LEIRIA, Portugal – He may have not scored in Tuesday evening’s 1-1 draw with Portugal, but CJ Sapong’s performance earned more than his share of the praise after his long-awaited US national team return.
Making his third USMNT appearance, and his first in nearly six years, the Philadelphia Union striker set up Weston McKennie for the first goal of the night and put up a fight against the Portuguese defense for all 77 of his minutes on the pitch.
Interim coach Dave Sarachan had only good words to say.
“He was huge for us tonight. Playing the lone striker is a difficult task. You do a lot of dirty running and drafting,” said Sarachan of Sapong. “The moments when he had to make some hold-up play he did well, but being able do the work and put pressure on their center backs was very important for us. Here’s a guy who hasn’t been playing for a while in his team – I thought he was tremendous.”
The 28-year-old had a career year in 2017 with 16 goals and five assists, and was obviously delighted to make an impact for the US.
“All the guys made me feel really welcome. Stepping on the field, I felt like I had been playing with them for a while,” said Sapong. “I just tried to have an impact and when the staff says they saw it, that’s always good for me and gives me more motivation to go back, continue to work on my game and hopefully be called in for more matches.”
The Virginia native is one of the oldest players on this new-look USMNT roster, yet it looks like he has his best opportunity ever to establish himself as a regular. He appears to be getting better with time, and the need for some more experienced players in a rebuilt young squad may bolster his case.
“Every time I step on the field I try to have an impact and being called in at this time, when the future of US soccer is being molded, definitely is an opportunity which I saw as a blessing,” said Sapong. “I tried to work hard and have fun on the field. I felt like my teammates really backed me up.”
Sapong described his performance as “a cherry on top of the season” and stressed the relevance of the final score, even if both sides played without many of their established stars. As of next month, it will be 27 years since the reigning European champions last beat the US.
“We really took it to Portugal,” he said. “At the end of the day we got a draw, and it feels good.”