Kansas City, Mo. – CJ Sapong wasn’t a hyped college prospect. He didn’t play for national titles, and he used every ounce of his eligibility before being drafted.
But none of that has mattered for the 22-year-old forward, who has acclimated quickly to MLS by chalking up a goal and an assist in his first three league games and scoring the game winner in a 1-0 victory against Houston last week in US Open Cup qualifying.
Sapong has played every minute so far for Sporting during his rookie season and that doesn’t appear likely to change soon. Omar Bravo is recovering from surgery to correct a sports hernia injury and Ryan Smith is rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, opening up the playing time upon which Sapong has capitalized.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with the young striker to talk about his rookie season so far and his approach to the remainder of the year.
MLSsoccer.com: By all accounts, it’s been a good start for you. Is this how you expected the beginning of your rookie season to go?
Sapong: It’s not how I expected it, but to be honest I didn’t know what to expect at the same time. I just figured if I just worked hard and tried to take in as much as I could every day that I would make progress. That’s all I was looking to do was make progress. It’s my first year of hopefully a lot more to come. I’ve been happy with the progression so far, but I still feel like I can improve a lot more. I learn more everyday so I’m just trying to make sure I keep the ceiling high so I can eventually reach that later on in my career.
MLSsoccer.com: Getting the game winner in last week’s US Open qualifying game had to be a good feeling. Can you just kind of take me through that experience?
Sapong: It feels good. Mostly it feels relieving. I know more than anybody my capabilities. It’s just a matter of showing them and proving them. (The coaching staff) having the confidence in me to be the first one off the bench when Omar got injured just gave me more confidence to know that I am one of the first options. That’s what gave me a lot of confidence and motivation in the game, and I ended up putting in the game winner. Obviously, I was very happy about that. I just want to show that I can contribute to the team.
MLSsoccer.com: What does having the trust of the staff and the other players mean for you as you navigate your first season in MLS?
Sapong: It’s everything for me. It’s just more fuel to the fire that is keeping me going, knowing that they trust me and even if I make a mistake, I’ll probably come back and have a good play on the next one. I’m still new to this and it’s just helping me progress more and more.
MLSsoccer.com: You said you learn things every day. What are some specific things that you are trying to pick up or are focusing on right now?
Sapong: With me and my game, everything can be improved. But the part they are helping me with most with is just the mental part. The logistical stuff when you are on the field. I’ve been at the point position. I’ve been out wide. There are different responsibilities. I wasn’t used to having somebody behind me on the field communicating what I should do. At my school I just kind of did whatever I wanted. That’s good because it’s helping me get disciplined and maturing me also. I just watch everything. Just guys finishing, positioning and their technique and all that.
MLSsoccer.com: One of the reasons Kansas City drafted you was your ability to fit into all three forward spots. How has your experience playing all over the field in college helped you acclimate to the professional level?
Sapong: I played in a conference where if there was one good player, it was really easy to shut them down by just kicking them and putting a bunch of defenders on them. I had to move to attacking midfield and out wide. I just learned to bring other people into the game more. Especially coming out here where there are just attacking options and threats everywhere on the field, I’ve been able to exercise those things that I’ve learned — bringing others into the game, playing out wide and going at people with confidence. That mental part kept me a step ahead at that level and at this level has spurred my development even faster.
MLSsoccer.com: When you were drafted, you talked about what it meant since you didn’t know if you would ever get the opportunity to play professionally at one point. What does your family think about this right now with you coming in and contributing immediately?
Sapong: They are so happy and so proud. I get emails from Ghana all the time. I have a really big family. I have 30-odd uncles and aunties. Triple that in cousins. They are all always contacting me. That’s part of what keeps me going. That’s why I love the game so much. I have so much passion for it because I’m not only playing it for myself. I’m playing for all them. It’s a beautiful thing when you have family that is across the ocean and just knows exactly what you’ve done despite the time difference and whatnot. It’s always good when I talk to them. My mom and dad just taught me to always be humble and never take for granted the opportunity you have. I’ve put a lot of hours into this. A lot of blood, sweat and tears so I wouldn’t want to throw it away.
MLSsoccer.com: What are the highlights so far? Best moment on and off the field?
Sapong: Definitely the game winner on the field. Off the field, I would have to say the prank it was funny, it was a good laugh and it kind of showed me that guys on the team do care about me and look at me as someone they can joke around with. It made me feel a lot more a part of the team.
Watch: Kamara and SKC prank Sapong
MLSsoccer.com: Omar is injured and has a couple week layoff and Ryan Smith is still working back from injury, so the majority of the minutes are likely going to fall to you for a while. Do you feel any pressure being that third guy for the foreseeable future?
Sapong: Not really. That’s the position they had me in during the first game also. When I feel the pressure is when I’m out here working on my game. When the lights come on and it’s game time, I live for those moments. I love playing. Any time I get on the field, I’m going to give 110 percent. I’m not going to say I’ll be like Pele, but I’m going to do my best to do well. I feel pressure on the training field because I’m so critical about my game so I get down easily on myself. That’s why it’s good everybody else keeps me up, but I’m just always trying to get better. I don’t feel any pressure. When he gets back, I’ll be ready when they need me.