As the Union continue to chase the playoffs, the urgency of C.J. Sapong's goal drought continues to grow. The team's top striker has gone 10 games without scoring, and in four of those games didn't even take a shot.
The little things have been just as frustrating: dropping too deep too often to find the ball, or stopping a run in the middle of a play. In Saturday's loss at Los Angeles FC, he blew a one-on-one chance in the first half, and didn't jump for a cross toward him in the second half.
Meanwhile, Cory Burke has equaled C.J. Sapong's scoring total (just two goals, but still) and has taken 16 shots in 376 minutes played, compared to Sapong's 32 shots in 1,226 minutes.
Union manager Jim Curtin is asked about this every time he takes a microphone, to the point where he's surprised when he isn't. He was asked again on Thursday, and offered his latest defense of Sapong's potential.
"C.J. is a very good striker," Curtin said. "In a lot of ways, strikers are only judged by their goal total, and that's sometimes fair, sometimes unfair. I'd say he's in a stretch now where yes, he's frustrated. He wants to help the team. He puts maximum effort into games."
The question may be more about skill than effort. Curtin didn't say that himself, but he dropped some fairly big hints that he's aware of it.
"The timing and the movement in front of goal, we've been a little bit off, whether it's been with the service or his runs," he said, and later added: "It's a thing we talked with C.J. about this week: Fully commit to a hard near-post run. At least you'll take a defender with you. The cross might not be perfect, but let's be committed to run like that in the box."
Sapong does some things well, especially off the ball. But he might be focusing too much on those duties, and not the one that matters most.
"He does still do all the defensive running … maybe sometimes too much defensively, and I've had that discussion with him," Curtin said. "Finding that balance is still something we're working on."
With half the season done, is there enough time left to allow for "finding that balance?" Curtin signaled he'll give Sapong the chance.
"Cory has put in good performances for us," Curtin said. "We have to do what's best for the team in the moment, and we do have to find a way to get C.J. going."
Union vs. Atlanta United
Saturday, 7 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium
Union's record: 6-8-3, 21 points (8th in the East); 5-2-2 at home
Atlanta's record: 11-4-4, 37 points (1st in the East); 5-2-2 on the road
Series history: Atlanta 2 wins, Union 0 wins, 1 tie
At Talen Energy Stadium: Atlanta 0 wins, Union 0 wins, 1 tie
Atlanta players to watch
F Josef Martínez: Major League Soccer's top scorer this year shows no signs of letting up his electric form. He has 17 goals this season, including two this past Wednesday at FC Dallas.
M Jeff Larentowicz. If Atlanta has one weakness, it's a lack of a defensive midfield stopper. Larentowicz, a 34-year-old Chestnut Hill Academy product, has stepped into the role. And with deep-lying connector Darlington Nagbe out injured, Larentowicz has even more work to do.