For the first three months of the season, Sporting Kansas City were the beleaguered nomads of MLS.
With construction of their new stadium unfinished, Sporting hit the road — but spun their tires in last place in the Eastern Conference — after going winless in 10 matches following opening day victory.
For rookie striker C.J. Sapong, a road trip that began with the excitement of the unknown became interminable. According to the James Madison University graduate, the plane rides got longer and the hotels less comfortable as the novelty of traveling to new cities lost its luster.
So when Livestrong Sporting Park opened last month, Sapong made himself at home. His lunge to get a foot on Graham Zusi’s whipped free kick from the right wing in KC’s 1-0 win on June 17 against San Jose was the stadium’s first-ever MLS goal.
Since then, Sporting have vaulted into fourth place in the East, winning four of their last five while going unbeaten in eight, thanks in large part to Sapong, who added another goal and an assist in Saturday’s 2-1 win at Portland. The goal — the 6-foot-2 forward turned and left his defender on the ground near midfield, then used his pace to get towards net before coolly sliding the finish inside the far post — showcased all the talents that made Sapong the 10th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
“It’s definitely surreal,” Sapong told MLSsoccer.com of his permanent place in the Livestrong Park record books. “Coming into that game I hadn’t scored since the first game of the season, so given the fact that it was our home stadium and during that drought, I was hungry for a goal and lucky to get on the end of that free kick from Zusi.”
Sapong thinks the squad gelled during that miserable run early in the season. While observers around the league wondered when things would get better for the franchise with a new name and kit, the players’ faith in manager Peter Vermes’ philosophy never wavered.
“Every team has ups and downs, it’s all about how you respond,” Sapong said. “We knew we could get results. When you’re losing, everybody outside the organization has something to say, and it makes everyone inside closer … now we’re taking advantage of it.”
Sapong started in Sporting’s first six games because of injuries along the front line before seeing his minutes limited in May as Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo regained fitness. But Vermes says he goes by whoever is in form, and that lone striker in his 4-5-1 has become Sapong.
Mike Levitt's Rookie of the Year Rankings
1. Rich Balchan
Balchan keeps getting quality minutes at fullback for the Crew. Though they lost this weekend, the Indiana University graduate has started all but one game for the Crew, who sit comfortably in third place in the East.
2. C.J. Sapong
Though Will Bruin (Houston) still leads all rookies in goals (four), Sapong’s three tallies put him second. Considering Sporting’s run, and his recent scoring record that includes two assists, Sapong has to be the most dangerous rookie forward in the league right now.
3. Jalil Anibaba
The Fire haven’t lost since April 23, and have only let in three goals in their past seven games. Though they haven’t been winning — they have 12 draws this year — the defense appears to have figured it out. Anibaba, aside from missing four-games last month due to injury, has been a rock.
“At the end of the day, the guy that will get games is the guy who’s playing well, and C.J. continues to be that guy,” Vermes said. “No matter who the forward is, he has to be able to hold it up and help us gain real estate. C.J. is almost like a slinky. He can easily get around people and does it effortlessly.
“At the same time, that competition for positions will only help us,” Vermes continued. “It’s healthy for a team and raises the bar for the next guy. It’ll help us in the long run because all those players will have an impact at some point this season.”
Both Sapong and Vermes acknowledged that Bravo has been essential to Sporting’s surge. Two games into his first year as SKC’s Designated Player, Bravo was injured and missed five games — four of which Sporting lost. Since returning to the squad in late May, Bravo has a goal and two assists, including the set-up for Sapong’s strike on Saturday.
“Omar is a fantastic professional,” Vermes said. “For his level, his work ethic is incredible. He’s an excellent team guy. He’s constantly looking to connect with players on the field and is a great role model. He’s one of those guys that takes a lot of pride in helping young players grow and is a big part of helping the team go on field.”
Sapong admits that, despite taking it in high school, his Spanish isn’t perfect. But the language barrier hasn’t been an issue in the budding relationship between the target forward and the playmaking winger. Bravo’s longevity at the game’s highest level makes him easy to understand, regardless of the spoken tongue.
There have been a few get-to-know-you moments, as when the 22-year-old Sapong wasn’t ready for a Bravo dummy in the final third against San Jose, but the rookie says he won’t be unprepared for Bravo’s ingenuity again.
“He tells me to always look at him and see what he’s doing,” Sapong said. “He’s been playing long enough where he’s a good communicator. At the end of the day, our success depends on how we work together.
"It’s funny because on his penalty [kick goal against Vancouver on June 25], he let the ball go through his legs to me, and I gave it back to him before he was fouled. A few games before [against San Jose], he dummied a ball and I wasn’t even looking. Ever since that, I’m always looking.”