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April 26, 2016

C.J. Sapong for the national team? Let's not get ahead of ourselves

Soccer Union
0402616_union_PSP Paul Rudderow/Philly Soccer Page

C.J. Sapong, left, scored his fourth goal of the season in last Saturday's 2-0 win against New York City.

It's not unfair to say that the Philadelphia Union entered the 2016 season with the weakest forward corps in the Eastern Conference, at least on paper.

While other teams were trotting out Sebastian Giovinco, Didier Drogba, David Villa, and Cyle Larin, the Union committed to C.J. Sapong and added a rookie draft pick to back him up.

It's not that Sapong was lacking in quality or athleticism. This was a solid player, in a stable situation, now in the prime of his career. The concern had always been whether or not C.J. could find the "breakout" season that had seemed to elude him over the past five years.

That breakout moment may have finally arrived.

Just seven games into the season, Sapong has four goals, one assist, and shouts for a USMNT callup from national media and fans.

"He should aspire to play for the national team because he is that talented," Union manager Jim Curtin told reporters after Saturday's 2-0 win against New York City. "I don't really believe in me talking about what Jurgen Klinsmann should do, so, is C.J. a great striker? Yes, he is. He is a great number nine. He is a good target. The plays he makes to hold the ball up are as good as anyone in our league right now, and he has a knack for getting on the end of crosses."

It looked like Sapong was destined for big things after a 2011 season in which he bagged five goals and five assists and earned rookie of the year honors on a Sporting KC team that finished atop the east.

He earned his first and only national team call-up that winter, and appeared in January friendlies against Venezuela and Panama.

Sapong built on his rookie year with a 2012 campaign in which he tallied nine goals and two assists in regular season play, plus two more goals in the team's run to the U.S. Open Cup trophy. "Big Afrika" played a career high in minutes that year and looked like he would become a key figure on a powerhouse team that kept getting better.

But Kansas City had other plans, and Sapong found himself marginalized in a formation that now featured an exciting young center forward in Dom Dwyer. Sapong's minutes dwindled as he was pushed to the wing or the bench, and his goals and minutes decreased at an alarming rate.

Traded to Philadelphia last year, Sapong showed glimpses of that past potential during his first season in Chester.

It was a rocky start to the campaign when he suffered a facial fracture in game number one, then found himself suspended for DUI just two months later. But he returned a changed person, and went on a scoring tear, bagging five goals in six games and finishing the season with a respectable nine goals and four assists. It was not dissimilar to the 2012 season he had in Kansas City, both statistically and in terms of passing the "eye test".

It's interesting to think that Sapong isn't even one year removed from the DUI. It's been a little more than 10 months since that incident, and you can tell that the eclectic striker is in a good place mentally. He's focused on his performance on the field, and doesn't want any kind of distractions, including shouts for a second U.S. callup.

“Everyone needs the next thing to talk about and the next thing to hype up,” Sapong said after the NYC win. “For me, I know in the past, whenever I’ve paid attention to things like that, all it’s done is kind of take my focus away from what’s really important. So I just let those people say whatever they feel. I’m just playing my game for the Philadelphia Union right now.”

It should be noted that the calls for Sapong to rejoin the USMNT did not originate in Philadelphia.

There was a stray tweet or two that popped up in 2015, but it really was national media and fans of other teams who sparked the recent discussion, and not Union supporters. Maybe those neutral observers see something that Union fans and media don't see.

It's not often that calls for recognition are spearheaded by those with an outside perspective.

Sapong certainly has the chops to play for the national team, at least in raw talent and athletic build. He's played almost exclusively in lone striker systems for both Kansas City and Philadelphia, and, assuming the USMNT would go with some sort of 4-2-3-1, he's definitely a tactical fit.

"Is he perfect and clinical in front of goal? No, he is working on it every day," Curtin added. "He is getting better and I can see it in training each and every day. He is in a good way right now and he is a free thinker. When he is clicking and fighting for us with everything that he has, I will always go to bat for him, but for me to speak about the national team, I don’t think it is appropriate. (He's) a darn good player, playing very well playing at his highest level and scoring goals in this league."

Strikeforce USA

Curtin can't speak for the national team, but we can try.

Sapong would be added to a striker pool that includes the following:

     • Jozy Altidore
     • Clint Dempsey
     • Bobby Wood
     • Gyasi Zardes
     • Chris Wondolowski
     • Jordan Morris

There are obviously some peripheral guys, like Jerome Kiesewetter and the injured Aron Johannsson, but that's basically what Klinsmann is working with ahead of the Copa America Centenario.

Jozy has been good in the past two games for Toronto. He's not scoring, but he's doing the same type of dirty work that Sapong is being credited for in Philadelphia. This one might be a dive, but it lead to a Toronto goal:

Dempsey is 33 years old and doesn't really have a comparable skill set. He plays more of a withdrawn/#10 role in Seattle these days. His teammate, Jordan Morris, is starting to warm up to MLS and now has two goals in the past two games. Morris is certainly a bona fide No. 9.

As for Wood, he's killing it in Germany's second division. He's got 17 goals this season and will likely be moving on from Union Berlin in the near future. In his current form, tt's hard to see him being left out of the USMNT 18.

Wondolowski and Zardes seem to be Klinsmann favorites, and they're playing well in MLS. Wondo leads the league with eight goals and Zardes has put up the same numbers as Sapong in fewer minutes, albeit on a better team.

So, if you want to see C.J. on the national team, you can put Dempsey into his own category and lump Sapong in with the rest.

Does he start over Altidore, Wood, or Morris in the "target striker" category? Will Jurgen pass up on Zardes and Wondolowski?

Sapong's hold-up play is top-level right now, and his work-rate and ability to assert himself against defenders looks incredibly effective. He's not scoring bangers, but he's getting into the best positions to finish plays.

On the other hand, he's still not a player who will beat you off the dribble, or create his own shot. Two of C.J.'s four goals have come off deflections from less than 10 yards out. Another goal was the product of a defensive mistake. He will always be a guy who thrives in front of a good midfield, and that's something that the USMNT can certainly provide.

It's a good story right now, but is Sapong is really in the mix? If this was an "off year", or even a Gold Cup year, there might be a call-up, similar to the way that Jack McInerney got his chance in 2013. But it's hard to see Klinsmann doing anything out of the norm ahead of the Copa America.

In the meantime, Sapong will just have to keep scoring goals for the Union, which I'm sure is fine by Jim Curtin, Earnie Stewart, and 18,000 fans at Talen Energy Stadium.