The Emergence of C.J. Sapong (story courtesy of ESPN soccer)
It was a draft day speech unlike any other.
With the 10th pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, the newly renamed Sporting Kansas City selected James Madison University striker C.J. Sapong long before anyone else expected him to go. Sapong thanked everybody he needed to thank, then turned to the Sporting table and barked “Let’s do this!” An unusual thing to do for an unusual pick.
“I think he’s definitely one of those kids that will find his way around this league pretty quickly,” SKC coach Peter Vermes said after the pick was made. “We think C.J. is a very, very good fit for us.”
Others were skeptical, wondering why Sporting would blow the 10th pick on a striker with a low profile — relatively unknown even within the college game — projected to go in the second round when the team had weaknesses in other areas. With other recent roster moves filling out the striker corps, such as acquiring star Mexican designated player Omar Bravo while retaining Kei Kamara and 2010 rookie sensation Teal Bunbury, the consensus was that Sapong’s playing time would be sparse.
Yet by virtue of an early injury to Bunbury and a willingness from Vermes to play Sapong in any of his three forward slots, Sapong was the only Sporting player to play in all 34 of the team’s regular-season games. Positioned as the target man or one of two forwards making runs off to either side of him, Sapong bagged five goals and five assists, a résumé that made him the convincing 2011 rookie of the year. Furthermore, he was pivotal in Sporting’s worst-to-first turnaround, going from winning just one of its first 11 games to losing just three more the rest of the way, clinching the Eastern Conference regular-season title and reaching the Eastern Conference final in the playoffs.
For his 23 years of age and athletic, 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, Sapong demonstrated a notable well-roundedness in the attacking third, capable of holding up play, running at defenders, playing off their shoulders. His size and strength helped him score goals, but it was his skill and soft touch that set him apart.
Until 2011, Sapong seldom stood out from his peers. A late bloomer. Or maybe he was overlooked. “It’s kind of been the story of my life,” Sapong said. “In northern Virginia there were a lot of top-class players, and I grew up trying out for [the Olympic Development Program] every year and never made it, never made the state team. I never got that look. It’s funny, because as I got older, it kind of became something I expected and didn’t pay too much attention to it and figured it was the way it was going to be.”
Sapong didn’t play for a major club team and was lightly recruited heading into college. Once he got there, there was little buzz about him to go pro even though he became the first JMU player to be named All-Colonial Athletic Association in all four of his years on campus.
“He didn’t play in the ACC, he didn’t play in the Big East and he wasn’t in any national youth teams,” JMU head coach Tom Martin explained. “That’s when you’re not necessarily in the picture.”
Consequently, professional soccer seemed more pipe dream than possibility for Sapong even as he entered his early 20s. “In college I was kind of not too sure I was going to be a professional and just played because I enjoyed it,” he said. It wasn’t until he suited up for Reading United in the Premier Development League the summer before his senior year that he realized he could hang with the best college players in the country.
Sporting didn’t much care about his low profile. “There weren’t a lot of people that rated him coming out of the draft, and that’s why a lot of people said we had a poor draft because we picked him with our first pick and it was early, and that we could have gotten him in the second round,” Vermes said. “But he was a guy that we felt we wanted, and there was no reason for us to wait to try to get him.”
Ultimately, having been failed by the sport’s assessors and kingmakers has made Sapong hungry for retribution. “Now that I am a professional and realize where I want to take my game, I definitely have a chip on my shoulder when I step onto the field,” he said. “It gave me motivation and always fueled me. At this point I kind of like being underrated.”
His fiery drive stands in sharp juxtaposition with Sapong’s gentle, vivacious personality. Ignoring his neophyte status as an MLS rookie and the deference he was expected to pay last year, Sapong is as likely to prank as he is to get pranked, leading his team in general goofery.
“I don’t think I ever saw him down, negative, none of that,” Vermes said. “He likes to have fun. It’s good for our locker room, it’s good on the field. He’s great for the team camaraderie for sure.”
“I’m a fun-loving person,” Sapong said. “I love life and appreciate every moment that I’m breathing, and I’m not one to spend those moments mad at the world. I love having a good time, I love smiling, I love seeing other people smile and laugh. Laughter is infectious.”
Sapong’s partner in prank is usually Kamara, who also mentors him on the field. Kamara insists on calling him Charles — Sapong’s given first name — because it annoys him. (His legal name is Charles Nana Kwabena Sapong in honor of his Ghanaian heritage; the ‘J’ doesn’t actually stand for anything.) But Kamara is duly impressed by Sapong’s ability to combine business with pleasure.
“On the field, he’s very serious, but he’s really playful, too, and that’s part of his personality,” Kamara said. “He can joke around, but at the same time, he works. For him, being on the field, we’re working but at the same time scoring a goal and being joyful about it.” This tends to manifest in colorful goal celebrations, like somersaults orfalling over like a felled tree in front of the Timbers Army.
That singular blend of attitudes has served Sapong well. He was called into U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s annual January camp for domestically based players and, despite never having represented the U.S. at any level, made his debut against Venezuela in a solid substitute appearance. He came on once more against Panama, using his body supremely well to tussle for and hold up the ball as the lone striker.
“He has a tremendous work rate, he has tremendous speed and he’s very young,” Klinsmann said. “With every day he got calmer, he got more confident. He’s adapted very well. He’s a really good kid.”
As perhaps an even bigger testament to his potential, Sporting said goodbye to Bravo during the offseason. Vermes insists the departure wasn’t related to Sapong’s emergence or indeed Bravo’s benching after returning from injury during the playoffs. But he conceded that having Sapong looming down the depth chart certainly helped.
Now, because this is a piece about Sapong, I probably won’t get away with omitting a mention of his serenade-slash-poem-slash-rap to Hope Solo. When the women’s national team came to Kansas City for a post-Women’s World Cup friendly against Canada, Sapong received her with a musical welcome on the training field. Video of his tribute went viral on YouTube and has collected nearly 400,000 hits.
“I admire her as a soccer player and her competitiveness and determination,” Sapong explained. “When I found out they were going to be in K.C., I just wanted to meet her and didn’t want to do it like everybody else. So I thought it would be a creative way to get to meet her and get a hug out of it.” Solo invited him to one of her shoots for “Dancing with the Stars,” but Sapong’s schedule never allowed him to attend.
And don’t think he wasn’t forced to pay a steep price for his stunt. Not only did he never get the chance to see Solo again, but Klinsmann called him out in front of the entire U.S. national team during January camp and made him rap. “Hopefully that’s the last of it,” Kamara said.
C.J. Sapong is ready to let his feet do the rapping anyway.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.