Union marvel as CJ Sapong vaults from backup to MLS Golden Boot leader

CHESTER, Pa. — CJ Sapong began the season as the Philadelphia Union’s second-string striker.

Just two months later, he’s tied for the MLS Golden Boot lead with seven goals after his first career hat trick propelled the Union to a crucial 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

“You never go out and expect to score a hat trick,” Sapong said postgame. “For me, to know that I can have an impact on the team and obviously hit a career milestone, I’m happy — at least for this week.”

Sapong has been a bright spot throughout the season. But the Union never needed him more than they did Saturday, as they were tied with the rival Red Bulls late in the game, their winless streak looking like it might extend to 16 games.

But Sapong broke the scoreless deadlock in the 74th minute with a great run and deflected shot that found the back of the net, before adding his second goal on a header from point-blank range seven minutes later.

An 85th-minute penalty kick completed the hat trick — the third in franchise history after Sebastien Le Toux in 2010 and Roland Alberg last year.

Haris [Medunjanin] tried to take the penalty but I was like, ‘No, no chance, it’s CJ,’” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said, calling the hat trick a great reward for someone whose defensive workrate often goes unnoticed.

Union marvel as CJ Sapong vaults from backup to MLS Golden Boot leader - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/image_landscape/s3/images/CJSapongcelebrate.jpg

“Look at him,” Bedoya added. “He wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season. But he’s mentally strong. And as a striker you also need service. So it’s up to us to get him those chances, and he’s been putting them away.”

Sapong could have even scored more if not for a spectacular save from Luis Robles in the 71st minute. Despite getting robbed there, Sapong still finished the night atop the MLS Golden Boot race, tied with Houston’s Erick “Cubo” Torres.

With six months left in the season, he’s already matched his goal total from last season and is three away from hitting double digits for the first time in his seven-year MLS career.

Does he think about what reaching that mark would mean after previously scoring nine goals in a season twice — once with the Union in 2015, and once with Sporting Kansas City in 2012?

“I only think about it when y’all bring it up,” he said. “When I look at my stats and see that in the regular season I haven’t gotten to double digits, it definitely gives me a little incentive. But the way I’m looking at it, there’s no way I can’t score 10 goals. I just have to keep, every day, going out on the field and helping my team. If I emulate the way I approach the game today and my teammates do the same thing, it’s going to come for all of us. I’m excited about it.”

Sapong has gotten off to hot starts before, but has also gone through long goal-scoring droughts during his last two seasons in Philly. Union head coach Jim Curtin got a little testy, however, when asked if Sapong can keep it up, calling it a “new year” and predicting that he’ll “continue to score goals” for the club.

“CJ is a very good striker who’s in good form right now,” Curtin said. “And when he’s confident, he’s as dangerous as anybody in our league.”