C.J. Sapong knew his case was good. The numbers were there and his teammates were rallying behind his cause. Based on all the media chatter, Sapong figured he had the inside track for Rookie of the Year, but he still wasn’t entirely sure how the dominos would fall.
Would voters go for guys who came into the league with more publicity, such as Perry Kitchen or Darlington Nagbe? Or would they vote on merit, recognizing the most deserving of the nominees without an eye for anything but on-field accomplishments?
As it turns out, Sapong had nothing to worry about. He ran away with the voting – 34 percent of club votes, 42 percent of media votes and 30 percent of player votes – and was named MLS Rookie of Year on Tuesday.
“I think I would be lying to myself if I said I wouldn’t have been upset [if I hadn’t won],” Sapong told MLSsoccer.com.
Truthfully, though, Sapong was never in danger of being disappointed, and his coronation as 2011’s top rookie has been close to a foregone conclusion for months.
He started the season brightly, scoring after less than two minutes against Chivas USA in his first game as a professional, and didn’t miss a beat the rest of the way. Sapong appeared in all 34 games (22 starts) for Kansas City and scored five goals and distributed five assists to lead all rookies in points.
He added another goal – a towering header – in the playoffs against Colorado, but Kansas City couldn’t find a way past Houston in the conference finals, falling just short of a trip to Los Angeles for MLS Cup.
“The last three games I’ve played in have been the biggest games of my life,” Sapong said. “It was amazing to sit back and look how far I’ve come, how far the team has come. The team success is really what illuminated my individual success.”
When asked what he was aiming for next just a year into his fledgling career, Sapong didn’t hold back.
“The sky, basically,” he said. “On the way up, there are things like an international team call-up, eventually making it overseas and a MLS championship. All those are things that I want to have on my way to the top.”
The top may not be all that far away, either.
Like his RotY candidacy, there is already plenty of buzz about the 22-year-old’s future with the national team. Of course, Sapong said he would welcome that honor, but with one caveat: once he’s earned it.
“To be able to represent my country is a dream and something that I would love to do,” he said. “At the same time, though, I feel like if that if a call-up comes, I want it to be because the right people truly feel I can have an impact. I don’t want it to be simply because everybody is saying this and that. I want to belong there.”
That leaves Sapong with plenty to shoot for, but, clearly, he’s already proven he belongs in MLS.
With his rookie season officially over, he’ll spend the offseason in familiar surroundings making sure he’s ready for his sophomore campaign and any other opportunity that arrives.
Sapong will spend his winter back home in Manassas, Va., living with his two biggest fans, his mother Gillian and father Kofi, an arrangement that dispels any inkling that he’s become too big for his britches with the arrival of individual accolades.
His mom was the first person Sapong told of his award, and she dutifully congratulated her son in typical motherly fashion, reminding him to thank those who made it possible: his teammates and Sporting KC fans.
“She was so excited,” Sapong said. “I was already excited, but hearing her and feeling that love just made me that much [happier].”
WATCH: Sapong's Rookie of the Year reel