Ahead of DC game, Union's CJ Sapong fondly recalls days as young fan at RFK

CHESTER, Pa.—Heading into Friday's Heineken Rivalry Week matchup between Philadelphia Union and D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium (7 pm ET, UniMás), Union forward C.J. Sapong has established himself as Philly’s most dangerous weapon and one of the league’s hottest strikers.

But long before that, he was just a teenager going to games at RFK Stadium and suiting up for D.C. United’s youth teams, all while trying to envision one day becoming a professional soccer player.

“D.C. United is definitely the tie I had to MLS,” Sapong told MLSsoccer.com, after Tuesday's practice. “It’s where I first started to really enjoy the sport. I’ve really enjoyed watching it grow in America. It’s crazy to think how far it’s come since then.”

Sapong – who hails from just outside D.C. in Manassas, Virginia – was eight years old when MLS launched with D.C. United, of course, being one of the original franchises.

Soon, he was going to RFK Stadium and, like many future Philly fans, was hooked.

“I just remember a couple of stoppage-time winners and how crazy it was in the stands,” he said. “Definitely good memories.”

Sapong was 14 when he first played a game inside RFK for D.C. United’s youth academy, and six years later he enjoyed a good run with the club’s Super-20 team.

He credits those experiences with setting the stage for him to star at James Madison University and then to have some productive MLS seasons, first with Sporting Kansas City and now for the Union.

“That was my first real trial at a professional-type setup,” said Sapong, who’s scored five goals in his last eight games. “I definitely enjoyed it and I think it led to me being more prepared to be a professional.”

Because of those early soccer experiences, Sapong can admit that his “first dreams” involved playing for his hometown team. But he’s also enjoyed playing against D.C. United, scoring a couple of goals at RFK, including the fastest one in Union history (21 seconds) in last year’s 3-2 loss.

There have been several other memorable moments in the rivalry over the years – one that Sapong is fully embracing as he prepares for his second full year of heated Philly-D.C. clashes.

“I think the league has definitely stepped up in that regard,” he said. "[Rivalries do] add a little more significance to the game.”