, we talked about ways for the Union backline to improve this season.

In part two, we discuss the forwards.

C.J. Sapong

Strengths – physical presence, hold-up play, work rate and positioning

New Year's resolution – drive at defenders and create his own shot

Sapong may have been the most scrutinized Union player in 2016, for reasons both positive and negative.

Starting the season, I talked about the burden placed on C.J.'s shoulders as the lone striker in a system based on team defense and organization. He would be asked to hold the ball, distribute, and then hustle to get back into the box for service.

In the beginning, he earned every dollar of his salary and justified the three-year contract extension he received in February. Sapong scored four goals in his first seven games, bullied opposing center backs, and even attracted national attention as a guy who might deserve another shot at the U.S. national team.

When the rest of the team began to fade, C.J. followed suit, still impacting the game with his hold-up play but failing to provide a goal-scoring threat. He wasn't getting great service in the box, he wasn't getting whistles from the referees, and he ended up doing a ton of thankless work without an end product.

A lot of that can be blamed on the fact that the team collectively lost its mojo, or that other teams just got better. C.J. didn't seem to be a different player, but his limitations were definitely magnified when the Union began to slide.

Sapong finished with zero goals in the final 11 games, including the playoff loss in Toronto. During that time, he logged 869 minutes but managed just 13 shots and five on goal. He went through a fall stretch without tallying a single shot on goal in six of seven games.

The problem is that when the team isn't playing well around C.J., he can't impact the game on his own. He's not the type of player to receive the ball, turn, drive at a defender and uncork a shot. He struggles to create his own looks on goal and he's not a dynamic attacker.

Some of that can certainly be attributed to the Union system. Lone strikers have to battle with two center backs and rely on their midfielders to help them going forward. Harry Kane plays in the same system as Sapong, but he has superstars like Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen feeding him. C.J. relied on an aging Tranquillo Barnetta and a revolving door of right midfielders.

The best-case scenario is that Sapong adds threat to his game while retaining his natural center forward skills. There's no reason why he can't be as effective as Fanendo Adi or even Jozy Altidore. He has the physical tools and talent to be that kind of player.

Fabian Herbers

Strengths – smart positioning, attacking instinct, quick learner

New Year's resolution – pick the right pass, show more poise in front of goal

Herbers is a curious case because he played his best soccer while the rest of the team was struggling. That late-season success came in a new position, as Herbers was plugged in on the right side of the midfield after the Sebastien Le Toux trade.

I don't think Herbers was supposed to play that position. That Le Toux trade was done with the idea that a healthy Ilsinho would reclaim his starting role on the right.

But when plantar fasciitis issues kept the Brazilian off the field, Herbers carved out a starting spot in a unique role.

I initially didn't like Herbers as a midfielder, because I think he's a guy with good scoring instincts who belonged closer to the goal. Most of the early minutes we saw from Fabian were as a second half sub, a straight swap for Sapong in the Union's 4-2-3-1. He earned more playing time beginning in May, then got his first professional goal on June 1st, which was the 3-2 win over Columbus that put Philly atop the eastern conference heading into the Copa America break.

When Herbers started playing in the midfield, it took him a game or two to figure out the positioning. Then, he showed a lot of smarts in the way he would pinch inside, get closer to the box, and allow Keegan Rosenberry to overlap into the final third. Herbers had four straight games in the fall with either a goal or an assist, and he tallied six shots on goal during that little streak.

One of the things to work on, assuming that he continues in that wide right role, is the passing game. There were a couple of times this season where Herbers found himself in great positions but maybe made the wrong decision with the final ball. He also had a few goal-scoring opportunities that felt "rushed", which resulted in off-frame shots.

This is one of those in particular, which took place during that critical Orlando City home game in October -

There's a lot of upside in Herbers' game, and you knew from the start that the technical staff was very high on him. I'm interested to see where he plays in 2017, and whether or not he can build on some of the good things he showed at the tail-end of his rookie year.

Roland Alberg

Strengths – pure goal scorer, good dead ball skills

New Year's resolution – match the speed of the game, add work rate

Alberg is a "tweener."

