WASHINGTON – For many center forwards, being moved out wide would be a blow to the ego.
For the Philadelphia Union’s CJ Sapong, coach Jim Curtin’s tactical adjustment has been a statement of belief.
“I think it was confirmation that there is a faith [in me],” said Sapong, whose move to the right flank coincides with Philadelphia’s club record-tying four-match winning streak heading into Saturday night’s visit to Orlando City SC (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info).
“As a forward, you tend to define yourself through your goals and the amount of times you’re on the stat sheet,” Sapong continued. “So getting that confirmation from your coach that lets you know that he does see all the other little things that you do definitely gives you an extra confidence boost. It allows me to be comfortable with whatever I provide for the team, just focus on executing and having an impact.”
After posting a career-high 16 goals a season ago, Sapong had scored only three before Curtin broached the idea of shifting the 29-year-old, allowing he and fellow striker Cory Burke into the same starting XI.
Since the move in early August, Burke has bagged his sixth and seventh goals of the season while the Union have stormed to within a point of fourth-place Columbus Crew SC in the Eastern Conference standings.
And Sapong, whom Curtin has repeatedly lauded for his hold-up play, physicality and defensive work rate, offered a man-of-the-match showing with a goal, an assist and a tireless performance in oppressive conditions in Wednesday’s 2-0 triumph at D.C. United.
HIGHLIGHTS: DC United vs. Philadelphia Union | August 29, 2018
“The word I used was, ‘It’s time to reset,’” Curtin recalled of his conversation with Sapong. “And he’s a guy that kind of responded to that. It clicked with him.”
Curtin’s public defense of Sapong throughout the season – despite a goal drought of 11 games at one point – may have helped the buy-in.
“Every coach calls about CJ Sapong, so when people talk negatively about him, I think it’s a joke, to be honest,” Curtin said. “But that’s the nature of being a striker. He takes that like a man. But at the same time, he certainly hasn’t run from it. Because the way he’s playing right now, he’s possessed out there.”
Sapong also played a wide role in coach Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3 setup at Sporting Kansas City, helping that franchise to its second MLS Cup title in 2013. And while Curtin has been excited by Sapong’s adjustment to the role, he’s not necessarily surprised.
“You can put CJ almost anywhere on the field and he would adjust and adapt to it,” said the coach. “Part of his skillset is he can hold balls up, he wins everything in the air, he’s incredible defensively, he can get goals for you, he gets assists. He can beat you a lot of different ways.”
Sapong admits his mentality has improved lately. He pointed to his goal Wednesday, an instinctual finish on a rebound from Burke’s initial effort, as one example.
“I definitely felt it click in my own mind, following the play and staying hungry,’ he said. “Maybe in the beginning of the season, there were a lot of plays like that, where I felt like I might’ve not been turned on as I could’ve been.”