Despite dealing with injuries, a suspension and the natural adjustments that come with joining a new team, C.J. Sapong had a productive season for the Philadelphia Union last year, finishing with a team-leading nine goals and enjoying a scorching run of games over the summer.
But now, with the issues that kept him off the field in the past and his future secured after receiving a new three-year contract last week, Sapong is expecting even bigger things in 2016.
“If you look at the last season and the amount of opportunities that I had and the fact that I didn’t get to play the full season, I feel like 20 goals is something that I can reach,” Sapong told MLSsoccer.com by phone from preseason camp Thursday. “One thing I definitely want to add to my game is the ability to bring other players into the attack, as well. I want to create goals in any way possible. If by the end of the season, I’ve created 20 to 25 goals, whether scoring or assisted, that’s what I feel like my productivity should be.”
Sapong, who’s entering his sixth season in the league, has never been a double-digit goal-scorer. But his ambitious expectations are not without merit.
While the Union have spent the offseason beefing up their midfield and wing play, they appear poised to make Sapong the focal point of their attack as the starting center forward in their 4-2-3-1 formation.
“C.J.’s a guy who wants to be in Philly,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said last week. “He does everything for the badge. He’s a guy I thought had a very good year last year. And I think if he gets a full 34-game season, he can be a guy that’s a double-digit scorer in the 12-to-15 goal-range.”
Curtin added that the “peace of mind” of having a new deal should help with the striker’s confidence. Sapong agreed with that assessment and said the faith the team has shown in him is even more meaningful given the “personal obstacles” he had to get through during his first season in Philly.
“It’s less to worry about,” Sapong admitted. “Some guys when they’re in the last year of their contract, they’re hyper-critical of their performances; every time you do something you don’t think is good, you start thinking about if you’re even going to be there the next season. This does provide a sense of security. But also for me, it provides even more motivation to prove that I deserve it.”
Having a full season under his belt in Philly should also be vital to the striker’s career progression. While Sapong believes a change of scenery helped revitalize his career following an up-and-down four-year tenure in Kansas City, he’s more comfortable now that he’s in his second full preseason with the Union.
So far in camp, he’s spent time trying to help out the rookies while also developing promising connections with the new attacking players like Chris Pontius and franchise stalwarts like Sebastien Le Toux alike.
“I’ve already sensed in training that I’ve had a lot more services at my feet,” Sapong said. “Guys are definitely looking for me more. … I think with me, Seba and Chris, through a couple of games, we’ve already been able to really flow amongst the three positions [on the frontline]. I think as the season goes on, you can count on at least one of us to have a good stretch. And hopefully, we can find a way for all of us to be clicking at the same time.”
The Union, of course, can still opt to acquire another striker, if not this preseason than during the summer transfer window. But in the meantime, Sapong is ready to carry the load and not only be the team’s top goalscorer but also one of the top scorers in the league.
“Whenever they put that faith and belief in me, I always respond well to that,” Sapong said. “Even if they feel they need to get another striker, I’ll maximize the situation no matter what it is. Right now, knowing they believe in me and they are counting on me to do the things I count on myself to do, that makes me want to fulfill those goals.
“When I feel like I’m gonna have ample opportunities to make my mark, it makes it that much easier to put everything into what I do.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.