It wasn’t too long ago when C.J. Sapong was the MLS Rookie of the Year, playing in all 37 regular and postseason games for a Sporting Kansas City team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
It was even more recent when Sapong finished a season with nine goals in just 24 starts – and two more goals in three Open Cup games – which was good enough for 14th place on the MLS leaderboard that year. This, while helping Peter Vermes’ club to another Eastern Conference regular season championship and a U.S. Open Cup title – the second in club history.
Of course, you know the story by now. Sapong’s playing time for Sporting diminished during both the 2013 and 2014 seasons and during this past offseason, the club sent him to the Union in exchange for the No. 10 overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
“C.J. is a player who I’ve had my eye on for a long time,” head coach Jim Curtin said. “Three years I’ve been coaching in Philadelphia, both as an academy coach and as an assistant coach, I always thought he would be a guy who would not only fit our team, but our city. I really like how he plays – he’s a competitor, he’s very good in front of goal, he’ll get on the end of crosses and he does a good job holding the ball up.”
But the outgoing 26-year-old forward has fit in since Day One, something he said took preparation to make the transition as smooth as possible.
“The one thing I expected was to be in a different environment than Kansas City,” Sapong said. “I know from talking to other guys who have been traded, sometimes you get really set in the ways of your previous team and you get into a situation where there are a lot of new things. Nobody is going to be ready for it, but it’s how you respond to it. I just try to make sure my response is the best it can possibly be.”
So far, so good. Sapong was the lone starting striker in Jim Curtin’s typical 4-2-3-1 formation during the preseason opener against Jacksonville Armada FC. He’s also been knocking home goals at a noticeable pace during the team’s training sessions so far this spring. That’s impressive for someone who just met most of the guys he’s playing with less than three weeks ago.
Make no mistake, though, getting to know his teammates has been a priority, and it’s one that is paying off.
“I feel really good so far and am getting acclimated to everything,” he said. “Right before we left Philly, on and off the field, I started to get to know all of my teammates. Coming down here [to Clearwater], I feel really comfortable and I can focus on getting better and assimilating to the team’s philosophy rather than trying to get the nerves out.”
Of course it’s not as if C.J. is entirely new to this club. In 2010, Sapong played for Reading United along with current teammates Andrew Wenger and Ray Gaddis.
“That’s already apparent when we’re on the field,” Sapong said. “I still remember a lot of their tendencies. Up top, Wenger and I have a lot of connections and combinations and you see potential for a lot of greatness.”
What 2015 holds for Sapong remains to be seen, but the four-year league veteran with seven career MLS Cup appearances is bound to have a big opportunity. Regardless of his skill level, Curtin has spoken highly of the intangibles Sapong brings to the club.
“He’s a guy who I think is going to do big things for us this year,” Curtin said. “I have high expectations and he’s backed it up in training every day. He brings a good mentality. He gives us versatility, too. He’s played on the left for Peter in Kansas City, he’s played on the right and he’s played as the high guy. That versatility gives us a real weapon and is something I’m excited about.”
And that might be Sapong’s greatest asset to the Union. While the team primarily played in a 4-2-3-1 under Curtin last season, the head coach has often expressed his desire to be more a fluid team this season. That could involve various formations, or just more flexibility on the field.
“I like him as that No. 9 target,” Curtin said. “Could we be a team that plays with two forwards? Absolutely. We can go to two forwards and he can be comfortable. It is good, though, that he can pop out wide. He gives us some height – he wins everything in the air – and does a great job holding that first ball, laying it back, and getting in the box. He’s a real weapon. Even if it’s winning balls on goal kicks and having Seba [Le Toux] and Andrew [Wenger] run off of him.”