There are two stories that can be told about CJ Sapong's 2018 season. First, there is the story told by the actual output Sapong provided, and it's an ugly tale for Union fans to revisit. One quarter of the goals produced in 2017, 12 fewer shots on target, a forced move from striker out to the wing. This is a story of production gone missing, of a goalscorer low on confidence and unable, due to poor touches and even poorer luck, to finish his chances. This story is perhaps best symbolized by That Save in Dallas, with Sapong approaching a ball on the goalline and unable to tap it past Jimmy Maurer. It was a great save, but it was also a moment for power and tenacity, and Sapong's light touch allowed Maurer to come out on top.
The lack of force in front of goal manifested in many of the striker's runs through the box; Sapong wasn't non-committal, but he was often more reactive than instinctive. It was a far cry from the striker that put up 16 goals a year ago, but at the same time many of the fundamentals remained in place: The work rate, the positioning, the hold-up play. For a while, Jim Curtin rotated Sapong with Cory Burke, giving the veteran every opportunity to find his form for the stretch run. After all, Burke was hot, but he didn't have a MLS track record and Philly was already missing the goals they hoped to garner from David Accam.
Eventually, though, Sapong lost the number one striker role to Burke. But, perhaps surprisingly to some, he didn't lose his place in the starting lineup. Instead -- and this is where the second story of Sapong's season begins -- Curtin moved Sapong out wide, returning him to the winger role he played when he entered the league. The move was meant to benefit both the player and the team, and many times it worked exactly that way. Against New England, Sapong was an aerial beast, and at home against New York City he put in a stellar two-way performance that allowed Ilsinho to arrive late and zip through weary-legged defenders with ease.
This rethinking of the wing position was crucial to the Union's August run that propelled them into playoff position, and it was only possible because Sapong accepted the new role and worked on integrating himself into the club's right-sided attack. By collecting the ball on the wing and dribbling across the shape of the defense, Sapong left spaces on the right that could be filled by Keegan Rosenberry, Ale Bedoya, and Borek Dockal. The former striker then crowded the box, providing a second body to get on the end of crosses.
These two stories are complicated by the advanced stats that suggest Sapong had one of his better seasons as a pro even though he couldn't seem to put the ball in the back of the net. 9.9 Expected Goals, according to American Soccer Analysis, suggests the attacker got into good positions for high percentage shots. The 5.9 goal difference between Sapong's actual goal return and what ASA's model expected is the second largest in the league since 2010. While attributing that entire gap to bad luck would be generous, it's clear that the drop off between 2017 and 2018 was larger than it should have been given the situations Sapong put himself in.
Still, there is no getting past the fact that CJ Sapong was supposed to lead the line for Philadelphia Union and, by mid-season, he wasn't. That Curtin found a role for Sapong and that the player accepted it and thrived is a wonderful silver lining, but fans, quite fairly, expected more. Sapong will need to rediscover his scoring boots in 2019 to re-establish himself as a go-to striker in MLS. Union fans will hope he can do it.