He's not really a forward and he's not really a midfielder. He doesn't have the work rate to play as a winger. In the Union system, he's a number 10 playing off the shoulder of the lone striker. In a 4-4-2, he's a "second striker" or a "withdrawn forward" occupying a similar position. If you ever watched Antonio Cassano or Stevan Jovetic play in Serie A, that's the same role that Alberg needs to play in Philly.

Alberg didn't get a ton of minutes this year because he was stuck behind Tranquillo Barnetta, who was Jim Curtin's type of two-way, bulldog-style midfielder. Alberg was a foreigner, adjusting to a new league, who didn't press well, didn't play a ton of defense, and didn't do the required dirty running.

In a way, it's the same dilemma that the Union faced with Cristian Maidana, a player who didn't defend but oozed chance creation from that same position. Alberg is a pure goal scorer and may be the best finisher and ball striker on the entire roster.

So what would you do?

Do you give Alberg the starting CAM role? Does Alejandro Bedoya play that position with Alberg sitting on the bench instead? Do you forfeit a bit of defensive mettle to take advantage of Roland's natural goal scoring ability?

Alberg is on the record admitting that he had to adapt to a new league and a new country in 2016. I saw moments of growth and effort throughout the year, where he started to track back a bit and play to the strengths of the system. One of those instances actually resulted in him scoring an own-goal, which seems bizarre for me to reference, but that was a situation where he followed his man into the box and made the required defensive effort at the other end of the field.

In this case, he recognizes the threat, maybe a bit late, but gets himself in a position to make a play after Ken Tribbett gets caught flat-footed. Alberg scuffs the tackle and scores the own goal, but ended up trying to make a defensive save in his own box.

Alberg is, by far, the most interesting case going into 2016. Jim Curtin can either commit to Alberg, and play to his goal scoring strengths while sacrificing some defensive bite, or continue to leave him on the bench as a luxury item instead.

Charlie Davies

Strengths – veteran experience, nose for goal

New Year's resolution – reclaim fitness and health

The Charlie Davies signing had to happen, since the Union gave up TAM, GAM, and a first round draft pick to acquire him last summer.

The American veteran had a hellish 2016, first dealing with the premature birth of his twin sons, then beating liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer, just a few months later.

In 2017, Davies is healthy, his children are healthy, and he's not far removed from a 2015 campaign that saw him bag 10 goals and four assists for New England.

The Union badly need depth at striker, and Davies can be that guy if fully fit.

Chris Pontius

Strengths – goal scoring instincts, aerial threat, veteran savvy and ghost running

New Year's resolution – get more touches on the ball

I put Pontius in the forward category to break up the series a bit.

He had a fantastic season, leading the Union with 12 goals and winning the league's "Comeback Player of the Year" award.

Pontius' ability to impact a game was fascinating, considering the fact that he would often finish with fewer average touches than the other Union midfielders. Barnetta, Ilsinho, and Le Toux would frequently see more of the ball while you sometimes didn't even remember that Pontius was on the field at all.

But when he showed up, he showed up big time, scoring in the air, ghosting brilliantly into the box, or faking and feinting horizontally across the edge of 18. He scored a variety of goals and did so in big games against Portland, Red Bull, and New York City.

More than anything, Pontius was a model of efficiency.

In fewer total minutes, he put up more combined goals and assists than Jordan Morris, Chris Wondolowski, and Kei Kamara.

Among the top 25 goal scorers in 2016, only Frank Lampard and Robbie Keane had a better shot on goal percentage.

Pontius also forfeited several penalty opportunities, spot kicks that would have put him on 13 or 14 total goals and helped him pull even with Cyle Larin, Giovani Dos Santos, and Diego Valeri on the scoring charts.

He did more with less and took his chances when they came.

One of the reasons for the lack of overall activity was probably because of his left-sided midfield position and commitment to team shape. It's no coincidence that Fabinho had his best year in a Union shirt playing with Pontius in front of him. The Union system asks a LOT of its wingers, and Pontius bolstered the left side of the defense while also contributing in the attack.

Chris Pontius was one of the best stories of 2016, and he can do even more if he finds a way to get more touches on the ball this season. He's not a possession type of player, and he's not the type of guy who warms up with more time on the ball, but he's a player who does the most with every chance that he receives.