CHESTER, Pa. – Of all the tough losses in PPL Park history, the Philadelphia Union’s 2-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City in the semifinals of the 2012 US Open Cup probably ranks near the top.
Only four current Union players played in that game, and three of them – Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud and Antoine Hoppenot – walked off the field crushed. The other, C.J. Sapong, was far happier, as he was on his way to winning a US Open Cup championship with Sporting Kansas City. a formative experience for the then-second year striker.
Now in his fifth year and enjoying his best season in MLS, Sapong hopes to win another US Open Cup title, this time with the team he knocked out in 2012 and against the one that helped him grow up as a professional.
And when Wednesday’s Open Cup final pitting the Union against Sporting Kansas City begins (7 pm ET, ESPN2, UniMas), Sapong admits his emotions will kick into overdrive.
“I’ve kind of let that sink in the last couple of weeks,” said Sapong, the Union’s leading scorer. “Obviously I’ve known for a while that’s who we’re going to be facing. Now I’m just approaching it like it’s a Cup final. Obviously it’s going to be a little bit emotional when the game starts, but I like to think that’s to my advantage."
Sapong comes into the final having scored in his last two games, putting him at nine goals on the season. Interestingly enough, that ties his season high, which he set in 2012 with Kansas City -- the same year he also played in every Open Cup game during SKC’s run to the tournament title.
For Jim Curtin, though, it’s only a matter of time until Sapong scores his record 10th goal in league play. And before then, the Union head coach believes his starting center forward is ready for a big-time performance in the Open Cup final.
“He’ll have a little added bit to him,” Curtin said. “I know he has friends on Kansas City, so you always want to perform good against friends and former teammates and coaches. I’m not worried about motivating him on the day. He’ll be up for it. He’s a guy who brings everything every day anyway.”
SKC head coach Peter Vermes had nothing but good things to say about his former player this week, noting that everyone in the organization is “happy for him and how his year has progressed.” Of course, the key now for Sporting is figuring out a way to slow him down for one night.
“We understand he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” said SKC center back Matt Besler. “He’s definitely a handful up top. So we’re going to have to really be locked in to get a result against him.”
Things haven’t always been easy for Sapong since his memorable 2012 campaign. The 26-year-old scored just six goals over the next two seasons before getting dealt to the Union, where he suffered a facial fracture and was arrested for DUI within the first two months of the 2015 campaign.
But since then, Sapong says he’s matured off the field and found a new drive on it, where he’s established himself as Philly’s go-to goal scorer while helping his new team return to the Open Cup final.
“The way I look at it, I wouldn’t be in this position if all those things didn’t happen,” Sapong said. “In my eyes, it was all worth it.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.