Setting new personal bests and breaking club records is usually an exciting moment for an athlete; an opportunity to freeze their accomplishments in time and set the bar a little higher for themselves. But of all the records that were set by Philadelphia Union players this season, C.J Sapong’s is probably the most surprising.
The Union striker set a new club record for most fouls suffered in a season with 71 in 2016. This record isn’t surprising because 71 fouls suffered sounds lofty, it’s surprising because to C.J., it doesn’t sound like enough.
“I’m going to chalk that up to one of those forces that aren’t in your favor,” was Sapong’s initial reaction to the new record. “It’s interesting to hear that stat when I feel that I definitely didn’t get all the calls I could have throughout the season.”
And he isn’t the only one who shares those sentiments. Throughout the season head coach Jim Curtin was very vocal about the lack of calls around Sapong – noting that perhaps his physical style of play was behind it.
“I think first and foremost he takes a beating every week,” Curtin said back in May. “I don’t know whether it’s just the way he plays, or the style. He doesn’t get calls; again, I’m not crying to the referees, but he takes a pounding each and every week. I think it’s maybe the way he plays, it’s a little unorthodox, and it’s hard to ref.”
Throughout the league, Sapong is known for his physicality and ability to take on any defender in a one-on-one battle. Standing at 6’1”, 185 pounds – he’s one of the biggest forwards in the game, and often times he plays much bigger than his frame. With his size and innate physicality, Sapong was able to occupy two defenders at a time, leaving more space open for teammates like Chris Pontius, Fabian Herbers, Ilsinho, and Tranquillo Barnetta to attack on the flanks.
Then there is his ability to hold the ball up on the attacking end, a skill that is often overlooked but pays dividends for a team. Curtin often referenced the “dirty work” Sapong put in, noting that the things he provides to the team often don’t show up on a stat sheet but were essential to many of the Union’s attacking opportunities throughout the season.
Also worth noting, Sapong is never one to dive into a foul or argue with an official afterwards. More times than not, the striker quietly picked himself up after a missed-call and returned to the play. And while missed fouls can certainly be frustrating for an attacker who puts in as much work as Sapong does, don’t expect to see adjustments to his approach next season.
“I’m not going to change anything,” Sapong said. “I know the way I play has an effect on defenders and honestly, that’s what keeps me sane throughout the season, especially in those bouts where I’m not getting those goals.”
Sapong drew more fouls this season than he had ever done before in his six-year career. 71 fouls does seem like a lot, and it is, but the reality is Sapong probably deserved more calls than he received. But all of that is ancient history as the Union plan for 2017 season, and Curtin knows that even if Sapong was on the wrong end of an official’s decision – he provided many things to the Union’s success this season, including earning the respect of those around the league.
“Just ask the other center backs in the league... they don’t like playing against CJ, and that’s the ultimate compliment, the respect of your peers.”